How to find your way among Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and other Tempranillo ? Here is a summary description, not exhaustive of some very widespread red grape varieties. Just to give you points of reference in this maze of grapes which number in the thousands in the world.
Cabernet Franc: “Daddy” of Cabernet Sauvignon, this grape variety harbors earthy aromas, strawberries, violets and offers a (sometimes vegetal) freshness in the mouth. Planted on 45,000 hectares around the world, it gives excellent results in the Loire with the Saumur, Chinon and Saumur-Champigny appellations. It is the essential companion of Merlot to make the best St-Émilion, including the famous Cheval Blanc.
Cabernet Sauvignon: “Son” of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, it is the noblest grape variety of Bordeaux blends. It gives the wine its structure, its tannic structure with aromas of blackcurrant, black fruit and sometimes green pepper. Very popular in the vineyards of Bordeaux, California (Napa), Chile and Australia (Coonawara). Strong and excellent on its own, and “enhanced” when blended with its favorite “companion”, Merlot. With the latter, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot, it composes the ideal quintet of the best classic Bordeaux wines.
Gamay: Who says Gamay, says Beaujolais. A grape variety that Beaujolais producers make by “carbonic maceration” to quickly bring the famous Beaujolais Nouveau into the world for the third week of November. A former clone of Pinot Noir, Gamay also espouses its aromatic complexities over time, in the case of its best wines. Driven by this formidable promotional tool that is the Beaujolais Nouveau festival (sometimes a double-edged sword), Gamay is fortunately found in about ten crus which gives the opportunity to discover this sometimes unloved grape variety. Think of the delicate St-Amour, the robust Morgon and Moulin à vent and the light Brouilly. Aromas of ripe banana, English candy, very ripe cherry, strawberry, raspberry, currant, and iris and jasmine flowers.
Grenache: Omnipresent in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it shares the limelight with up to 17 other grape varieties. These wines are full-bodied and of a beautiful red color. It ages quickly and its color can oxidize quickly, turning orange rancio. Grenache produces excellent wines for laying down when paired with other grape varieties. Aromas of raspberry, blackcurrant, spices, cocoa, prunes, pepper and black liquorice. Also present in Roussillon, Spain (Garnacha), California and Australia. Component of “GSM” wines (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre) popular in Australia.
Malbec: Also called black wine or cot, this grape variety from Quercy in France gives wine color and tannins. It is the essential grape variety of the French appellation Cahors. Argentina, which has planted it on 25,000 hectares, has literally appropriated this grape by making it its own varietals in its sales around the world. No wonder some French producers highlight the word Malbec on their label at the expense of Cahors to take advantage of the Argentinian windfall. Suitable for aging, it gives off aromas of plums, blackberries and violets.
Merlot: the classic of red grape varieties. Often (wrongly) ridiculed in the movie “Sideways”, Merlot makes pleasant and so complex wines in case of the best vintages. Its texture is velvety, with obvious aromas of plums. Think of St-Émilion which combines it with Cabernet Franc or even Pomerol with the most famous and probably the most expensive of wines, Pétrus.
Mourvèdre: Of Spanish origin (Monastrell), Mourvèdre produces structured wines, rich in alcohol and tannins. Inseparable from the Provençal appellation of Bandol and the Jumilla region in Spain, it is also present in Languedoc-Roussillon. Blackberries, plum, liquorice, leather, animal notes of musk, spices and pepper. Due to its structure, it can give good aged wines. You will also find many in Australia under the name of Mataro.
Nebbiolo: Synonymous with “fog”, it is the star of Piedmont where it produces formidable Barolos. It is a late ripening Italian grape, perfect for Barolo and Barbaresco. When it is perfectly ripe, it is rich in tannins, acid and pigments, which offers the possibility of a long aging in barrel and bottle. Notes of cherry, jammy red fruits, smoked, rose petals, plum, tea, truffle and mushroom.
Petit Verdot: Rarely bottled on its own (although there are good structured examples in Australia), it brings color and balance to Bordeaux blends thanks to its natural acidity. Flowers, red fruits and spices are part of its aromatic characteristics.
Pinot noir: A fragile and finicky grape, sometimes difficult to grow depending on the region and especially the climate. It gives rise to the greatest masterpieces of Burgundy, Alsace and Champagne where it constitutes, alongside Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, the structure of the best Champagnes. Oregon has adopted it as its grape variety. It is not surprising that the Drouhin house has embarked on these lands which have the same geographical and climatic characteristics of Burgundy. Gives good results in New Zealand (Central Otago and Martinborough) as well as in California (Sonoma, Carneros, Russian River). Expect cherry, strawberry, gooseberry, blueberry, sour cherry, animal notes, peony, sous-bois and leather.
Sangiovese: This Italian red grape is not just found in Chiantis, think of the excellent Brunello de Montalcino where its longevity can produce wonders of complexity. It gives a fruity wine, with a good tannic structure, sometimes astringent but which turns over time into a solid structure, ideal for aging the best of them. Aromas of jams, currants, wild berries, black cherries and peppery violet.
Syrah: The grape variety par excellence of the northern Rhône, Syrah is found in the work of Côte Rôtie, Cornas, Hermitage and Saint-Joseph, among others. It produces wines of intense color, rich in alcohol, very aromatic, complex, tannic and well structured. Aromas of blackcurrant, cherry, peppery spices, raspberry, animal notes (leather), liquorice and sometimes tobacco. Yes, it is the parent of Shiraz, the essential grape variety of Australia (Barossa region). Good results also in California with the “Rhône Rangers” (Randall Graham).
Tempranillo: Undisputed star of the Rioja region, it also bears the name of cencibel, tinto roriz, aragonez or tinta de toro depending on the regions where it is grown. It produces quality wines, moderately acidic, suitable for aging (think Spanish Gran Reserva), and fruity with aromas of cherries, raspberries and sometimes dried figs. ‘Spain.
Zinfandel: The origin of California’s alcoholic fruit bombs, zinfandel produces wines with aromas of cherries, raspberries, blackberries, licorice, spices and blond tobacco. Tolerating strong heat well, it covers 10% of the Californian vineyard. Think of the Lodi region. Also yields pleasant to drink, semi-sweet rosés based on white zinfandel. The best examples are found when blended with other colleagues (the Californian Ridge Estate is a fine example). Cheers !