Wine grape varieties are simply the type or types of grapes used to make wine, these are usually categorized by color and genetic familial traits. When you drink a cabernet sauvignon or a merlot, the wine is named after the grape variety that was used to make the wine. This makes these wines known as varietals because they are single-grape productions named after their grape variety.
Wines that are blended using two or more varieties may or may not be labeled with the varieties like a Merlot/Cabernet are. Blends can have a fun name or just be called a table wine depending on its quality.
Venturing into the Vineyard
When you start to learn about wine varieties, you take a step back from the wine glass or bottle and step into the vineyard. Learning about varietals will teach you about the climate and conditions that each species grows best in and what the main characteristics of each wine grape are. (Learn more in "Soil Types and the Wine Grapes That Grow Best in Them.")
Understanding the characteristics of the variety heightens one's appreciation for the creation of an age-old staple of civilization, helping you to enjoy each glass to the fullest and open up a new door of knowledge.
The wine process entails many things, including learning how to work with mother nature. Wine flavors of the same varietal may vary from vintage to vintage (The vintage refers to the year in which the grape was grown and made into wine). Vintages differ due to rainfall, temperature and anything else that can affect the vine and the growing and ripening of the grape including frost and disease.
Old World wines are often referred to by the region from which they originate like Bordeaux and Champagne. Winemakers figured out a long time ago which grapes flourished well in different soils and different climates. An example of this is present in the Chardonnay wine grape and the Pinot Noir wine grape, which are grown in Burgundy, France and used to make the majority of white and red wines, respectively, from this region.
The Vitis Vinifera and Vitis Lambrusca Families
There are two main wine variety families; Vitis Vinifera and Vitis Lambrusca, and both families have thousands of different wine varieties. (See The History of Vitis Vinifera.") Vitis Vinifera refers to the Old World grape while Vitis Lambrusca is the New World grape. (Also see "The Difference Between Old World and New World Wines.")
The type of varietal or blend of varietals is the biggest factor in the way a wine will taste and age. To truly understand winemaking, you should have a basic understanding of the grapes used to make wine. Different grapes all have different flavor/sugar and juiciness profiles, and each of these characteristics can be influenced by the growing region, conditions and weather.
Wine grapes have been cultivated through selective breeding for thousands of years to be smaller than table grapes, have seeds and thick skin. Smaller grapes have less water but more concentrated flavors, while the seeds provide tannins and the skins provide flavor and wild yeast. Wine grapes are usually very sweet and contain 24% sugar by weight. Traditionally, the sugar and wild yeast interacted to bring about changes in the taste of wine. Today, modern vintners add specific strains of yeast and can use modern winemaking techniques and tests to get specific results from the grapes. (Read on in "Here's the Difference Between Wine Grapes and Table Grapes.")
We can classify wine by each family, Vitis Vinifera or Vitis Lambrusca or as red or white grapes. And before we look at flavor profiles of specific grapes, let’s look at the difference between red and white grapes and the wines they can produce. Whether the grape has a red or white skin, they all have skins, pulp and seeds, and with a few red grape exceptions, they both have white juice. The color of red wine comes from the skin of the grape when the grapes are macerated and the winemaking process begins. (See "Red, White & Rose - What Gives a Wine its Color?")
White wine grapes and red wine grapes also have different amounts of tannins. Red wine grapes have more tannins than white wine grapes, and the tannins in red wine grapes are colored, which gives red wine its color and depth. Tannins are polyphenolic compounds that precipitate and bind to proteins; they have an astringent, almost bitter flavor profile. Wines that are high in tannin, can be aged or matured; this will help the wines develop complex flavors.
Making Wine from Red & White Grapes
Red wine grapes are used to make white wine, but it rarely goes the other way, as the lower levels of tannins do not complement the red winemaking process. To make white wine with red wine grapes, the grapes are pressed very quickly to remove the seeds and the skins so the wine does not take on a red color. Due to the lower levels of tannin, white wine needs less maturation than red wines, so white wines can be bottled faster. White wines will also have subtle flavors and lighter bodies than red wines that have more tannins, bolder flavors and fuller bodies.
Common Red Wine Varietals Include:
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Pinot Noir
Common White Wine Varietals Include:
To learn about specific varieties, make a list of the wines you drink. Make tasting notes of what your favorite wines taste like, then research the grape species used to make it. The grape variety will have a specific flavor profile, which is only the starting point of the wine you drink in your glass. Vintners set a complex chemical reaction in place when they choose to harvest the grapes and begin making wine.
Be a flavor sleuth ask the following question:
- Where was the variety grown?
- What factors influenced the vintage?
- Who made the wine? (many vintners have signature components they develop and highlight in their wines).
- How was the wine matured?
By sniffing, slurping, tasting wine and asking these questions, you will be able to start making the connection from the grape to the glass.