Wineducation: Ten Red Grapes

Post image for Wineducation: Ten Red Grapes

Red wine comes from the harvesting, processing and bottling of red or black grapes (satisfyingly quite simple). We are fortunate in Shanghai to see so many different types of red wines: a godsend that few countries in the world enjoy. You won’t rub shoulders with a Loire Saumur Champigny at your local wine seller, but the array we do have access to allure and appeal in their wide variety of beautiful colours, labelling and styles.

Factors influencing wine production

Knowing a little about the background of a wine and what goes into the making of it can go a long way in helping us select the perfect wine for any occasion. Wine is largely about the grapes, but let’s look at all the key factors that go into the creation of a delicious bottle of red wine.

The flavour and appeal of a red wine varies and is based on 4 key factors:

  1. Where the grape is grown – country, region, environment (grape ripeness and chemical composition derived from climate, temperature, rainfall and soil conditions, etc)
  2. The type of red wine grape used to make the wine – Cabernet, Merlot, etc, or blends of grapes.
  3. When and how the grape is grown and harvested (viticulture: organic v in-organic, machine v hand-harvesting)
  4. How the winery processes the wine (viniculture: traditions, wine-maker skills, use of oak & stainless steel)

The best types of red wine are the ones in which all 4 factors blend together perfectly to create a delectable, beautifully balanced wine of distinction, personality and pleasure.

world grapes chartTypes of Red Wine Grapes

The History bit:

Red wine grapes are grown in multitudinous regions around the world. We generally split world production into 2 sectors: The Old World and the New World. There are some very distinctive differences between them and similarities within.

Old World wines grew up with a long heritage as regional beverages matched to the development of regional cultures and cuisine. Styles are highly localised and prized for their individuality. The New World largely did not. Initially, the fledgling wines of the new world served the needs of local immigrants (descendants of colonial expansion) with grape wines made from varieties successfully introduced from the established Old World. But that focus later dramatically switched to develop (particularly in Australia and South America) into large scale production zones for exporting back to the developed Old World. A focus on global marketing meant that easy-to-pronounce grape varieties came to the fore. New World labelling concepts paved the way for the clear labelling we know today on New World wines. Consequently, fewer varieties and styles exist among New World wines though that in evolution.

Premium red wine grapes grown in Europe are primarily located in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, the UK; as well as a vast area making lower grade table wines from those (and other) countries, and the ‘industrial scale’ wines from the former Eastern block states. That’s the old world pretty much taken care of, though it was a pretty brief snapshot!

For the New World we can look to Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa and the US as the major players, with Uruguay and even China chipping in considerable production too (some of it very good).

Generally red wines grapes can produce juices which are made into light, medium and heavy bodied wines. They can be dry, sweet, fruity, spicy, oaky, tannic and silky smooth.unreal grape bunch on high Connoisseurs use many adjectives to describe the wide variety of flavours and aromas associated with wines; and red wines is where it really gets interesting.

The Science bit:

Tannins are present in grape skins (mainly). Different varieties have varying amounts. They provide body and texture to a wine. Over time tannins soften and bond to each other and become larger molecules which precipitate out to become sediment – that’s why tannic young wines need to age, and why over time these wines get less dense in colour.

Certain levels of natural acids are required to make wine feel nice in the mouth and provide bite. Sweet tasting table grapes make poor wine because there’s generally not enough acid. High acidity helps ageing too.

Ok, that’s the only science bit.

tree view vines and distance‘A special note about ‘Terroir’ (teh-rwaar) the special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place, interacting with the plant’s genetics, expressed in agricultural products such as wine, coffee, tomatoes, heritage wheat and tea. The concept is also applied to other Protected Appellations of Origin (PDOs are a form of Geographical Indication) products, such as cheeses.

Terroir can be very loosely translated as ‘a sense of place’, an embodiment of certain characteristic qualities; the sum of the effects that a local environment has on the production of the product.

The concept of terroir is at the base of the French Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) classification; a system for wine laws across the globe. At its core is the assumption that the land from which the grapes are grown imparts a unique quality that is specific to that growing site. The amount of influence and the scope that falls under the description of terroir has been a controversial topic in the wine industry, some suggesting it allows producers to rest on their laurels and maintain high prices that their historical predecessors solely had the right to.

Top 10 Types of Red Wine Grapes

As you might imagine, a wine’s taste depends much on the grape variety used to make it. Here are the most popular red wine grapes used in winemaking.

Cabernet Sauvignon (cab-err-nay sow-veen-yon) grapes typically makes a full-bodied, dry wine. It is widely regarded as one of the top varieties in the world, due to its ease of cultivation and its rather consistent characteristics wherever grown. Often vinified and bottled as a single varietal wine, the grape also blends well with Malbec, Merlot, Sangiovese, Shiraz, and Cabernet Franc grapes too. The common characteristics are full-bodied wines, often tannic in youth and silken with some age. Expect some or all of blackberry, blackcurrant, leather, herbs (mint and grass) and tobacco or pencil box flavours.

Regions: Cabernet Sauvignon is planted nearly anywhere that red wine grapes are grown: Australia, Chile, South Western France centred on Bordeaux, Italian Tuscany, around Auckland in New Zealand and California, US. In China ignore all the low quality non-sense at supermarkets and opt for Ningxia wineries, producing splendid European style Bordeaux-like world-beaters.

Merlot (mehr-loh) is one of the more popular red wine types due to its smoothness and low-level acidity. It can make a very drinkable wine. This grape can produce beautifulclose black grapes stand-alone wines, but it is often used in blends, particular with the Cabernet grape. Growers particularly like its early ripening nature. It’s plantings have overtaken Cabernet in recent decades, but a backlash has set in, in recent years, fuelled by the Hollywood movie, ‘Sideways’, which ridiculed according the main protagonist its ‘boring simplicity’. Another film, ‘Mondovino’ questioned the methods of production (leading to blandness) of some Bordeaux wines made predominantly from Merlot. I find Merlot actually quite difficult to market as a single varietal.

Regions: Merlot has long been a key ingredient in Bordeaux blends, but due to its increasing popularity with growers it is also now grown in Washington State, California, Chile, Italy, Australia, and Romania.

Pinot Noir (pee-noh-nwaar) is known to be difficult to grow. It is much less tolerant of hard, windy, hot and dry, harsh vineyard conditions than the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, or Grenache, but when conditions are right, it produces an exceptional light-to-mid-bodied wine with great complexity. However, the characteristics and flavour of Pinot Noir varies greatly by the area in which it’s grown, making it difficult to pin a typical description on wine made from it. This grape is typically used to make stand-alone wine and, with the exception of its use in the reds of Burgundy (Bourgogne, France) and the Sparkling Whites of Champagne, it is rarely blended with other grapes.

Regions: Pinot Noir grapes are grown most successfully in Burgundy, Alsace, New Zealand (Otago) Australia, Oregon and California. Pinot Noir can be one of the grapes types used to make Champagne and other sparkling wines.

Syrah (si-rah) is called Shiraz in South Africa and Australia. The dark-skinned grape is known to produce spicy, fruity red wine types that have low to mid-range acidity, which, like Merlot, make it a very drinkable wine. The Syrah grape is used as a varietal and it can produce powerful red wines which will age for decades. Less-extracted styles may be enjoyed young for their lively red and blueberry characters and smooth tannin structure. Aroma characters can range from violets to berries (usually dark as opposed to red), chocolate, espresso and Black grapesblack pepper. No one aroma can be called ‘typical’ though blackberry and pepper are often noticed. With time in the bottle these ‘primary’ notes are moderated and then supplemented with earthy or savoury ‘tertiary’ notes such as leather and truffle. Syrah has been widely used as a blending grape in the red wines of many countries due to its fleshy fruit mid-palate, (commonly with Grenache and/or Cabernet) resulting in a ‘complete’, well-balanced wine.Following several years of strong planting, Syrah was estimated in 2004 to be the world’s 7th most grown grape. Whether sold as Syrah or Shiraz, these wines enjoy great popularity.

Regions: It is grown throughout the world. The best Syrah wines are found in the Rhone Valley of France, California, South Africa, and Australia.

Zinfandel (zin-fan-del) unlike many red wine grapes, thrives in the hot sun, typically producing a robust red wine low to mid-range acidity, medium to full body with fruity, peppery flavours. It is considered a versatile grape. Easily a great stand-alone wine, it is often blended with other grapes to make anything from a ‘blush’ rosé to a heavy red wine, often incognito. A high sugar content can be fermented into levels of alcohol exceeding 15%. The taste of the red wine depends on ripeness. Red berry fruit flavours like raspberry predominate in wines from cooler areas, whereas blackberry, anise and pepper notes are more common in wines made in warmer areas and in wines made from the earlier-ripening sibling, Primitivo (as it is called in Italy).

Regions: The Zinfandel grape is mostly grown in California and Puglia in Southern Italy (as Primitivo).

Sangiovese (san-zhee-oh-vay-zey) grapes have naturally high acidity as well as moderate to high tannin content and light colour. Expect a complex, medium-bodied wine with varying aromas and flavours. It is often blended with the Cabernet grape to create further interesting, complexities. Traditional Sangiovese emphasize herbal and bitter cherry notes, while more modern, Bordeaux-influenced wines have more plum and mulberry fruit with vanilla oak and spice. Young Sangiovese varietal wine has fresh fruity flavours of strawberry and a little spiciness, but it readily takes on oaky, even tarry, flavours when aged in barrels. Blending can have a pronounced effect on enhancing or tempering the wine’s quality. The dominant nature of Cabernet can sometimes have a disproportionate influence on the wine, even overwhelming Sangiovese character with black cherry, black currant, mulberry and plum fruit. Asloveley black grapes the wine ages, some of these Cabernet dominant flavours can soften and reveal more Sangiovese character. Sangiovese’s high acidity and moderate alcohol makes it a very food-friendly wine.

Regions: Sangiovese is used to produce Chianti and is Tuscany’s signature grape, but there are significant planting from Argentina, Australia and California. Although stylistic and terroir-based differences also emerge among the various sub-zones of the Chianti region, Tuscan Sangiovese has a distinctive bitter-sweet component of cherry, violets and tea. In their youth, they can have tomato-savouriness that enhances its herbal component. Californian examples tend to have more bright, red-fruit flavours with some Zinfandel-like spice or darker fruits depending on the proportion of Cabernet added. Argentine examples offer a hybrid between the Tuscan and California Sangiovese with juicy red fruit wines that end on a bitter cherry note.

Malbec (mal-bek) is a thin-skinned grape which needs more sun and heat than either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot to mature. Acidity varies quite a bit by the region growing this inky dark grape of robust tannins, but it can typically have an easy drinking taste of berries and mild spices with good ageing potential. It is one of the six grapes allowed in the blend of red Bordeaux wine, often with Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Regions: It is selectively grown around the world. In the Libournais (Bordeaux region) it comes across as a ‘rustic’ version of Merlot, softer in tannins and lower in acidity with blackberry fruit in its youth. Malbec of the Cahors region in SW France is much more tannic, having a dark colour with aromas of damsons, tobacco, garlic, and raisin. In Argentina, Malbec becomes softer with a plusher texture and riper tannins. There, Malbec is increasingly celebrated as a varietal wine of depth of flavour and softness, thriving in the hot sun, more approachable than the  tannin laden wines of its homeland in SW France. It is also grown in Chile, Australia and California.

Nebbiolo (neb-ee-oh-loh) is a red wine grape that is responsible for the many fine red wines of Piedmont, Italy. Nebbiolo produces lightly coloured red wines which can be highly tannic in youth with scents of tar and roses. As they age, the wines take on a characteristic brick-orange hue at the rim of the glass and mature to reveal other aromas and flavours such as violets, wild herbs, cherries, mulberries, raspberries, damsons, leather, liquorice, truffles, tobacco, and prunes. Nebbiolo wines can require years of aging to balance the tannins with other characteristics. Barolo and Barbaresco are the most famous and sought after wine styles. Early maturing versions are increasingly made due to popular demand and impatience. While Barolo & Barbaresco tend to be the heaviest and most in need of aging, wines made in the modernist style are becoming more approachable at a young age.

 Region: Piedmont, Italy. Some Californian and Australian plantings exist too and are being explored for potential development.

 Grenache (grehn-ash) is one of the most widely planted red wine grape varieties in the world. It ripens late, so needs hot, dry conditions. It is generally spicy, berry-flavoured (raspberries and strawberries) and soft on the palate with relatively high alcohol but low acid. When yields are kept in check, Grenache based wines can develop complex, intense notes of blackcurrants, black cherries, black olives, coffee, gingerbread, honey, leather, black pepper, tar, spices and roasted nuts. When yields are increased, earthy and herbal notes emerge that tend to quickly fade on the palate. The very low yielding old vines of Priorat can impart dark black fruits and notes of figs and tar with many traits similar to the Italian wine Amarone. Rosado or rosé Grenaches are often characterized by their strawberry and cream notes while fortified vin doux naturels and Australian ‘port style’ wines exhibits coffee and nutty tawny-like notes. Lacking acid, tannin and colour, make it a grape for blending with other varieties such as Syrah (Shiraz), Carignan, Tempranillo and Cinsaut. It is often together blended with Syrah and Mourvedre; simply, GSM in Australia. The Grenache grape is increasing in popularity for creating a good stand-alone wine that is mid-to-full-bodied with fruity flavours, like strawberry.

Regions: The Grenache grape is grown in the Rhone Valley (France) especially in Châteauneuf-du-Pape where it is typically over 80% of the blend, Spain (called Garnacha) and Italy (Cannonau); and in each case the wines are differently structured, being affected by terroir, blending decisions and tradition. California’s San Joaquin Valley is also significant.

Gamay (gah-may) is a very vigorous vine. Best grown on alkaline soils, stress leads to high levels of acidity. Carbonic maceration softens this, a process that also allows the vibrant youthful fruit expressions reminiscent of bright crushed strawberries and raspberries, as well as deep floral notes of lilac and violets. Gamay wines are light-bodied, fresh, and fruity and are meant to be drunk soon after they are bottled. Wines meant to be drunk after some modest ageing tend to have more body and are produced by whole-berry maceration. The latter are produced mostly in the designated ‘Cru Beaujolais’ areas where the wines typically have the flavour of sour cherries, black pepper and dried berry, as well as fresh-cut stone and chalk.

Region: The Gamay grape is largely grown for wines in the Beaujolais and Loire regions of France. Small plantings also exist in Australia and The US.

As ever, there are some dodgy bottles being marketed to the uninitiated and the ultra-budget minded. Supermarkets do not rotate their stock. I have seen Beaujolais Nouveau for sale 18 months after production. Walk away.

And if you made it this far, a treat…but you’ll need a VPN: Wine Grapes made sexy

The Wine Man September 2012

Previous post:

Next post: