~ some notes on various of the more common named grapes used in winemaking~

Different grapes have different characteristics and it is often very helpful to look at the label on the back of the bottle (which there often is on bottles found in supermarkets, for example) to find which grape or grapes have been used in the blend - this will give additional clues, to those stated on the label, as to how the wine will drink.

It is probably true to say that the pre-occupation in recent decades with the types of grapes used in making wine is a result of the growth in popularity of wines from non-traditional winemaking areas (California, Australia, South Africa, Chile, etc.); in traditional areas such as France, Italy or Spain the grape-type is hardly ever mentioned, because the use of particular grapes for certain types of wine is so ubiquitous (and sometimes a legal requirement) that it is considered unnecessary do so.

However, the grape used DOES affect the type of wine that results, so in an effort to demystify this arcane subject these notes are provided as a rough guide to what you might expect to find in a bottle - they are by no means exhaustive, however, and intended solely as an introduction to this complex subject:

Cabernet Sauvignon (Red) - Small, tough-skinned grapes that give the distinction to the red wines of Bordeaux, although always blended with Merlot and sometimes Malbec. In some parts Cabernet Franc is used. Widely planted in Australia, South Africa and California (most successfully outside France). All Cabernet wines gain by age in bottle as well as wood.
Chardonnay (White) - The grape of white burgundy (Chablis, Montrachet, Meursault, Pouilly-Fuissé) and Champagne. Gives firm, full, strong wine with scent and character and on chalky soils becomes luscious without sweetness. Ages well. Very successful in coastal California, parts of Australia, New Zealand, Bulgaria and recently in Italy and Spain.
Chenin Blanc (White) - Grape used in Anjou and Touraine on the Loire to give nervy, intense wine, honey-like when ripe but always with high acidity, so it ages well. Is also used to make sparkling Loire wines, and in South Africa is known as Steen, where it is the favourite white grape. Also produces good wines in California.
Gamay (Red) - Used in Beaujolais to make first-class wine; elsewhere in Burgundy it makes inferior wine, although in certain other parts of France and California it is adequate. At its best, Gamay produces wine that is light, fruity and 'gulpable'.
Grenache (Red or Rosé) - A sweet grape making strong wine with character, but not much colour, used in a blend to make Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and on its own to make Tavel, the best rosé of the Rhône. Known as Garnache in Rioja (Spain), where it is the most important red variety, for sweet dessert wines at Banyuls (near French-Spanish frontier) and for pleasant rosés in Australia and California.
Merlot (Red) - The noble cousin of the Cabernet grown in St Emilion and Pomerol, ripening earlier than the Cabernet and giving softer, fleshier wine, which matures sooner. Makes excellent wine in north-east Italy and good light wine in Italian Switzerland. Good in cooler California regions and in several other countries in recent years (e.g. Chile).
Pinot Noir (Red or white Champagne) - The single red grape of the Côte d'Or in Burgundy, probably the world's best red-wine grape, in the right place. For champagne it is pressed before fermentation to give white wine which becomes the greater part of the best champagnes. At its best the scent, flavours and texture of this as red wine gives great pleasure. In more recent years good wines are being made in California and Australia using this grape.
Sangiovese (Red) - the principal red grape of Tuscany and hence Chianti. A moderate producer, late ripening, light in colour, but good acid balance and pleasant flavour.
Sauvignon Blanc (White) - The chief white Bordeaux grape, used with Sémillon and a little Muscadelle to make dry Graves and sweet Sauternes. Make clean lightish wine of considerable interest when used on its own elsewhere (in the Loire for example). Also used in Italy, Chile and California where its wine can be dry, gold and of considerable character.
Sylvaner (White) - Ripens early with big crops, but only slight flavour, lacking Riesling's acidity. Grown in Germany, Alsace, northern Italy and central Europe.
Syrah (Red) - the best red grape of the Rhône, making dark, tannic, long-lived Hermitage. As Shiraz it succeeds admirably in Australia where it is used for both table and dessert wine. Petit Syrah in California is similar.
Zinfandel (Red) - Excellent grape seen mainly in California. Can make good lively fruity wine for drinking young or high-quality concentrated wine for long ageing (at 50 years can taste like great Bordeaux).

Other grapes you may see mentioned are:

Muscat - can be black or white - usually makes intensely sweet wines
Sémillon - rots 'nobly', and goes into high-quality Sauternes
Gewürztraminer - spicy speciality of Alsace. Also can be excellent in California, Australia and   New Zealand
- and others too numerous to mention

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