Glossary of grape varieties

26 April 2005
Glossary of grape varieties

Wine is now made in an increasing number of countries - even Japan is having a go, to compete with demand.

Armed with the latest kit and ideas, New World producers make vibrant, juicy, ripe wines, with the grape variety on the label.

While the Old World has wised up - offspring have scrubbed up their parents' cellars, installed stainless steel tanks and are making wines that are ready to drink now, while listening to the fast techno talking newcomers.

There's a new world of wine out there, a world without chateaux or communes, where the grape variety rules, where the taste of the fruit and the name of the grape is what matters most.

There are hundreds of grape varieties out there, but just a few - nine, in fact - that make most of the wines on our shelves.

The big white grapes

Chardonnay. It might be the most popular grape, but many of us still don't realise that this is the grape responsible for Chablis. Chardonnay is planted all over the wine world, from British Columbia to the British Isles. Why? Because at its best it produces complex aromas of nuts, butter, toast and mushrooms with tastes that range from apple and lemon to peach and melon.

Sauvignon Blanc has been grown in France for eons, from the Loire (Sancerre, Pouilly Fumé) through to the Gironde, it is also responsible for the great sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac, when blended with Semillon. The most easily recognisable of all the grape varieties, it's lovingly referred to as "cat's pee on a gooseberry bush" in Marlborough, New Zealand, while "freshly squeezed grapefruit with a kick of lime" is more South Africa's thing.

Riesling produces some of the world's finest dry white wines - and some serious sweet wine. Most of it is grown in Germany, where it reflects the different soils and microclimates in which it is grown without losing its identity better than almost any other grape, as well as scaling the heights over the border in Alsace. It's incredibly aromatic, whiffs of petrol (a good thing, honest), and has enormous ageing potential - a 20 year-old turns heads.

Semillon is a key player in the Bordeaux region, positively shines in Australia, and is big in Chile. In fact, most wine countries are having a go. Although it is often blended with Chardonnay, when grown in certain places, allowed certain ripeness and barrel fermentation, it can hold its own for up to 20 years or more.

Chenin Blanc will also stay the course. As one of the world's most versatile grape varieties, it can turn its hand at either seriously good sweet wine or a dry wine with great intensity, depending on where it's grown. It rules in the central Loire and South Africa, and is prolific in California

The big red grapes

Cabernet Sauvignon is arguably the world's most famous grape varieties, grown just about anywhere there are vineyards. From its power base in Bordeaux, where it is almost always blended, to its solo show in New Zealand's Hawke's Bay, it still manages to retain its character. With its big, fat, blackcurranty nose, you can spot one, blindfolded, at fifty paces.

Merlot, with its fat, juicy, black cherry, plum and vanilla fruit is adored by everybody. Mention St Emilion and Pomerol to a Merlot enthusiast and hear them sigh - these Bordeaux appellations turn out serious Merlot at serious prices, encouraging growers the world over to try and replicate their efforts.

Pinot Noir is the Holy Grail for many winemakers because at its best, in Burgundy's Côte d'Or, it does incredible things with a bit of age - from roses to raspberries, cherries to cranberries, truffles and even well-hung game. But it's tricky to grow, as it's thin-skinned and sensitive to the climate. The New World is still experimenting wildly with it, working out which clones work best where.

Syrah - or Shiraz - is another grape that can elicit an almost indecent response from its fans. Its home is the northern Rhône, site of two of the world's greatest reds - Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie. In California, it has a cult following, where slaves to Syrah are known as Rhône Rangers. It's Australia's most planted red grape, and excels in regions like the Barossa and the Eden Valley. Expect blackberry, damson and plum fruits, a whiff of smoke, a spoonful of molasses and an occasional blast of violets.

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