Don’t know your Syrah from your Shiraz? Befuddled by Merlot and Malbec? Never fear – our handy guide to the world’s top 20 wine grape varieties will make you sound like a convincing connoisseur in no time.
One of the major black grape varieties worldwide, Cabernet Franc is principally grown for blending with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to produce Bordeaux. Lighter than Cabernet Sauvignon, it is a bright, pale red wine that adds a peppery perfume to more robust blends, as well as notes of tobacco, raspberry, bell pepper, cassis, and violets.
A chance crossing between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc in 17th century southwest France, Cabernet Sauvignon is now the most widely planted wine grape variety in the world. In cooler climates, it produces wines with blackcurrant, green bell pepper notes, mint and cedar notes. Wine from moderate climates sees blackcurrant, black cherry and black olive notes, while in very hot climates the current flavours can become ‘jammy’.
A member of the Cabernet family, Chile produces the majority of Carménère wines available today. Considered part of the original six red grapes of Bordeaux, as the Chilean wine industry grows, more experimentation is being carried out on Carménère’s potential as a blending grape, especially with Cabernet Sauvignon.
A green-skinned grape variety used in the production of white wine, Chardonnay is an important component of many sparkling wines around the world, including Champagne.
The grape itself is very neutral, with its flavours influenced by oak and terroir (the landscape and geology in which it is grown). Cool climates produce a medium to light body with green plum, apple, and pear flavours. Warmer places create more citrus, peach, and melon tastes, while very warm regions bring out fig and tropical fruit notes.
Gewürztraminer is an aromatic white wine grape variety with a pink-to-red skin colour. It grows best in cooler climates, producing wines which are usually off-dry with a bouquet of lychees. It pairs well with cheese and fleshy, fatty wild game.
One of the most widely planted red wine grape varieties, Grenache thrives in the hot, dry conditions of Spain, Sardinia, the south of France, Australia, and California’s San Joaquin Valley. It produces wine with a relatively high alcohol content, and flavours of raspberry and strawberry with a subtle, white pepper spice note.
Primarily a red wine grape variety grown in South West France, Malbec is increasingly known as an Argentine varietal wine and is grown around the world. It ripens mid-season and can bring deep colour, ample tannin, and a plum-like flavour to claret blends.
The name Merlot is thought to come from merle, the French name for the blackbird. Made across the globe, there are two main styles of Merlot wine. The late-harvested ‘International style’ produces full-bodied, high-alcohol, inky purple wines with intense, plum and blackberry fruit. The traditional ‘Bordeaux style’ of Merlot involves earlier harvesting to maintain acidity, and produces more medium-bodied wines with moderate alcohol levels, red fruit flavours and a vegetal note.
A white wine grape variety commonly used in dessert wines from Austria, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Serbia as well as dry wines from Alsace and Hungary. First cultivated in Alsace by the Loire grower Moreau-Robert in 1852, Muscat Ottonel is believed to be a cross of Chasselas with Muscat de Saumur.
An Italian red wine grape variety thought to derive its name from the Italian word nebbia which means ‘fog’, Nebbiolo produces lightly-coloured red wines which can be highly tannic with scents of tar and roses. Mature wines develop scents and flavours including violets, tar, wild herbs, cherries, raspberries, truffles, tobacco and prunes. Nebbiolo wines can require years of aging to balance the tannins with other characteristics.
South Africa’s signature red wine grape variety, Pinotage was bred there in 1925 as a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut (known as ‘Hermitage’ in South Africa at that time, hence the name). It typically produces deep red varietal wines with smoky, bramble and earthy flavours, sometimes with notes of bananas and tropical fruit. Pinotage is often blended, made into fortified wine and even red sparkling wine.
Pinot Grigio / Gris
Also called Grauburgunder, this white wine grape variety with a grey-blue fruit is thought to be a mutant clone of the Pinot Noir variety. Grown around the world, the wine’s flavours range from ripe tropical fruit notes of melon and mango, to some botrytis-influenced flavours (also known as ‘Noble Rot’, botrytis is a fungus that dries out the grapes, thus concentrating the sugar and flavours.
Pinot Noir grapes are grown around the world in cooler climates, particularly in the Burgundy region of France. Pinot Noir is also used to make the Italian wine Franciacorta, despite being a difficult variety to cultivate and transform into wine. When young, wines made from pinot noir tend to have red fruit aromas of cherries, raspberries and strawberries. As the wine ages, pinot has the potential to develop more vegetal and ‘barnyard’ aromas that can contribute to its complexity.
A white grape variety originating from the Rhine region of Germany, Riesling is an aromatic grape variety displaying flowery aromas and high acidity. It is used to make dry, semi-sweet, sweet, and sparkling white wines that are usually varietally pure and seldom oaked.
Sauvignon Blanc is a green-skinned grape variety planted in many of the world’s wine regions, producing a crisp, dry, and refreshing white varietal wine. The grape is also a component of the famous dessert wines from Sauternes and Barsac. Depending on the climate, the flavour can range from aggressively grassy to sweetly tropical. When slightly chilled, it pairs well with fish or cheese – particularly chèvre – and is also known as one of the few wines that goes well with sushi.
Sémillon is a golden-skinned grape native to the Bordeaux region, used to make dry and sweet white wines, mostly in France and Australia. It is also key to the production of sweet wines such as Sauternes. For the grapes to be used for sweet wine production, they need to have been affected by Botrytis.
Syrah, also known as Shiraz, is a dark-skinned grape variety grown throughout the world, primarily to produce red wine. Moderate climates (such as the northern Rhone Valley and parts of Washington State) tend to produce medium to full-bodied wines with medium-plus to high levels of tannins and notes of blackberry, mint and black pepper. Syrah from hot climates such as Crete, and the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale regions of Australia are more consistently full-bodied with softer tannin, jammier fruit and spice notes of liquorice, anise and earthy leather.
Tempranillo is an early ripening black grape variety that tends to thrive in chalky vineyard soils such as those of the Ribera del Duero region of Spain. Its relatively neutral profile sees it often blended with other varieties such as Grenache and Carignan (known in Rioja as Mazuelo), or aged for extended periods in oak where the wine easily takes on the flavour of the barrel. In Portugal, where the grape is known as Tinto Roriz and Aragonez, it is blended with others to produce Port wine.
Like Chardonnay, this white wine grape variety has the potential to produce full-bodied wines with a lush, soft character. In contrast to Chardonnay, the Viognier varietal has more natural aromatics that include notes of peach, pears, violets and minerality.
Zinfandel (also known as Primitivo) is a variety of black-skinned wine grape, grown in over 10 percent of California vineyards. The grapes typically produce a robust red wine, and in the United States a semi-sweet rosé wine called White Zinfandel has six times as many sales as the red wine. The taste of the red wine depends on the ripeness of the grapes: red berry fruit flavours 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 Primitivo clone.