Know Your Grapes
Did you know there are over 10,000 wine grapes in the world? Not even the world’s greatest wine expert can master all of them, but if you can get a grip on the top five then you’ll have mastered a large proportion of the world’s wine. It might come as a relief, or perhaps a disappointment, that just a handful of grapes dominate wine production. Although that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of weird and wonderful wine grapes to keep you occupied in a lifetime of wine discovery. Here are the top five, as well as some personal favourites to keep your eye on.
The world’s most-planted grape variety and certainly one of the world’s favourite wines too. Although perhaps best known as one of the major grapes from Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon is grown worldwide with other top wine countries including Chile, Australia, the US and the South Africa. Known for making bold dark red wines with firm tannins, refreshing acidity and a full body, trademark aromas of Cabernet Sauvignon are blackcurrants, mint and pepper, and this is a wine that can age extremely well.
The second most-planted grape variety is another Bordeaux classic, Merlot. Although it too is widely grown worldwide, it offers the yin to Cabernet Sauvignon’s yang: offering instead a more supple, fleshy style of wine with finer tannins, medium body and trademark aromas of plums and blueberries.
The next most-planted variety is Spain’s heavy weight champion, Tempranillo. Spain has 88% of the world’s 231,000 hectares of Tempranillo, so you won’t find it too often elsewhere. Its most famous incarnation is in the wines of Rioja where it ages wonderfully well over decades offering mellow and evolved red wines with aromas of plum, tobacco and vanilla.
Another Spanish grape takes the next top position, Airen, which is found all over Spain but is normally used for simple table wines or to make brandy.
The fifth most-grown variety, Chardonnay, needs little introduction. You’ll likely have some friends who love Chardonnay and others who hate it. Reason being, this is one of the world’s most malleable grape varieties and changes its expression and style depending on where it comes from and the winemaker’s style. Ranging from light, citrusy and mineral Chablis-esque wines to bold, buttery Chardonnays from Napa, as well as sparkling wines, it’s hard to pin Chardonnay down as it can be made in a myriad of styles.
The next most-planted is one of my personal favourites too: Syrah. Grown all over the world, Syrah (or Shiraz as they say in Australia) is a really adaptable grape and can also be made in many different styles, from rich, fruit bomb, chocolate-laden Barossa Shiraz wines to muscly, meaty and floral Northern Rhône wines. What Shiraz does always offer though is structure, making it a great food wine.
Sauvignon Blanc is another of the most widely-grown varieties and you can find it grown in a wide range of climates from seaside vineyards to mountain vineyards. Its classic aromas are herbal, citrus or tropical fruits, and it usually has a mouthwatering acidity.
Another main culprit in the world of wine is Pinot Noir — widely loved by wine drinkers, but feared by many winemakers for its finicky nature. It’s a hard grape to master in the vineyard and winery and only suits certain moderate to cool climates, although it’s worth the effort because Pinot Noir can offer some of the finest wines in the world. Aromas of cherries and truffle are some of the most common, and it always has soft tannins and high acidity.
Another notorious grape variety which can be hard to master but, when you do, Riesling can offer some superlative wines which can age well for centuries. High in acidity with notes of lemon, petrol and slate, Riesling is an incredibly distinctive wine and can be made in dry and sweet styles.
Another white variety which comes both sweet and dry, Semillon is a bit of a chameleon which changes depending on where it is grown. The best Semillon wines typically come from old vines, whether in the Loire, Swartland or Maule, and can be rich and waxy with mouthwatering acidity. Younger Semillon vines, which you’ll often taste coming from Australia, are typically leaner and grassier in style.