No one knows for sure how many types of grape variety are currently used in wine production. The total certainly runs into the thousands, with more than 2,000 estimated to be in use in Italy alone. Nearly all quality wine is made from types of Vitis Vinifera originating in Europe but North America and Asia also have their own indigenous varieties used in grape wine production.
Of all the Vitis Vinifera varieties nine can be considered Classic or Noble varieties.
The classic red variety of Bordeaux, particularly of Medoc and Graves. The thick skins give strong colour and tannin, leading to wines capable of developing with age. Often blended with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and other varieties. Has been successfully planted around the world where the climate is warm enough for it to ripen, with best results in the Napa Valley and other parts of northern California. Distinctive blackcurrant and cigar box aromas.
The main red variety of Burgundy, where it is responsible for the classic red wines of the Cote d’Or. Relatively thin skinned, it usually produces wines of pale colour. A fussy variety, it demands the correct combination of soil and climate. In too hot a climate it ripens too early to develop complex flavours and aromas, Outside Burgundy it has produced the best results in parts of New Zealand, Oregon and coastal regions of California. Shows distinctive strawberry and other red fruit aromas.
Originally from the northern Rhone, where it is responsible for Hermitage and Cote Rotie, also grown throughout the southern Rhone and across the south of France where it is often blended with Grenache, Mourvedre and other varieties. Has performed very well in Australia where it produces an array of styles, depending on climate and winemaking. Increasingly popular around the world, from California to Tuscany. Often shows aromas of black pepper and other spice characters.
The other classic grape of Bordeaux, where it is the traditional blending partner for Cabernet Sauvignon. It is in fact the most widely planted grape in Bordeaux and takes the lead role in the wines of St Emilion and Pomerol as well as many lesser appellations. Its ability to ripen earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon has made it the preferred choice in many regions outside France including parts of California, Washington State and Chile. Merlot based wines typically show aromas of black plums and other dark skinned fruit.
This is certainly the world’s most recognizable white grape. Chardonnay is the variety behind the white Burgundies of the Cote d’Or, Chablis and Macon and can produce top quality wines in other European counties as well as throughout the New World. It is sufficiently versatile that it can ripen in cool climate zones such as Chablis and Champagne as well as the warmer areas of Australia and California. Many winemakers aim for a rich, Burgundian style with influences from oak, lees contact and malolactic fermentation.
Riesling manages to reflect the soil and climate of whatever vineyard it is grown, while still retaining its unique character. It can make high quality wine in both cool and warm climates in an infinite variety of styles, from steely dry, lean, nervy wines to rich and unctuous versions. In Europe, it performs particularly well in Alsace, Austria and parts of Germany. Several fine examples are to be found in South Australia’s Clare Valley as well as cooler areas of New Zealand and the United States.
The classic French expressions of Sauvignon Blanc are from the Loire valley and Bordeaux, where it is often blended with Semillon. These days it is most often associated with New Zealand, particularly the Marlborough region, where it makes a distinctively pungent, aromatic style. Parts of South Africa and Chile have also achieved notable success with this variety.
Semillon is almost always blended and single varietals are the exception. It reaches its greatest expression in the great sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac in Bordeaux, where the damp conditions are ideal for the development of botrytis cinerea (noble rot), which acts on ripe grapes in a way that concentrates the natural sugars. Australia’s Hunter Valley is noted for dry Semillon which has the potential to age into great complexity.
Possibly the most distinctive of all the white varieties, Gewurztraminer often displays a strong lychee aroma, sometimes with a whiff of rose petals. While grown widely in Austria, Italy and Germany, probably the finest examples are to found in Alsace, where bottles labeled “vendage tardive” or “selection de grains nobles” indicate a rich, often sweet style. Outside Europe, good bottles can be found from Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific north-west.
The information given here originates from a wide variety of sources, but we recommend two in particular.
The World Atlas of Wine (5th edition) – Hugh Johnson & Jancis Robinson
The Oxford Companion to Wine (3rd edition) – ed. Jancis Robinson