The name, in Greek, means St. George’s grape. An important, widely planted Greek grape, it is the source of Nemea, a spicy, earthy wine from the Peloponnese peninsula. The grape variety has nothing to do with the rootstock called St. George.
The name, in Greek, means St. George’s grape. An important, widely planted Greek grape, it is the source of Nemea, a spicy, earthy wine from the Peloponnese peninsula. The grape variety has nothing to do with the rootstock called St. George.
Ancient grape planted almost exclusively in southern Italy. In Campania, it makes the famous wine called Taurasi, and in Basilicata, the wine aglianico del Vulture. Aglianico appears related to several southern Italian grapes but its parents are not known.
The most widely planted grape of Spain, grown mainly on the central plains of Castilla La Mancha, immortalized by Don Quixote. Used in blending (it’s often the base for inexpensive sparkling wine around Europe) and on its own. Grown and made by small family wineries, can make a fresh, lively, minerally white (not unlike pinot grigio, only better) that’s a steal.
Ancient variety grown in the region of Emilia-Romagna, Albana is thought to be a descendant of garganega. The neutral, somewhat fruity, low-alcohol Albana di Romagna was (rather shockingly) the first wine to have been awarded the prestigious DOCG designation in Italy.
One of the liveliest white wines in Europe and considered one of the best wines for seafood, albariño comes from the region Rias Baixas (REE-az BUY-shaz) along northeastern Spain’s ruggedly beautiful and very green northwestern coast (it looks like Ireland). In the last decade, albariño has become Spain’s most notable and delicious dry white table wine, even though the dry whites of Rioja (made from the grape variety viura) were once better known. Albariños are floral and citrusy, but not quite as aromatic as, say, rieslings or gewürztraminers. They are rarely made or aged in oak and are best when young and snappy. Interestingly, unlike most Spanish (or European) wines which are named for the place from which they come, albariños are always labeled just that—albariño. (See also Rias Baixas). Albariño, for all of its fame in Spain, probably originated in northeastern Portugal where it has grown for centuries and where it is known as alvarinho. It is still grown widely there and is the core grape in vinho verde.
A fascinating, aromatic red possibly related to the white grapes greco and muscat blanc à petits grains. Native to Tuscany, it is especially famous on the island of Elba, off the coast of Tuscany, and the third largest island in Italy after Sicily and Sardinia. Also grown in southern Italy.
The name for one of the last extant crosses of garnacha (grenache) with petit bouschet, crossed in France by Henri Bouschet in the mid-1800s. In Spain, sometimes called garnacha tintorera. Innocuous in flavor but thick skinned, high yielding, and deeply colored. It is, in fact, one of the very few grapes (red or white) in the entire Vitis vinifera family to have red flesh. As such, alicante bouschet has been used for decades in southern France to give light red wines more color and the appearance of more flavor intensity. In California, it was used extensively during Prohibition to make thin watery wines seem like standard reds. Alicante Bouschet is still used in California, mainly in the Central Valley, where it is a useful extender in jug wines. Should not be confused with the denomination Alicante in southeastern Spain, where the main grape is monastrell (mourvèdre).
Fairly rare grape of Burgundy, France, and a sibling of chardonnay (both grapes are the progeny of pinot noir and gouais blanc). The light, tart, white wine made from it is used with crème de cassis in the Kir cocktail.
Also known as inzolia. Floral, high acid variety considered one of the best native white varieties in Sicily, Italy, and also grown in southern Tuscany. In Sicily, it was once used for Marsala but is now part of the blend for many white table wines.
More correctly known as arinto de Bucelas. High quality Portuguese grape from the area of Bucelas north of Lisbon. Planted throughout Portugal because of its attractive ability to retain acidity. Known as pederña in the Minho region, it is one of the grapes in vinho verde.
Or asprinio bianco as it is commonly known, is indigenous to southern Italy’s Campania region. Strikingly, the grape is still grown by the ancient method of allowing the vines to climb up local poplar trees so that they rise 30 or more feet in the air.
Fairly common grape in Alsace, France, where it originated as a progeny of pinot noir and gouais blanc, making auxerrois a sibling of chardonnay. Usually blended into pinot blanc in Alsace. Confusingly, in southwest France, auxerrois is a synonym for the red variety cot, or malbec.
A French-American hybrid, also known as Baco 22A, it was developed in 1898 by French nurseryman François Baco. Used as the basis for Armagnac until the 1970s, it continues to be used in that distilled spirit, although to a lesser extent.
One of the most famous French-American hybrids, created in 1902 by French nurseryman François Baco. To obtain it, Baco crossed folle blanche with grand glabre (a variety belonging to the American species Vitis riparia). Cultivated in Burgundy and the Loire Valley until France officially barred all hybrids from being grown in French vineyards. Baco Noir is now principally found in New York State and Canada.
Barbera, the most widely planted red grape in the northwestern Italian region of Piedmont, rose to prominence there after phylloxera. Genetic research suggests it probably originated someplace else and was brought to Piedmont. Its parents are not known. Even though nebbiolo (the grape used to make Barolo and Barbaresco) is more renowned, it’s barbera, not nebbiolo, that Piedmontese winemakers invariably drink with dinner. Beginning in the mid 1980s the quality of barbera rose dramatically. By planting it in better sites, limiting the yield, and aging the wine in better barrels, Piedmontese winemakers began making superbly mouthfilling, rich wines packed with flavor. Top barberas also have a natural vivacity—a precision and vibrancy that comes from the grapes’ relatively high acidity. Today, all of the great barberas come from Piedmont, and the grape is rarely planted elsewhere, though there is a small amount grown in northern California. A century ago, Italian immigrants in California planted it in poor, usually hot areas, hoping to make a hearty, low cost red wine. After a brief resurgence as part of the “Cal-Ital” movement of the early 1990s, barbera sadly began to decline in importance.
Yes, the name means “bastard” (in Portuguese). Common workhorse grape for dry Portuguese reds, including those made in the Douro and to a lesser extent, the Dão. Bastardo was brought to Portugal some two centuries ago from its native homeland, the Jura region of France where it is known as trousseau.
A white hybrid developed in 1968 at the University of Florida and now grown in Florida, Texas, and throughout the Gulf states. Unlike many grapes, it is well suited to humid climates. Blanc du Bois also has good resistance to Pierce’s Disease. Blanc du Bois’ genetic parentage is complex, being a cross of an American hybrid belonging to the muscadine family with the red grape cardinal, itself a cross of two vinifera grapes: flame seedless and ribier.
Prolific vine that has nothing to do with Portugal. Very widely planted in Austria (its probable home) and elsewhere in eastern Europe including, notably, Hungary. Also makes up a lot of Germany’s red wine.
Highly esteemed Austrian variety—probably of Austrian or Hungarian origin—which can make delicious, spicy, precise, earthy, deeply colored reds, especially in Burgenland (the warmest of the Austrian wine regions). Also the leading red in Hungary (where it is called kékfrankos) and grown in Washington State where it is called by its German name, lemberger. DNA analysis indicates it to be a probable progeny of gouais blanc.
Indigenous Spanish red that is grown principally in Utiel-Requena region of north central Spain. Historically used in blending but increasingly made into fascinating, spicy, delicious wines that are not unlike grenache.
Second most popular variety in Argentina after malbec. Though called bonarda, this grape is not the same as the relatively rare indigenous Italian variety bonarda piedmontese grown in Piedmont. Rather, Argentine bonarda has been shown to be the French grape douce noir (“sweet black”) which originated in the Savoie region of France. In France, the grape is also known as corbeau (meaning “crow,” a reference to the grape’s black color), and charbonneau which was shortened in California to charbono. (Cult followers of California’s now rare charbono will be happy to know they can switch to Argentine bonarda).
Ancient simple-tasting Provençal variety today used in blends throughout the south of France in the white wines of appellations such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Côtes-du-Rhône, Corbières, Minervois, and Bandol.
Native to and found primarily in Piedmont, Italy, around the towns of Asti and Alessandria and where it is used to make brachetto d’Acqui, a deep-red colored and delicious, if somewhat soda-pop-like, sparkling wine.
Cultivated on the island of Madeira, bual—sometimes spelled boal—is the grape that makes the rich, semi-sweet style of Madeira. The grape is the same as malvasia fina and is also used for dry white table wines in the Dão.
While not as well known as its offsprings cabernet sauvignon and merlot, cabernet franc plays an important role in many of the world’s top Bordeaux and Bordeaux-style blends. Indeed, on the so-called “Right Bank” of Bordeaux, in the appellations Pomerol and St. Emilion, cabernet franc can make up 50% of the blend or more. And one legendary Bordeaux wine—Chateau Cheval Blanc—is more than 50% cabernet franc. Compared to its Bordeaux confreres, cabernet franc is generally not as fleshy as merlot, nor is it as structured and intense as cabernet sauvignon. For many wineries, it thus sits in perfect mid-prance between the two. If it gets ripe, that is. When unripe (and it’s a challenge to ripen cabernet franc), the wine has a distinct green bell pepper character—the result of compounds in the wine known as pyrazines. But in warmer years when sugars are high and pyrazines fall, cabernet franc can be fantastic, with its violet or iris-like aromas and minerally/dark chocolaty flavors. Loire Valley Chinon (all cabernet franc) is the most well-known, delicious example. But the grape has also made quiet but stunning progress in California, as wines like Vineyard 29’s cabernet franc attest. Most French grape varieties came from the east: France got its initial vines from Italy which in turn, got them via Lebanon (historically, Phoenicia), which probably got them from southern Turkey. But surprising genetic research in the 2010s revealed that cabernet franc originated southwest of France in Spain’s Basque Country and, from there, was brought northeast to Bordeaux.
The preeminent classic red grape variety, cabernet sauvignon is capable of making some of the most structured, complex, majestic, and ageworthy reds in the world. It’s astounding that a wine so often angular and powerful when young can metamorphose into a velvety, rich, elegant, and complex wine with several years’ aging. Cabernet can be like the awkward kid who grows up to be a Nobel Laureate and sexy to boot. Not all cabernet sauvignons have this ability, of course. Many modestly priced are made in an easy-drinking style that is simply simple. These wines bear little of the depth, power, and intense concentration of, say, Château Latour from Bordeaux, Sassicaia from Italy, or Harlan Estate from the Napa Valley. But there’s something else that makes great cabernets like these so compelling. Few other red wines in the world have cabernet’s counterintuitive ability to combine two of the characteristics mentioned above—power and elegance. I think it’s this capacity to embody, in one split second, two contrapuntal ideas that makes the great cabernets so intellectually fascinating, a yin-yang of taste. Cabernet sauvignon’s aromas and flavors are well known and easy to indentify: blackberry, black currant, cassis, mint, cedarwood, graphite, licorice, leather, green tobacco, cigar, black plums, dark chocolate, sandalwood, and so on. These sensations are then swirled into a delicious amalgam as the wine ages. I should add that unripe, poorly made cabernet sauvignon, like poorly made sauvignon blanc, usually tastes vegetal—a dank mixture of bell peppers, canned green beans, or cabbage water. This shared tendency toward vegetative green flavors if the grapes are not ripe comes as no surprise since cabernet sauvignon is the offspring of sauvignon blanc (which, one day, thought to be in the mid-1700s, had a nice moment in nature with cabernet franc, resulting in cabernet sauvignon). Both cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc are high in pyrazines—compounds on grape skins that give the final wine a bell pepper flavor. Because cabernet sauvignon is one of the most tannic of all the major red grapes, it has, over the last few decades, been a prime focus in the study of tannin and tannin ripeness. Twenty five years ago, for example, it was commonly thought that cabernet required decades of aging to feel soft. Today, many cabernet sauvignons packed with large amounts of tannin nonetheless possess a soft mouthfeel right off the bat. This is possible because harvest decisions are now often based on the physiologiocal maturity of the tannin in cabernet grapes, rather than sugar. So, even though it may seem like a public relations pitch: it is indeed possible for the best cabernet sauvignons today to be ready to drink now and be delicious decades in the future. Finally, historically, the world’s most prized cabernet sauvignons were cabernets blended with merlot, cabernet franc, and perhaps malbec and petite verdot. They came from the Médoc communes of Margaux, St.-Julien, Pauillac, and St.-Estèphe in Bordeaux, where the wines were (and still are) ranked into “growths,” from First Growth, the most renowned, down to Fifth Growth. However, world-class cabernets are now regularly being made in California (especially the Napa Valley), Italy, Australia, and Washington State.
An important blending grape in Tuscany and throughout central Italy. Among other wines, canaiolo is used as part of the blend in making Chianti where it serves to soften sangiovese’s tannic firmness and acidic bite.
A widely planted grape in South Africa, where it is used mostly in cheap blends. Not the same as true riesling, Cape riesling is thought to be related to the obscure French grape crouchen blanc.
The French name for the Spanish grape mazuelo which originated in northeastern Spain, probably in Aragón, and is used today in Rioja as part of the blend. In some parts of Spain (such as the Priorat which also grows a lot of the grape), mazuelo carries the name cariñena. (The French name carignan is probably derived from cariñena). Despite being an important grape in Spain, there is far more carignan growing in France. Earthy flavored and powerful, with dark color, relatively high acidity, and high tannin, it is mostly used for blending in the Languedoc Roussillon, and to a lesser extent in Provence and the Rhône. Spain, where it’s known as mazuelo, and in Priorato, where it is known as cariñena. In Italy, on the island of Sardinia, it’s known as carignano. Also grown in California where it is spelled carignane and is often a part of inexpensive blends.
Ancient Bordeaux variety (also known in Bordeaux as grande vidure) whose parents are cabernet franc and gros cabernet. Carmenere’s half siblings are cabernet sauvignon and merlot. While virtually extinct in Bordeaux today, the grape is now widespread in Chile where it is considered the leading red and can make complex, intensely red-hued wines. The name may derive from the word carmin—”crimson” in Latin—and is a reference to the vivid red color of the variety’s leaves come harvest time. In China, carmenère is known as cabernet gernischt or cabernet shelongzhu (literally “cabernet snake pearl”).
Bland but hearty Italian variety grown widely in Sicily and used as a blending grape, especially for Marsala. At lower yields makes a more interesting wine. On Mt. Etna in Sicily called carricante. The grape is probably the progeny of garganega.
Found mostly in the northeastern part of the United States, where it is used for juice, jams, and jellies as well as wine. With its hard-to-describe grapey/animal fur aroma and flavor often described as “foxy,” the grape may be a hybrid or a cross; its parents are unknown. Made into light red and rosé wines, especially in New York State.
French-American hybrid created (through multiple crossings of crossings) sometime in the late 1940s, but only available since the 1960s. Highly thought of thanks to its “lack of hybrid taste.” Makes good and very good wines in many eastern and mid-West states of the United States including Missouri, New Jersey, New York, and Virgina.
Native to the Savoie region of France where it is properly known as douce noir (“sweet black”), but is also known by the names corbeau and charbonneaux (in California, this was later shortened to charbono). Tiny amounts are still grown in California where the wine has a small but cult following. In Argentina, douce noir is called bonarda, which means that California’s charbono and Argentina’s bonarda are the same variety.
To any wine drinker, it comes as no surprise that for several decades, chardonnay has been one of the most successful white wines in the world. The wine’s easily understood, appealing flavors—vanilla, butter, butterscotch, buttered toast, custard, minerals, green apples, exotic citrus fruits—are matched by equally effusive textures—creamy, lush, and full-bodied. (The Marilyn Monroe of white grapes to be sure.) We are talking here about the majority of chardonnays in the world; of course, lean, racy, lightning crisp Chablis (all chardonnay) remains a brilliant sensorial exception to the norm. But chardonnay’s popularity is, indeed, relatively recent. Wine drinkers are often surprised to learn that as of the mid-1960s, there were but a few hundred acres of it in all of California (by 2011, there were 95,000 acres!). Ditto for most of the rest of the world. Little, if any, chardonnay existed in Chile, Argentina, Australia, South Africa, Spain, or Italy, not to mention Oregon, Washington State, and other parts of the United States. In fact, the only places chardonnay reigned were its homeland—the small Burgundy region of France—and Burgundy’s northern neighbor, Champagne. (See Burgundy). It was here, probably sometime in the early Middle Ages, that chardonnay arose as a seedling—a natural cross of the white grape gouais blanc with the red grape pinot noir. Small as it was in terms of production, Burgundian chardonnay proved prodigious in its ability to inspire winemakers worldwide. Today, chardonnay is virtually ubiquitous. (Though I think it’s fair to say that few wines among the millions of cases now produced ever manage to hold a candle to the best Burgundian versions). Stylistically, chardonnay is often said to be a “winemaker’s wine”—meaning that winemakers like it for its capacity to be transformed by lots of winemaking techniques. Barrel fermentation, malolactic fermentation, sur lie aging, and so on—chardonnay often gets the whole nine yards of technical possibility. Of course, there’s a hitch. Today, too much chardonnay tastes manipulated, diffused, flabby, overoaked, and overdone. In a sea of these sad behemoths, however, the finest chardonnays remain among the world’s most luscious and complex dry white wines.
Ancient, low-acid variety also known as fendant. Best known in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, where, near Lake Geneva, it probably originated. Also cultivated to a smaller extent in Alsace. In Germany it is referred to as gutedel.
The most famous, vibrant chenin blancs in the world come from the Loire Valley of France, specifically from the appellations Vouvray and Savennières. The Loire Valley is also the ancestral home for this grape which arose as a natural cross of savagnin and an unknown parent. The best examples of chenin blanc are stunningly complex wines with a flavor of apples and honey (though not necessarily honey’s sweetness). They are shimmering with acidity and minerally, and are long-lived. If modern life allowed for such seemingly lost pleasures as sitting in a meadow reading Madame Bovary or The Age of Innocence, chenin blanc would be the fitting wine to drink. Loire Valley chenin blanc is made in a variety of degrees of sweetness from bone-dry to just a touch of sweetness (to balance the wine’s dramatic acidity) to fully sweet. The latter can make for phenomenal dessert wines, as evidenced by the most legendary and luscious of all, Quarts de Chaume, from a tiny area in the middle of the Loire Valley. Chenin blanc is also a well known white grape in South Africa, where it is sometimes known as steen. There, however, it is unfortunately made mostly into a simple, innocuous quaffing wine. In California, chenin blanc was a major white grape prior to the 1960s. Today, most California chenin blanc grapes are overcropped for high yields and are destined for jug wines, a sad fate given the grapes’ potential character.
Once only used sparingly in low-cost Italian red blends, its popularity has increased dramatically in the past 10 years, and this grape, with its fresh, cherry-like flavors (ciliegiolo means “cherry” in Italian), is now a component of many DOC wines especially in Tuscany. Ciliegiolo and calabrese di montenuovo are thought to be the parents of sangiovese.
Southern French grape that, today, is grown all over the south of France and in the southern Rhône; most frequently used in blends, where it adds a slight spiciness. It can also be found in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. In South Africa, where it was confusingly called Hermitage, it was used as one of the parents (with pinot noir) to create pinotage. Sometimes spelled cinsault.
At low yields this variety is beautifully fresh and aromatic. A common blending component in many white wines of southern France, including those of Provence, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and Côtes-du-Rhône.
The most well-known American species grape in New York State. Belongs to the species Vitis labrusca and was first found growing wild near the Concord River in Concord, Massachusetts. Makes distinctly flavored but not very highly esteemed wines with brazen, candylike aromas and flavors. Though used in basic kosher wines like Manischewitz, Concord is much more appreciated as juice and jelly than wine.
Ancient variety from the Val d’Aosta of northwest Italy, but now virtually extinct there. Better known today in Switzerland where it grows in the Valais, and is sometimes called humagne rouge. Considered the top red in a country better known for its whites.
Considered the most important red grape in the blends that make the well-known Italian wines amarone and Valpolicella in the Veneto. Probably originated in the area around Verona; one of its parents is refosco dal peduncolo rosso (refosco with the red stem). The name corvina may derive from corvo (“crow,” a reference to the color of the grapes). Usually blended with its progeny rondinella and with molinara.
The enologically correct name for malbec. An old variety that originated near the southern French region of Cahors where it is still the specialty. In Cahors, cot makes a strapping, highly tannic wine that could not be more different than plush Argentine malbec. Cot’s parents are prunelard and madeleine noire des Charentes. The latter is also the mother of merlot.
Criolla, Spanish for “creole,” is a group of several Vitis vinifera varieties that are historically important in the Americas, especially South America. Their story is convoluted. To begin with, the criollas may have originated naturally in South America as the progeny of European varieties brought earlier, or they may have been cultivated from seeds or cuttings brought by Spanish and Portuguese conquistadores. Here are a few of the important criollas: criolla grande is a pinkish skinned grape that probably originated in Argentina where it is still used to make neutral cheap wine. Another criolla called cereza (the word means “cherry” in Spanish) also originated in Argentina as the progeny of criolla chica and muscat of Alexandria. For its part, criolla chica (“Creole girl”) is the same as the Spanish grape listán prieto, an old variety from Castilla La Mancha. It was brought to Argentina and Chile in the mid-16th century. By the 19th century, criolla chica had, in Chile, been renamed pais (“country”). Around the same time (mid-16th century) that listan prieto was brought from Spain, Argentina, and Chile, it was also brought to Mexico by Franciscan missionaries, and there, it was renamed misión. Later, in California, misión’s spelling was changed to mission. Thus, in the end, Chile’s criolla chica (pais) and California’s mission are the same, and both are the Spanish grape listán prieto. Argentina’s criolla grande is related but it’s not known how. And Argentina’s cereza is a cross of criolla chica (aka pais; aka listán prieto) and muscat of Alexandria. (See also listán prieto).
More pink skinned than truly red, this French-American hybrid (whose parentage is cloudy) is grown primarily in the Lake Erie region of New York State, but also in Michigan and Ohio where it was created. Makes soda-popish wines. Curiously, Delaware is also grown in Japan.
Fruity low-acid grape (the name means “little sweet”) made into a delicious, fruity, licoricey, bitter-edged everyday wine—the quaffing wine of northern Italy’s Piedmont region, though barbera is, more and more, taking over that role.
German cross of two crosses (helfensteiner and heroldrebe) bred in 1956 and honorifically named for an important 18th century viticulturist, Immanuel August Ludwig Dornfeld. Makes darkly-colored soft wines mostly in the Rheinhessen and Pfalz.
Old French variety from the Savoie region, often called corbeau (“crow”). In California, the now rare variety called charbono is douce noir and in Argentina, the variety bonarda is douce noir.
A variety created sometime just before the 1860s by French botanist Francois Durif. A cross of syrah and the now obscure French grape peloursin. Though Durif has virtually disappeared in France, it lives on in California, where it is known as petite sirah. Alas, some (but a minority) of so-called petite sirah vineyards in California are simply peloursin and some may be extensive field blends that include peloursin and durif.
More properly falanghina flegrea is an ancient grape made into white wines in southern Italy’s Campania region in the districts of Falerno del Massico and Sannio. The name may derive from the Latin falangae, the stakes that support vines.
Once, but no longer, a leading grape in Cognac and Armagnac. Today used mostly in the western Loire to produce the extremely tart, thin Gros Plant. Also known as Mune Mahatsa in Spain’s Basque region, it is one of the varieties used to make the tart dry white wine Txakoli.
Bitter, acidic, aromatic red grape of the northwestern Italian province of Piedmont. Thought to be an offspring of nebbiolo. Traditionally made into a frothy, slightly sparkling, pale red wine with a touch of sweetness. Today, often made in a still, dry style.
More correctly known simply as Colombard. Widely planted in the southwest of France where it is mostly distilled into eaux-de-vie, cognac, and armagnac. In California, high yielding grape made into jug wines. Known as colombar in South Africa, where it is also made into jug wines.
Formerly known in Italy as tocai Friulano and planted mostly in the northeastern Italian region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. The source of somewhat spicy, lightly floral medium-bodied wines that are considered among the region’s best. The same as sauvignonasse, sometimes called sauvignon vert, a grape well established in Chile.
An ancient grape variety and natural cross of sangiovese and mantonico bianco and obscure variety from the region of Calabria. Gaglioppo is the main grape today in Calabria where it is the source of the grapey red Italian wine Cirò.
Gamay, or more properly gamay noir, is the source of the French wine Beaujolais (including Beaujolais Nouveau), oceans of which are washed down in Parisian bistros every year. Of all the well known red grapes, gamay is perhaps the lowest in tannin and thus, structurally speaking, more like a white wine than a red. It’s also exuberantly fruity. In the hands of a great producer and from grapes grown on a great site, this fruitiness spirals around flavors that exude a sense of crushed rock and minerals, and the total flavor effect can be dazzling. (Alas, gamay from a mediocre site, grown at high yields then made in a commercial style is fruitiness that’s backfired. Indeed, cheap commercial gamays are dead ringers for melted black cherry Jell-O and bubble gum). The most serious, best gamays in the world are from small producers in one of the ten “cru” villages within the Beaujolais region. See the Beaujolais section for more on these. Gamay noir’s parents are pinot noir and gouais blanc, making it a sibling of many grapes including chardonnay, auxerrois, and melon de Bourgogne. It has existed in its homeland Burgundy, France, since the 14th century. Late in that century, however, it was banned by one of the powerful dukes of Burgundy, and banished to the Beaujolais region south of Burgundy proper. Several decades ago, so-called “gamay” (probably the French grape valdiguié or sometimes, an undistinguished clone of pinot noir) was commonly grown in California to be used in jug wines. Today, however, outside France, gamay is virtually nonexistent as a single varietal.
Ancient variety most closely associated with the northern Italian region of the Veneto. Major grape of Soave. Garganega is thought to be one of the parents of many other Italian white varieties including trebbiano Toscana, malvasia bianca di Candida, albana, and catarratto bianco.
More than almost any other wine we might regularly encounter, gewürztraminer’s nose is heady (sorry, couldn’t resist). In fact, the explosive aromas of gewürztraminer—roses, litchis, gingerbread, orange marmalade, grapefruit pith, fruit-cocktail syrup—come vaulting out of the glass. Gewürztraminer is nothing if not extroverted. Even novice drinkers easily recognize it. The prefix “gewürz” means spice in German, though the meaning is more along the lines of outrageously perfumed than anything that might come out of a kitchen spice rack. The grape is not actually a distinct variety but rather a pink-berried, highly aromatic clone of savagin, one of the so-called “founder varieties.” (Traminer aromatico, a specialty of the northern Italian province of Trentino-Alto Adige, is another clone of savagin). It’s important to note that gewürztraminer’s pungent aromatics and massive fruitiness can be confusing, leading you to think that the wine you’re drinking is sweet. That’s usually not the case (the telltale edge of bitterness at the finish is evidence). Needless to say, the world’s best gewürztraminers are decidedly dry (unless, of course, the wine in question is specifically a dessert wine made from this grape). The most intense and breathtaking gewürztraminers are made in France, in the northeastern region of Alsace. Here the wine is legendary—deeply yellow with a coppery cast, superbly concentrated, exquisitely balanced, full bodied, full of extract, just enough acidity to hold it all together, and a megamouthful of flavor. (Because the wine tends to be naturally low in acidity, poor quality examples can come off oily). No surprise that top gewürztraminer is usually drunk with rich, complex pork dishes. Outside of Alsace, there’s only one place in the world where gewürztraminer is reliably sensational: the region of Trentino Alto Adige in Italy.
Ancient northern Italian grape also known as prosecco. Used to make the Italian sparkling wine Prosecco. In 2009, when the wine Prosecco was awarded DOCG status (the highest rank for an Italian wine), the grape name prosecco was officially discontinued to avoid confusion. Glera, which had been an old synonym for the prosecco grape, henceforth came into official use.
Major white grape made into wines in northwestern Spain in the remote mountainous region of Valdeorras, though the grape’s origin is probably in Galicia next door. Makes wines that can have a full body and a viscous, almost lanolin-like feel.
One of the ancient “founder varieties” and as such, a parent and grandparent to a slew of other varieties, including such disparate varieties as riesling, muscadelle, blaufrankisch, and colombard.
High-quality, late-ripening Spanish grape, with delicate, slightly spicy flavors and an ability to hold onto its acidity even in warm places. Used primarily in Rioja as part of traditional Rioja blends. Also found to a small extent in the Languedoc Roussillon, where it is called confusingly morrastel (which sounds like monastrell but the grape is entirely different). On the Italian island of Sardinia it’s known as bovale sardo and is much appreciated as an addition to blends.
Grenache is well known both as a white grape (grenache blanc) and a red (grenache noir). The red grenache noir is especially valued and makes a slew of stunning wines around the world. It is, for example, the lead grape in many southern French wines including, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Côtes-du-Rhône, and Gigondas, as well as the top grape in many northern regions of Spain, including Campo de Borja and Priorat. And, when the vines are old, grenache makes devastatingly great wine in Australia. In California and Washington State, the grape continues to inspire many avant garde winemakers, and there are now remarkable examples of grenache and grenache blends in both states. Though France is often thought of as grenache’s ancestral home, the grape is Spanish in origin and rightfully ought to be known by its Spanish name garnacha. While garnacha’s parents are not known, it is thought to have arisen in Aragon, one of the 17 autonomous communities in Spain. That said, until recently, a strong scientific hypothesis had grenache originating in Italy first as a white grape also called vernaccia (garnaccia, garncha) and later brought to Spain (where it muted to form a red clone) and from there to France. But for as similar sounding as the names vernaccia and garnacha are, molecular analyses show no genetic relationship between the two grapes. The Italian connection is not without merit, however, since DNA typing shows Sardinia’s important grape cannanou to be garnacha tinta/grenache noir. Like pinot noir, grenache is genetically unstable and is therefore difficult to grow and to make into wine. From less than ideal vineyards, grenache noir can be heavy handed, simple, and fairly alcoholic (there are countless examples of this in central and southern Spain, southern France and the Central Valley of California). But when grenache is at its best, the wines that result have an unmistakable purity, richness, and beauty, plus the evocative aroma and flavor of cherry preserves. Grenache is not particularly high in tannin, and thus great examples have a sappy, luxurious texture. In most places where it is grown, grenache is blended with other varieties—carignan, syrah, and mourvèdre, in particular.
A white-berried clonal mutation of the red grape grenache. Grenache blanc is a leading blending grape in the white wines of southern France, including the whites of Provence, the Languedoc Roussillon, and the southern Rhône. More properly known as garnacha blanca since it originated in Spain.
Native to Piedmont, Italy, where it is the source of light-reddish colored, frothy, crisp wines that can also have a tannic bite. The name may come from grignòle, a Piedmontese dialect word for pips or seeds because grignolino is known for the high number of seeds in each berry.
One of the main white grapes of Sicily where it can make fantastically refreshing, floral, peppery dry white wines. Also, along with catarratto bianco, one of the two grapes used in Sicily to make Italian Marsala. Grillo’s parents were catarratto bianco and muscat of Alexandria.
A decade ago, gruner veltliner would not have made a top-25 list like this. But its place today is a testament to the quality of the variety and the surging success of Austrian wine. Gruner veltliner is, in fact, the leading white wine of Austria—more acres are planted with it than with any other variety. It’s also the vinous signature of the country; the grape especially excels in the pristine vineyards along the flowing Danube River north and west of Vienna. With the exception of the Czech Republic, Hungary, and a few other smaller areas in Eastern Europe, gruner veltliner is grown virtually no place else. The grape is an ancient natural cross of savagin and a nearly extinct German variety St. Georgener. Going back even further in the family tree, gruner veltliner is related to pinot noir (possibly as a grandchild) since pinot noir and savagin are related. Gruner veltliner has a forward personality. Precise, lively, bold, dry, and minerally, it’s legendary for its lightening strike of white pepper aroma and flavor, along with a subtle hint of green legumes. Like riesling, gruner is virtually never blended with other grapes and is made in a purist manner, which almost never involves new oak. Also like riesling, the grape tends to be high in natural acidity, giving it a mouthwatering quality, as well as considerable advantages when it comes to pairing with food.
Beltza means “black” in Basque. Used to make the somewhat rare, light, lively, crisp red Txakoli (shah-co-LEE) of Spain’s Basque reqion. Like cabernet sauvignon and carmenere, hondarribi beltza is one of the decendents of cabernet franc. Despite its name, it is not related to hondarribi zuri (white hondarribi).
Indigenous to Spain’s Basque region, this is the name of the leading variety of grape in the region’s sassy, high acid white Txakoli (shah-co-LEE) wines. Though it sounds as if it is a single white grape (zuri means “white” in Basque) related to the red grape hondarribi beltza, DNA analysis has revealed that hondarribi zuri is actually any one of three white grapes planted in the Basque region: courbu blanc, crouchen, or the hybrid noah.
Developed in Germany, this unusual cross of chasselas (aka gutedel) and the obscure grape courtillier musqué makes aromatic wines, especially in Germany’s Pfalz and Rheinhessen regions.
An American hybrid probably derived from a seedling that occurred in nature when an unknown variety within the species Vitis labrusa crossed with an unknown variety of the Vitis vinifera species. The grape was brought from South Carolina to New York in the early 1800s by a grower, George Gibbs, whose wife was named Isabella. Now planted in places as disparate as Japan, New York State, India, and Brazil. Unlike most grape varieties, Isabella grows well in semitropical and humid conditions.
Eastern European variety, especially important in Hungary where it is grown throughout the country. Makes light-colored, spicy, earthy wines that have a similarity to simple pinot noir.
A leading red grape in Hungary, probably of Hungarian or Austrian origin. Makes spicy, earthy, deeply-colored reds in Hungary, Austria’s Burgenland, and in Washington State, where it is called by its German name, lemberger. DNA analysis indicates it to be a probable progeny of gouais blanc.
Popular and often delicious German variety. A cross of the red grape trollinger (schiava) with the white grape riesling. Named after a 19th century medical doctor and songwriter Justinius Kerner who prescribed wine as good natural medicine.
Widely planted Japanese variety grown in several areas of that country, including the Mt. Fuji area. Legend has it that the grape is a cross of a native wild Japanese grape with a vinifera variety that was brought from the Caucasus to China and then, by Buddhist monks, to Japan approximately a thousand years ago. But DNA typing has revealed no relationships with other known varieties, and thus koshu’s origins remain a mystery. The first mentions of the variety being made into wine in Japan go back to the 1870s. Historically produced in a sweet style; today made as a dry, delicate, low alcohol, crisp white not unlike Muscadet.
The word lacrima (meaning “tears”) is used for several different Italian varieties and wines. The most important of the grape varieties is lacrima di Morro d’Alba which is the dominant variety in the wine also called Lacrima di Morro d’Alba, a fruity red of Italy’s Marche region (not the same as Alba in Piedmont, obviously).
Distinctive, fruity, bitter northern Italian variety probably indigenous to the Alto Adige region where most of it grows today. One of its parents is teroldego; the other is unknown. Sometimes blended with schiava.
The name lambrusco means “wild grape.” There are more than 13 different varieties with the word lambrusco or lambrusca in their names. A small number are cultivated in Piedmont, but the majority are more famously in Emilia Romagna where the refreshing, very slightly sweet or dry fizzy wine called lambrusco is a specialty. Because of its fizz and acidity, lambrusco is traditionally drunk as a counterpoint to Emilio-Romagna’s famous salumi and rich meat pasta sauces.
Complex American hybrid originally created in the southeastern part of the United States and named after Lenoir County in South Carolina. Eventually taken further south to Mississippi by a Spanish man named Jacquez—hence Jacquez is a synonym, as is Black Spanish, thanks to the deep color of the grape’s skin and the Spaniard. (Note that several different varieties have Black Spanish as a synonym). Widely planted in southeastern and central Texas where it has appeared to have developed a natural resistance to Pierce’s Disease despite the heat and humidity of the climate. Also widely planted in Brazil where it is used for juice, jelly, and jug wines.
Ancient Greek variety said to have been appreciated by Aristotle. Native to the island of Limnos in the northern Aegen and now planted all over northern Greece. Sometimes blended with cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.
A dark-skinned grape (prieto means “dark” in Spanish) native to the region of Castilla La Mancha in central Spain. In the 16th century, listán was brought on several occasions to the Americas where the grape had a profound influence on the early viticultural history of many countries. Indeed, listán prieto was the first European (Vitis vinifera) variety to be cultivated in the Americas. The grape was brought directly and independently to Argentina, Chile, and Mexico. In Chile, listán came to be known as criolla chica, “Creole girl” (see criolla) and was later renamed pais. In Mexico, listán was introduced by Franciscan missionaries who renamed it misión. It travelled eventually to Baja California (present-day Mexico) then up to Alta California where it was planted (spelled as mission) at the Mission San Diego de Alcalá around 1770. In Argentina, listán prieto crossed naturally with muscat of Alexandria to create several grapes including cereza, torrontes riojano, and torrontes sanjuanino. A small amount of listán prieto is still grown on the Canary Islands in Spain, and a huge amount is still grown in Chile as pais. In California, as mission, there are about 600 acres left.
Northern Spanish grape also known as viura. One of the three grapes used in cava, Spanish sparkling wine, and the primary grape in the white wines of Rioja. A small amount is grown in the Rhône, in France, where it is used in the appellation of Lirac; it is also used to a small extent in the Languedoc Roussillon.
A cross of a cross of a cross created in the Loire Valley in the mid-nineteenth century and now grown in extremely limited amounts, mostly in British Columbia, Canada. A seedling of Madeliene Angevine—so called Madeleine x Angevine 7672—is somewhat more famous as a pleasantly floral grape variety grown principally in England.
Indigenous to southwestern France, malbec, the now popular name for the grape variety cot, is the offspring of two obscure French grapes—magdeleine noire des Charentes and prunelard. While malbec is one of the five grapes that can be legally blended to make red Bordeaux, plantings of it there have been declining for a long time (the grape is prone to frost, and thus has steadily fallen out of favor in Bordeaux’s maritime climate). Today, malbec generally makes up less than 10 percent of any Bordeaux wine—if it’s used at all. Half a world away, however, malbec is a star. In the mid-nineteenth century, the grape was brought from Bordeaux to Argentina where it is now the leading red grape for fine red wines. There, it is grown in the dry, sunny, extremely high-altitude vineyards that like steps, descend from the peaks of the Andes. And, in contrast to Bordeaux, malbec in Argentina is almost always made as a single varietal, rather than part of a blend. Malbec tends to be low in acidity and slightly less tannic than cabernet sauvignon. Indeed it’s prized for its soft, mouthfilling texture (the wine equivalent of molten chocolate cake), its deep inky color, and its plummy, mocha, and earthy aromas and flavors. Outside of Argentina and Bordeaux, malbec is the historic grape of Cahors in southwestern France, where it has traditionally been known by its original name, cot. (In an interesting marketing twist, Cahors now refers to itself as the “French malbec” though in Cahors the grape makes a rough-edged tannic wine). Malbec shows good promise in the Napa Valley of California where it is increasingly grown to be used as part of top-notch cabernet blends.
Like muscat, malvasia is not a single variety but a collective name for a wide variety of Mediterranean grapes (white-, pink-, and black-skinned), most of which are actually not related. What some of them do share, however, is an ability to result in sweet wines that are high in alcohol. Greece has been put forward as the original home of malvasia but DNA testing does not support this idea. Among the different varieties—all with malvasia in the name—are malvasia bianca di candia (the most planted type of malvasia and common in Italy); malvasia bianca lunga (used in Tuscany for vin Santo and historically in Chianti where it was part of the original Chianti “formula”); malvasia branca de São Jorge (the malvasia used to make malmsey Madeira); and malvasia di Lipari (which makes the famous Sicilian passito dessert wine of the same name; confusingly, this is also known as malvasia candida which sounds awfully close to malvasia bianca di candia). Malmsey is an English corruption of the word malvasia.
Darkly-colored tannic grape native to the Greek islands of the eastern Aegean. Blended in small amounts with kotsifali to make the wines Archanes and Peza on Crete. Also grown on numerous other Greek islands including Santorini and Pylos, and all over the southern Peloponnese peninsula.
Complex hybrid created in France in 1911 and named after Maréchal Ferdinand Foch, a general in the French army during World War I. Deeply colored, tannic, and somewhat herbaceous, and well-suited to cold climates. Grown today in small amounts in Canada and the northeastern United States.
The main white grape of the northern Rhône in France. Makes big-bodied wines. Often blended with the aromatic and elegant grape roussanne which may either be its parent or its offspring. It is also grown in the Languedoc Roussillon, as well as in California.
A recent cross (1961) of cabernet sauvignon and garnacha/grenache cultivated in the Languedoc and the southern Rhône. The name refers to Marseille, the well-known city near the agronomic institute in Montpellier where the cross was developed.
Also spelled mavrodaphni, the name means “black laurel.” Probably native to Cephalonia (Kefalonia in Greek), one of the Ionian islands of western Greece or the Peloponnese peninsula. The leading grape in the famous Greek wines mavrodaphne de Patras and mavrodaphne de Kefalonia, long-aged, sweet fortified red wine (tawny by the time it is released) made in Patras on the Peloponnese peninsula and Cephalonia, the largest of the Ionian islands in western Greece.
Indigenous to the Greek island of Santorini, mavrotragano produces wines with high tannin with berry and spice characteristics. Once almost extinct, it is now experiencing a renaissance.
Native to northeastern Spain—probably the region of Aragon, mazuelo has dozens of synonyms in Spain and elsewhere. In Spain, in Rioja, it is known as mazuelo and is used in many Rioja blends for its acidity, tannin, and earthy flavors. But in Priorat and elsewhere in Spain, it is known as cariñena. In France, especially in the Languedoc Roussillon, Provence, and Rhône regions of southern France, it’s known as carignan. Indeed, today, despite this grape’s Spanish origins, more is grown in France. In the United States, carignan is often spelled carignane.
An ancient Burgundian variety, melon was subsequently banned in Burgundy, but found a centuries-long home in the Loire Valley where it’s the grape that makes the light, tart, dry French wine Muscadet, considered the working man’s accompaniment to oysters.
Spicy grape native to the area around Bierzo in the province of León in northwestern Spain. Currently undergoing a small revival. Also grown in Portugal’s Dão region where it is known as Jaen.
Very similar in flavor and texture to cabernet sauvignon, merlot is easily confused with it in blind tastings. Indeed, the two share the same father—cabernet franc. But merlot’s mother is the grape magdeleine noire des Charentes; while cabernet’s mother is sauvignon blanc. In the regional French dialect of Bordeaux, the name merlot means “little blackbird.” Merlot’s aromas and flavors include blackberry, cassis, baked cherries, plums, licorice, dark chocolate, mocha, and so on. What merlot usually lacks is cabernet sauvignon’s occasional hint of green tobacco or dried mint. Much is made of merlot’s relative roundness, plumpness, and lack of tannin compared to cabernet sauvignon. I think the idea is largely misleading. When merlot is planted in rocky, well-drained soils in top appellations, it can be every bit as structured, commanding, complex, and tannic as cabernet sauvignon. The problem is that too often wine drinkers compare fairly innocuous, inexpensive merlot (sure it’s soft; maybe limp would be a better word) with expensive cabernet sauvignon from a top site. That’s apples to oranges. Like cabernet sauvignon, the most famous region for merlot has historically been the Bordeaux region of France, where merlot (not cabernet sauvignon) is the leading grape in terms of total production. Merlot in Bordeaux is planted mostly outside of the Médoc and is especially renowned on the so-called “Right Bank”—in the appellations of Pomerol and St.-Emilion. Here, merlot too is almost always blended with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and possibly malbec and/or petit verdot. There is one extremely famous exception to the blending notion—Château Pétrus (from Pomerol), one of the most expensive wines in the world, is 99 percent merlot. In addition to rich, complex, structured merlots from top regions, another compelling style of merlot also exists: I’ll call it the sleek style. Northern Italy has many such merlots, as does Long Island in New York State. But some of the best in this style come from two places: Chile and Washington State. The sheer number of exciting, deeply concentrated merlots coming from Washington State is astounding and growing larger year after year. In Chile, merlots like Casa Lapostolle’s “Cuvee Alexandre” show the riveting potential this grape has in the New World.
The first Vitis vinifera variety planted in California. Originally from Spain, and brought to California by Franciscan missionaries traveling north from Mexico in the 1700s. Determined in the 1990s to be the Spanish grape listán prieto. Mission remained the mainstay of the California wine industry until the Gold Rush of 1848. There are still some 600 acres of mission planted in California, mostly in the hot San Joaquin Valley. (See listán prieto.)
High-acid red grape probably native to the Veneto. Not as high in quality as corvine or rondinella, the grapes it is blended with (albeit in small amounts) to make Italy’s powerful wine amarone, as well as for the lighter wines Valpolicella and Bardolino.
Widely planted, very late-ripening grape that originated in Valencia, Spain. Today it is used mostly in the central part of that country, in provinces such as Jumilla, to make powerful, dark, dense red wines. See the main entry for mourvèdre (the French name of the grape).
Greek variety found mainly on the Cyclades islands in the Aegean notably Paros and in the southern Peloponnese peninsula. Makes both dry and sweet wines. The name is said to come from the fortified medieval port city Monemvasia which, thanks to an earthquake in 375 AD is now an island connected to the mainland by one bridge. In Greek, moni emvassis means “single entrance.”
Confusingly, this is not the grape of the Tuscan wine Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which is made from sangiovese. Instead, the grape montepulciano is widespread throughout central and southern Italy and is especially well known in Abruzzi, where it makes the good, rustic montepulciano d’Abruzzo.
A German cross of unknown parentage found mostly in Germany’s Pfalz and Rheinhessen regions. Makes a somewhat perfumed wine which can often be a bit too much like cheap perfume.
The general name used in Spain and parts of Portugal for both muscat blanc a petits grains or muscat of Alexandria. In Jerez, moscatel bianco (muscat of Alexandria) is the third most important grape after palomino and pedro ximenez, and there, it is made into a sweet, fortified wine that is sometimes made by the solera system of fractional blending that is used to make Sherry. Also made into intriguing, dry, aromatic still wines (both alone and as part of a blend) in several other parts of Spain.
If you were ever an English major, you’ll know what I mean by this: mourvèdre is the Heathcliff of red grapes. It’s dark, hard-edged, almost brooding flavors are never light, juicy, or lively. Mourvèdre has gravitas. Like carignan and grenache, the grape is Spanish in origin. It should properly be known by its Spanish name monastrell (or mataró as its called in northern Spain and in the Pyrennes.) Today, it is grown in numerous provinces in the south-central region of Castilla La Mancha (especially in the denomination of Jumilla) where it’s used to make delicious, sometimes muscular wines with dry, bitter espresso-like flavors (red meat is helpful when consuming them). The variety is thought to have originated next door to Castilla la Mancha in the province of Valencia where it was propagated by monks. The name derives from the Latin monasteriellu, a diminutive of monasteriu, meaning “monastery.” In southern France, a small amount of mourvèdre is often used to give depth, color, and kick to Rhône blends like Châteaunef-du-Pape and Côtes-du-Rhône. Indeed, before the phylloxera epidemic, mourvèdre was widely planted throughout the south and was the main red grape in Provence. Today, only the small Provençal appellation of Bandol remains steadfast mourvèdre territory. Mourvèdre was first brought to California from Spain in the mid-1800s and sparse plots of old vine “mataro” can still be found. The grape became popular once again in the 1980s as a blending grape in California’s Rhône-style blends.
An old variety from southeastern Georgia, but also grown in the Ukraine, Russia and in the Republic of Moldova. Usually just called Mtsvane. Used to make dry and sweet wines, some of which are made in the traditional clay qvevri, a kind of large amphora without handles that is buried in the ground.
Well-known German grape variety that makes rather neutral tasting, undistinguished wine in Germany (but very good wine in surrounding countries such as Italy and Hungary). Recent DNA typing has established it as a cross between riesling and Madeleine royale, a table grape of unknown parentage. Müller-Thurgau was widely planted after World War II, becoming the leading grape in Germany in the 1990s. Today, it has been supplanted by riesling which makes vastly superior wine.
Perfumed grape blended in tiny amounts with sémillon and sauvignon blanc to make some white Bordeaux. It’s more famous, however, in Australia where it is used to make the famous Australian fortified wine topaque (formerly known as tokay) in the Rutherglen region of Victoria. It is not the same variety as any of the varieties called muscat. Confusingly, South African muscadel is a muscat.
No matter what anyone says, I doubt Eve was tempted by an apple in the Garden of Eden. A cataclysm of original sin … all for a plain apple? It makes no sense. Some muscat grapes, on the other hand, could have done it. Intensely aromatic and awesomely delicious, muscat is irresistible. If every luscious ripe fruit in the world were compressed into one phantasmagoric flavor, it would come close to evoking muscat. Or muscats to be more precise. For, muscat is not a singular variety but, rather, a large group of different ancient grapes that have grown around the Mediterranean for centuries. Many scientists and anthrobiologists, in fact, think that some form of muscat may have been the first domesticated variety of grape. What most of these muscats share is the distinct, awesomely fruity muscat aroma. But that’s where the easy part stops, for there are hundreds of named muscat something-or-others. To take but one example, muscat of Alexandria alone is known by approximately 200 different names around the Mediterranean. Some of the varieties in the muscat group are genetically related, but not all. The two main muscats that gave rise to numerous progenitors are muscat blanc à petits grains—a high quality, small berried variety—and its daughter, the aforementioned muscat of Alexandria. Within the muscat group are varieties that can and are made in virtually every style imaginable: dry, sweet, still, sparkling, and fortified. In Alsace, France and Austria, they are made into fantastic dry still wines (often served with asparagus). In southern Italy and Spain, various muscats are dried on mats (passito) then made into dessert wines. In northern Italy, muscat blanc à petits grains is made into the sweet bubbly wine almost everyone has had at some time in their lives (moscato d’Asti). In parts of southern France, the same grape is made into a fortified sweet wine: muscat de Beaumes-de-Venice. And the list goes on. Today, some type of muscat is grown virtually everywhere in the word—from Cyprus, South Africa, and Slovenia to Israel, Oregon, and Greece.
One of the oldest and most important varieties in Piedmont, Italy, “nibiol” was first mentioned in Piedmontese documents in the early 13th century. Its parents are presumed extinct but its origin does appear to be either Piedmont, or perhaps the Valtellina region of Lombardy next door. Massively structured and adamantly tannic when young, nebbiolo from anything less than a fantastic vineyard can simply slam your palate closed and cause your taste buds to shrink away. The finest nebbiolos, however, possess a combination of complexity and power that’s unequaled. Those wines exist only in certain spots within the province of Piedmont, in northwestern Italy. Nebbiolo, alas, is the poster child for a grape that doesn’t travel well. (Outside of Piedmont, there is only one place that’s shown even modest success with this difficult grape, and it’s a place that’s not on many peoples’ wine radar: the Guadalupe Valley of Mexico). In the minds of Italians, nebbiolo is, in status and kingly reputation, equal to the great cabernet sauvignons of France. The grape makes the exalted Piedmontese wines Barolo and Barbaresco. Of course, expensive Barolo and Barbaresco are never better than when served with Piedmont’s other jaw-droppingly expensive specialty: white truffles. The word nebbiolo derives from nebbia, “fog,” a reference to the thick whitish bloom of yeasts that form on the grapes when they are ripe (though many say the name may also refer to the wisps of fog that envelop the Piedmontese hills in the late fall when the grapes are picked). The wine has very particular flavors and aromas reminiscent of tar, violets, and often a rich, espresso-like bitterness from the wine’s pronounced tannin. Lastly, until relatively recently, it was an unwritten but adamant rule within the wine world that all great nebbiolos needed to be aged a decade or more before they could be consumed (never mind enjoyed). Modern winemaking techniques have changed that, and while the great Barolos and Barbarescos remain utterly long-lived wines, they are also, when young, more delicious than ever.
Old variety that probably originated in Andalucia, Spain, and from there was brought to Spain’s Canary Islands where it still is grown today and where it makes light aromatic reds. Better known on the Portuguese island of Madeira where it is known by a synonym, tinta negra mole, and where it is the leading grape planted and is used for much of the basic Madeira produced.
Negro (black) and amaro (bitter) tell it all. Appealing southern Italian grape with slight bitter espresso-like flavors and yet a soft texture. Widely grown in the Apulia region, especially in the hot, dry Salento peninsula, the spur of the Italian boot. No parental relationships have yet been established for this main variety.
It grows on Mt. Edna in Sicily and is thought to be related to sangiovese, much like nerello mascalese, but it produces a lower-quality wine that is mostly used to add color and alcohol to red blends.
Grown on the volcanic slopes of Sicily’s Mt. Edna. Thought to be distantly related to sangiovese. Often bottled on its own, as well as being blended. Produces wines with good acid and tannin content.
This widely planted black (nero) grape was probably named after the city of Avola on the Italian island of Sicily. It’s the aristocratic red grape of Sicily, making wines that are mouthfilling, structured, chocolatey, and often complex. Sometimes called calabrese. DNA analysis suggests there are several clones of nero d’Avola and possibly several different varieties that fall under the name.
Also known as Uva di Troia. Rustic, tannic, productive variety grown primarily in the Apulia region of Italy in the province of Bari. Name translates as “black of Troy,” but DNA analysis shows no relationship to Greek varieties.
A very pungently foxy American cross of two Vitis labrusca varieties, named after Niagara, New York where it was developed in the 1860s. Still best known in New York State, where it is the source of off-dry and sweet wines.
One of the oldest hybrids cultivated in the United States, having been discovered in Virginia sometime around 1820. Today, grown in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic states, and especially successful in Missouri and Virginia where it is the source of some surprisingly good zinfandel-like wines.
The historic grape behind Chile’s table wines. Originally known as criolla chica, país (the name means “country”) is the same as California’s mission grape. Based on DNA typing, both país and mission are the Spanish grape listán prieto, brought to Chile, Mexico, and Argentina in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by Spanish conquistadors and missionaries.
More correctly known as palomino fino. Major grape of Spain’s famous fortified wine, Sherry. Grown in southern and central Spain. When just harvested, it has a fairly neutral character which is desirable for the solera process of making sherry.
An Andalusian variety cultivated throughout the south of Spain. Nicknamed PX, it’s the second most important grape for Sherry. Aged unblended in a solera, it makes an unreal, delicious dessert Sherry that has the deep mahogany color and sticky viscosity of molasses.
Ancient French variety native to eastern France and now a minor grape in the southern Rhône Valley. One of the parents (the other is syrah) of the grape durif, commonly known in California as petite sirah.
The name means parakeet; a synonym for a hearty grape called castelão that is the most widely planted grape in Portugal. Particularly successful in the south of the country but grown as far north as the Douro. A natural cross of the Portuguese grapes cayetana blanca and alfrocheiro. Periquita is also the brand name of a popular Portuguese red table wine that is a blend of the grape periquita with touriga nacional and touriga franca.
An ancient grape grown primarily in the Gascony region of southwest France and also grown in the Basque regions of France and Spain. Contributes a note of honey to blends. Sometimes spelled petit courbut.
Primarily used in the sweet wine Jurançon, a rare specialty of southwestern France. Commonly, the grapes are left on the vine until they are shriveled and their sugar is concentrated, although the noble mold botrytis cinerea may also take hold. Also known as izakiriot ttipi in Spain’s Basque region, where it is one of the varieties used to make the tart dry white Txakoli.
Important late-ripening Bordeaux grape, traditionally blended with cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Added in small amounts for spice, depth, and color. In California, sometimes made into powerful wines on its own. While petit verdot appears to have originated in or near Bordeaux, its parents are not known.
The name is easy to remember, for nothing is petite about the wines that come from petite sirah. Instead, the variety makes a blockbuster blackish, peppery, spicy, tannic wine. DNA typing indicates that wines labeled petite sirah are most often the Rhône grape durif (a cross of peloursin and syrah), but they may also be a field blend of many varieties, including syrah, zinfandel, and several varieties common to southern France.
One of the minor white grapes sometimes used in the wines of France’s southern Rhône, especially in Côtes-du-Rhône and white Châteauneuf-du-Pape. On its own, picardan makes neutral-tasting, fairly uninteresting wine.
Highly regarded, rare grape native to the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of northeastern Italy, where it is the source of the prized dessert wine also known as picolit. The name is derived from the small size of the clusters—piccolo in Italian means “small.”
Also spelled picpoul. One of the minor grapes of southern France, where it is used in the southern Rhône as part of the blend in Côtes-du-Rhône, Tavel, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. See also piquepoul noir.
Rare Friulian variety that was almost extinct before being rescued and actively cultivated in the region since the 1970s. Makes distinctive structured wines on its own but is often used in red Friuli blends.
Generally makes good, not great, wines reminiscent of modest versions of chardonnay. The best worldwide come from small producers in northeastern Italy, Alsace, France, and Austria (where it can be made into gorgeous sweet wines). In the New World, Oregon shows promise with the grape. Like pinot gris, pinot blanc is not actually a separate variety; it is an ancient clone (based on a color mutation) of pinot noir. Known as pinot bianco in Italy.
Depending on where it is grown, pinot gris—“gray” pinot—can taste strikingly different. Ironically, the best known pinot gris—Italian pinot grigio—is unquestionably usually the lowest in quality. It’s often utterly neutral stuff—serviceable but not significant; the wine version of a white T-shirt. Of course, there’s no shame in making basic wine. The crime is charging a lot for it. (Hello, Santa Margherita). As always with wine, there are some delicious exceptions. I’ve always loved the purity and freshness of the pinot grigios from Jermann (Friuli) and Alois Lageder (Alto Adige), for example. Then there are the pinot gris’ from Alsace, France—as opposite of pinot grigios as a wine could be and still be from the same grape. The best Alsace pinot gris is complex, opulent, often a bit smoky and spicy, but still precise and crisp. It’s considered one of the four so-called “noble” varieties of Alsace and is often the perfect wine if you don’t want something as aromatic as riesling or gewürztraminer. In Germany, pinot gris (called grauburgunder or ruländer) can be something else again—broad, even Rubenesque by German wine standards. In Oregon, where pinot gris became popular in the 1990s, the best are very tasty wines with pear and spice-cake flavors. As for California pinot gris (some of which are called pinot grigio), most are crisp, fresh wines, sometimes with an intriguing edge of pepperyness or arugula-like bitterness. But undoubtedly, the most dependably delicious pinot gris’ in North America are made in Canada—in the cold, sunny, dry, northern latitude Oakanagan Valley. Although I have included it here because of its global popularity, pinot gris is not, technically speaking, its own variety. Like pinot blanc, pinot gris is a clone of pinot noir that includes a color mutation. As such, in the vineyard, pinot gris grapes can be any color from bluish-silver to mauve-pink to ashen-yellow. As a result, this white wine varies in color, too, although subtly.
The word meunier means “miller,” a reference to the thin layer of white hairs on the underside of the leaves that gives them a downy, floury appearance. Pinot meunier is a clone of pinot noir, though in the classic Champagne triumvirate of chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier, it is usually presented as a variety in and of itself. The clone is valued for its early ripening, making it less susceptible to winter frosts, and for its ability to ripen well in soils that have clay in them (as along the Marne River valley of Champagne).
Thought to be more than two thousand years old, pinot noir (along with savagin and gouais blanc) is considered one of the “founder varieties”—the great-great grandparent of scores of other well known grapes from chardonnay and gamay, to corvina and garganega. It is also according to geneticist José Vouillamoz, the likely grandparent of syrah. While the parents and exact origin of pinot noir itself are not known, the grape is thought to have come into existence in northeast France. The name, by the way, is generally thought to derive from pin, meaning “pine,” because the small clusters resemble a pine cone. By virtue of its old age, pinot noir has also beget hundreds of clones of itself. The most well-known is undoubtedly pinot meunier, the so-called third “variety” in Champagne, France, but actually a clone of pinot noir that exhibits more fruity flavors. Two other main clones are color mutations: pinot blanc and pinot gris (pinot grigio). If a computer search were conducted on the words and phrases used to describe pinot noir, this detail would emerge: More than any other wine, pinot is described in sensual terms. Pinot noir’s association with sensuality derives from the remarkably supple, silky textures and erotically earthy aromas that great pinot noirs display. Aromatically and in terms of flavor, the best pinots can exude not only fruit flavors—warm baked cherries, plums, rhubarb, pomegranate, strawberry jam—but also the sense of damp earth and rotting leaves (the French call this sous bois, or forest floor), plus mushrooms, worn leather, and what’s sometimes in Europe called animali—a highly attractive, male, sweaty smell (like a man who’s run one mile; I personally find that five miles is a whole different situation). A old friend of mine who, for many years was the winemaker of California’s famous Etude pinot noir, used to say that great pinot noir always possesses a “hint of corruption.” Pinot noir is lighter in body and far less tannic than cabernet sauvignon, merlot, or syrah. It is lighter in color, too, leading beginning wine drinkers to assume that pinot noir’s flavors are feeble. For the great pinots, just the reverse is true. Though they are often frail in color, their aromas and flavors can be deep and riveting. Of all the well-known grapes, pinot noir is considered the most difficult to grow and make into wine. Because the variety is so old, it has had substantial time to mutate, and thus more than a thousand registered pinot noir clones have already been identified and catalogued, and who knows how many others exist? And of course there are the two major well-known white clones that are color mutations—pinot blanc and pinot gris. Pinot noir is also highly sensitive to climate changes and variations in soil composition, is unstable during winemaking, and oxidizes easily. All this makes pinot noir a riskier (and more expensive) proposition for the winegrower, the winemaker, and the wine drinker than, say, cabernet sauvignon. But it’s precisely this enological gamble that often makes pinot noir all the more fascinating and irresistible. The region of Burgundy, in France, where all the red wines (except Beaujolais), are made from pinot noir is, historically, the most renowned area for the variety. The most expensive pinots still come from this small place, including the most expensive and legendary pinot noir of all: Romanée-Conti from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Prices for this wine can be significantly different based on the quality of the vintage; but even modest vintages command double-take prices. Two vintages in the late 2000s, for example, carried price tags of $4800 and $12,900. That’s per bottle. In 2010, a single bottle cost close to $6,000 at release. In the New World, Oregon has specialized in pinot noir since the 1970s, and many of the best, delicate pinots in the United States come from here. And New Zealand is fast emerging as the southern hemisphere’s “Oregon.” Yet, I’d argue that no place beats California in terms of the sheer diversity, complexity, and deliciousness of pinot noir. From the Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley, and Santa Ynez Valley in southern California to the Santa Lucia Highlands in central California to Carneros, the Sonoma Coast, and the Russian River Valley in the north (plus many other top small appellations in between), California is a hotbed of fantastic pinot.
South African cross in 1925 of pinot noir and cinsaut which at the time in South Africa, was called hermitage. Makes a rustic red wine (opinions vary on its potential quality) often consumed with South African barbecue.
The black-colored clonal mutation of piquepoul. Now very rare, but still allowed as a blending grape in several appellations of the southern Rhône Valley and Languedoc Roussillon regions of France.
Most highly regarded ancient red grape native to Croatia; a specialty of the Dalmatian coast, as well as other parts of Eastern Europe. A cross between crljenak kaštelanski (also known as zinfandel and tribidrag) and dobričić, another Croatian variety. The name refers to the small blue grapes that the vines produce; in Croatian plavo means blue and mali means small.
Native to the Valle d’Aosta region of northwest Italy near Mont Blanc and cultivated almost exclusively there. A complex set of family relationships suggests this northern Italian variety is somehow connected to northern Spain, but the exact genetic footprint is not known.
Common name for the grape grown especially in the Conegliano area of the Veneto region of Italy, and used to make the bubbly Italian sparkling wine also known as prosecco. In 2009, the grape was officially renamed glera to distinguish it from the DOC zone for the wine, called prosecco. The grape is thought to have originated in the Istrian area of northern Croatia, a short distance from the Italian city of Trieste. Prosecco wine is the traditional sparkler (along with white peach juice) in the Italian cocktail, the bellini.
The collective name for several different distinct varieties grown in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of Italy and in Slovenia. The major one—refosco dal peduncolo rosso (refosco with the red stem)—makes tasty everyday red wines. A more rare variety, refosco del botton is another name for tazzelenghe.
Riesling is considered by many—possibly even most—wine experts to be the most noble and unique white grape variety in the world. The grape is thought to have originated in the Rheingau region of Germany, probably as one of the offspring of gouais blanc and an unknown father. Great riesling has soaring acidity, an incomparable sense of purity and vividness, plus considerable extract (the nonsoluble substances in wine that add to its flavor). Yet the wine is wonderfully graceful on the palate and has a sense of energy that makes it seem light. Indeed, great riesling is dangerously easy to drink. Given the right soil and winemaking methods, the triad of high acidity, high extract, and relatively low alcohol leads to intensely flavorful wines of ravishing delicacy, transparency, and gracefulness. Riesling’s refined structure is complemented by the mouthwateringly delicate flavors of fresh ripe peaches, apricots, and melons, often pierced with a vibrant mineral quality, like the taste of water running over stones in a mountain stream. More than almost any other white grape, riesling is temperamental about where it is planted. It doesn’t grow well in very warm places, and even in cooler sites, the quality and character of the wine can vary enormously. The most elegant and precise rieslings come from cool to cold climates—Germany, the Alsace region of France, Austria, Slovenia, Canada, and upstate New York. Rieslings from a warmer climate, such as Washington State or California, are sometimes softer, slightly fuller, and can have less precise, less minerally flavors. “Usually” is a key word here. Australia, for example, has a generally warm climate. But in the cooler districts of the Clare and Eden Valleys of Australia, rieslings are usually ethereal, minerally, vibrantly fresh, and as taut as a tightrope. On the topic of dryness and sweetness, it’s not correct to assume that, chances are, any given riesling is probably going to be sweet. Not the case. In fact, most of the rieslings in the world are dry. The exception, of course, are intentionally sweet styles such as beerenauslese (BA) and trockenbeerenauslese (TBA). Admittedly some of the confusion about the sweetness level of riesling happens because the wine is so fruity—i.e. it tastes like fruits, especially peaches and apricots. And in riesling’s case, the taster (you or me) confuses this dramatic fruitiness with sweetness. To help clarify where a riesling stands in terms of the taste perception of sweetness, the International Riesling Foundation (IRF), a global educational initiative, created a “Riesling Taste Profile” chart. The chart, which producers use on the wine’s back label, shows a spectrum from dry to medium dry to medium sweet to fully sweet. It then pinpoints where that wine falls in terms of how sweet or dry the wines tastes. Importantly, producers don’t just guess when it comes to their wine’s sweetness level. The IRF developed sophisticated technical guidelines, including the sugar to acid ratio and the pH of the wine.
Most planted grape of the former Soviet Union and a specialty of the Republic of Georgia where the grape originated and is still widely grown. Also well known in the Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova, and in eastern Europe. There are even historic plantings in New York State. Made into fascinatingly spicy, floral, dry wines as well as sweet and fortified wines.
Old Greek variety with pink berries that has beget many clones. While no conclusive DNA analysis is yet available, many scientists think that what is called roditis may be field blends of various white varieties. The source of the simple white wine Patras, which is made on the Peloponnese peninsula of Greece.
Native to Italy where it is known as vermentino. Grown in southern France, in particular in the Languedoc Roussillon and in Provence (where it’s used for blending) and on the island of Corsica (where it is the most important variety).
With corvina and molinara, used to make the powerful Italian wine amarone and the lighter bodied wines Valpolicella and Bardolina. Corvina, which is a higher quality grape, is one of rondinella’s parents; the other is unknown.
The name rossese is used in Liguria, Italy, for several different varieties. The leading one, rossese di Dolceacqua (used to make the light red wine Dolceacqua) is the same as the Provençal grape tibouren.
Ancient, rather rare Austrian variety that can make powerful spicy whites (despite its name; roter means “red”) not unlike gruner veltliner (though the two are not related). One of the parents of rotgipfler.
Austrian variety, the result of a natural cross between roter veltliner and savagin. A specialty of the Thermenregion south of Vienna where it is often blended with zierfandler.
A variety of France’s northern Rhône, appreciated for its greater elegance in comparison to its sister marsanne, with which it is often blended and to whom it is genetically related though scientists aren’t sure which is the parent of the other. Also grown in the Languedoc Roussillon and in California.
A cross of cabernet sauvignon and carignan, created in 1936 by famous University of California at Davis scientist Harold Olmo, Ph.D. Olmo’s intention, to make a grape the combined cabernet sauvignon’s quality and carignan’s drought tolerance, was not realized. Ruby cabernet does, however, make good jug wines.
Italy’s most famous grape, sangiovese is responsible for the three great wines of Tuscany: Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Brunello di Montalcino. It’s also a major grape (if not the grape) in many of the prestigious wines known as the Super Tuscans. Outside Tuscany, sangiovese is used to make red wines in the neighboring regions of Umbria and Emilia-Romagna (and there’s a bit in California), but with a few notable exceptions, great sangiovese comes only from Tuscany in central Italy. This said, surprising DNA research in 2004 revealed one of the parents of sangiovese to be southern Italian—calabrese di montenuovo (from Calabria). The other parent ciliegiolo (Italian for small cherry) is cultivated all over Italy, but today is especially well known in Tuscany. It appears then that sangiovese may have originated in southern Italy and only later spread to Tuscany. Sangiovese, like pinot noir, is old enough (and possibly genetically unstable enough) to have mutated considerably, leading to hundreds (perhaps thousands) of clones. The differences among these clones, coupled with differences in the sites where sangiovese is planted, mean that the wines made from the grape vary widely in style and quality. Indeed, from poor clones in poor sites, sangiovese can be as thin and dreary as red-stained, watery alcohol. The top sangioveses, however, are as earthy, rich, and complex as a great sauce. In flavor and structure, sangiovese is again, closer to pinot noir than it is to cabernet sauvignon. Sangiovese, for example, takes its structure primarily from acidity, rather than tannin. When it’s young, sangiovese has the wonderful appeal of a fresh, warm, baked cherry pie. As it ages, the wine takes on dried leaf, dried orange peel, tea, mocha, spicy, peaty, earthy flavors, and a fabulous sensation of minerality, even saltiness. (The latter is just a metaphor; wine never contains significant sodium, per se). In fact, a glass of great sangiovese, with its salty sensations, has historically been the perfect partner to Tuscany’s other great classic—peppery extra virgin olive oil. Indeed, as any visitor to Tuscany can attest, sangiovese-based wines seem to taste so much better in Tuscany. As simple as salt and pepper, perhaps?
Very old Georgian variety. It’s name means “dye”—a reference to the dark color of the grape’s skins which immediately turn their white juice pink. The most widely planted grape in Georgia today and widely planted in the former Soviet Union. Makes rich, darkly-colored, full bodied savory dry wines. Some producers ferment the wines in the traditional manner, underground in qvevri, large clay vessels which look like amphora without handles.
The name sauvignon comes from the French sauvage, meaning “wild.” It’s a fitting name for a vine that, if left to its own devices, would grow with riotous abandon. Riotous, untamed and wild can also describe sauvignon’s flavors. Straw, hay, grass, smoke, green tea, green herbs, lime, and gunflint charge around in your mouth with wonderful intensity. The wine appears almost linear on the palate, with a clean, keen stiletto of acidity that vibrates through the center of the wine. Some sauvignons push the envelope even further, taking on a feral acrid character wine pros describe as cat pee. (This is usually considered a positive attribute). The best, most outrageous, tangy sauvignons come from the Loire Valley of France (Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé), from New Zealand, and from Austria. On the heels of these come the sauvignons from South Africa and Chile. In Bordeaux, virtually all white wines are made from a blend of sauvignon blanc plus sémillon. In blending the two, sauvignon’s tart herbalness is mellowed by sémillon’s broad, honeyed character. Blending the two is also sometimes done in California and Australia. Despite the assumption that sauvignon blanc probably originated in Bordeaux, most leading geneticists believe the grape to have begun life in the Loire Valley. One of its parents was probably savagnin; the other is unknown. (For its part sauvignon blanc, with the help of co-parent cabernet franc, beget cabernet sauvignon.) One of the widespread synonyms for sauvignon blanc is blanc fumé or fumé blanc (the latter term is widely used in California, for example). This is purely a synonym; and it’s not true that as a group, wines labeled fumé blanc have an especially smoky character. When sauvignon blanc is poorly made, it tastes vegetal– like canned asparagus or the water that artichokes have been boiled in. Sauvignon blanc can become vegetal if it’s made from unripe grapes. This could happen, for example, if the vines were planted in wet, fertile, poorly drained soil, or if the vines were allowed to grow out of control, or if the grapes simply did not receive enough sunlight for proper photosynthesis.
A grayish pink skinned genetic mutation of sauvignon blanc (gris means “gray” in French). Less aromatic and less “green” tasting than sauvignon blanc and less edgy on the palate. Grown primarily in Bordeaux and Chile, though there are also experimental plantings in California.
A lightly floral, slightly spicy grape which is not related to sauvignon blanc, but rather, is the same as Italy’s friulano planted in the northeastern Italian region of Friuli- Venezia Giulia. In the New World, the grape (also known as sauvignonasse) was popular in Chile right up through the 1980s. Indeed many old-style Chilean wines labeled sauvignon blanc were actually sauvignon vert. Today, sauvignon vert is rarely planted in Chile—its place having been taken by true sauvignon blanc and sauvignon gris.
Ancient variety indigenous to the area covering northeast France and southwest Germany. One of the ancestral “founder varieties” that gave rise to scores of others throughout Europe including verdelho, gruner veltliner, sauvignon blanc, and chenic blanc. Also known as traminer in Germany and in Italy’s Trentino Alto Adige for a clone known as traminer aromatico. Savagnin has a genetic relationship with pinot noir—either as its progeny or its parent but geneticists are not sure which.
Germany’s best-kept secret—especially in the Pfalz and Rheinhessen regions—scheurebe has an unusual spicy/grapefruity/red currant flavor. A cross of riesling and an unknown grape.
Italian name for a group of different varieties all of which grown in the north, usually near the Alps. The name may come from schiavo, “slave” in Italian, a reference to the way the vines are often trellised to limit their vigorous growth. The most widespread schiava is schiava grossa, grown in Trentino Alto-Adige where it makes light-colored fruity wines. The grape is also called vernatsch. In Germany, schiava is known as trollinger.
Fascinating though fairly rare grape native to northeastern Italy; a specialty of the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, where it makes medium-bodied, spicy, aromatic wines.
The name in Native American Algonquin language means “place where magnolias grow”—a reference to the area near the mid Atlantic U.S. island called Roanoke Island and near the Atlantic coasts of Virginia and North Carolina where scuppernong is thought to have originated as one of the first American wines. It belongs to the native American species Vitis rotundifolia. Around year 1607, the Jamestown colonists are thought to have made wine from scuppernong grapes they found growing in Virginia. And by the nineteenth century, the wine was so popular, North Carolina became the leading grape producer in the United States.
A friend once told me that sémillon always brought back his childhood memories of the smell and taste of cotton sheets as he ran under the clothesline on a summer day. Whimsical as that description might seem, there can indeed be something pure, clean and starched about many sémillons, especially when they are young. In Bordeaux, (sémillon’s birthplace) the grape is often blended with a bit of sauvignon blanc (which is thought to be genetically linked but the relationship between the two is not yet clear). Sémillon’s broad, mouthfilling character gets a perfect lift from the lean tartness of sauvignon blanc. In fact, the blend of sémillon and sauvignon is true not only for dry white Bordeaux, but also for the region’s sweet wines such as Sauternes. Sémillon is, in fact, ideal for Sauternes as the grapes’ thin skins and loose bunches are readily attacked by the noble rot, Botrytis cinerea. The name sémillon, by the way, may be derived from the old pronunciation of St. Emilion, the well-known commune in Bordeaux now devoted to merlot and cabernet franc, and no longer a place where sémillon is commercially made. With all due respect to Bordeaux, some of the greatest dry sémillons in the world are made in Australia, where the wines are considered national treasures. Fascinatingly, Australian sémillon (the Aussies pronounce it “SEM-i-lawn”) bears almost no resemblance to the broad, lush sémillons of Bordeaux. Instead, Australian versions are howlingly tart and full of almost tensile energy when young. With age, they become radically transformed—taking on rich, honeyed flavors, a cashewlike nuttiness and an almost lanolin-like texture. I will never forget being at Tyrrell’s in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales and tasting their legendary “Vat 1” sémillons going back to the mid-1960s. The wines were nothing short of mesmerizing.
One of the most popular French-American hybrids originally developed in France for its disease resistance and ability to ripen early in cold climates, but now outlawed in that country (as are all hybrids). Still planted in England, Canada, and the eastern United States, particularly New York State and Michigan.
Austrian variety, mostly neutral in character, that is a cross of savagnin with osterriechisch weiss, an ancient white variety grown near Vienna. In Germany, silvaner makes a somewhat more characterful dry, firm, bold wine, especially in the Franken region. In Alsace, France, silvaner is known as sylvaner and some very good wines are made from the grape though acreage in Alsace is declining.
Portuguese grape probably native to the Minho where it is called vinhão and used as the basis for good red vinho verde. Also used in small amounts the Douro as a part of the Port blend for its immensely saturated color and for the fact that it retains its acidity well and therefore contributes a sense of freshness.
Probably native to Austria and grown there to make velvety reds with lovely cherry flavors. Also grown extensively in the Czech Republic where it is known as svatovavŕinecké. St. Laurent’s parents are not known but it is one of the parents of another Austrian red, zweigelt.
Name sometimes used in the Cognac region for the grape ugni blanc, and also known as trebbiano Toscano. Today, St. Emilion grapes (i.e. ugni blanc) are no longer grown in the town St.-Emilion in Bordeaux where merlot and cabernet franc are the reigning varieties.
A minor variety best known in Catalonia, Spain. While sometimes said to be a malvasia, subirat parent is actually the same as the old Spanish variety alarije which originated in Extramadura. Occasionally used in cava, Spanish sparkling wine.
A seedless variety and the most planted grape variety in the world. Alas, the vast majority of it is planted for table grapes and raisins, not for wine. Named after the Ottoman (Turkish) sultans for whom it was widely grown. Its origin is unclear but Turkey, Greece, Iran, and Afghanistan have all been suggested. In California, it is called Thompson Seedless.
Syrah has always reminded me of the kind of guy who wears cowboy boots with a tuxedo. Manly yet elegant. In fact, at the turn of the twentieth century, the British scholar and wine writer George Saintsbury described the famous Rhône wine Hermitage (made exclusively from syrah) as the “manliest wine” he’d ever drunk. In France (where plantings are on the dramatic increase), syrah’s potent and exuberant aromas and flavors lean toward leather, smoke, roasted meats, bacon, game, coffee, spices, iron, black olive, and especially white and black pepper. The best wines have a kinetic mouthfeel with flavors that detonate on the palate like tiny grenades. The most dramatic syrahs in the world come from the northern Rhône Valley. There, in exclusive, small wine districts, such as Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, and Cornas, the only red grape allowed is syrah. In the southern Rhône Valley, syrah is usually part of the blends that make up Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas. It is also planted throughout the Languedoc-Roussillon. In Australia and California, syrah takes on a less gamey, more fruit, syrupy character, but remarkably often possesses the same potent pepper spice character (in 2007, Australian researchers isolated this as the aromatic compound rotundone). In the seventeenth century, French Huguenots brought syrah from France to South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. From South Africa, it was brought to Australia, although as of the 1830s, Australian explorers were also bringing syrah to the Australian continent directly from France. Australia, of course, calls syrah “shiraz.” For its part, South Africa uses both syrah and shiraz, depending on the preference of the winery. Most scholars think the name shiraz is a corruption of one of the colloquial French names for the grape. (Frustratingly, many wine articles continue to reproduce the erroneous legends that syrah/shiraz somehow came from the Iranian city of Shiraz, the Greek island of Syra, or the city of Syracuse in Sicily. All false.). Today, of course, shiraz is Australia’s most famous red wine. Indeed, in appellations such as the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, and a half dozen others, shiraz can be a spellbinding, spicy blockbuster of a wine. Syrah was bought to California three times, first in 1936, and then again in the early 1970s. But syrah and other Rhône grapes only began to grip the imaginations of maverick winemakers in California in the 1980s, and a decade later, the same thing happened in Washington State. Today, syrah is well established in both places, though no single appellation has emerged as the appellation of excellence. From a consumer standpoint, it’s important to know that syrah producers in the United States can call their wine syrah or shiraz, (depending on whether or not the marketing department wants to channel its inner Aussie). Syrah is the progeny of two fairly obscure French grapes—dureza (cultivated in the Ardeche) and mondeuse blanche (cultivated in the Savoie). For its part, dureza appears to be the grandchild of pinot noir, which would make pinot noir the great-grandfather of syrah.
One of the leading grapes in southwest France, particularly used in the wines Madiran and Irrouléguy. Robust, tannic, and deeply colored. Brought probably from the Basque region to Uruguay in the 1870s. Today, it is the main grape of Uruguay where it makes softer, fleshier wines.
In Italian, the name means “cut the tongue”—a reference to the sharp acidity of the wine made from this grape. A specialty of Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giulia region. DNA analysis reveals it to be the variety also known as refosco del botton.
Spain’s most famous red grape, tempranillo, makes a huge range of wine styles depending on where it is grown in Spain—and it’s grown in dozens of places. Tempranillo is, for example, the main grape in the country’s famous wine region of Rioja. Traditionally-styled Rioja can resemble red Burgundy (pinot noir) in its refinement, earthiness, and complexity. At the same time, tempranillo is also the grape that makes blockbuster dense reds like tinta del Toro of the Toro region and the tinta del pais of Ribera del Duero. In short, various clones of tempranillo have, over time, adapted to Spain’s diverse regions, and the wines that have resulted often have such highly differentiated characters they almost seem like separate varieties. Indeed, tempranillo has a slew of different names in Spain, including ull de llebre (“eye of the hare”), cencibel, tinto aragónez, and escobera in addition to those named above. Only one probable parent of tempranillo has been identified—the grape variety albillo mayor which today grows in Ribera del Duero. That said, tempranillo itself is thought to have originated somewhere in the provinces of Rioja and Navarra in northern Spain. Tempranillo is usually well structured and well balanced. Its significant amount of tannin allows it to age for long periods, though the wine is generally not as firm on the palate as cabernet sauvignon. Tempranillo’s good amount of acidity gives the wines made from it a sense of precision, yet tempranillo is not as high in acidity as pinot noir. When young, tempranillo’s flavors are a burst of cherries. After aging, the wine tends to take on a deep, complex earthiness. Tempranillo also grows in Portugal, where it’s known as tinta roriz and is one of the grapes that make up Port. Additionally, the grape is grown in Argentina and in California.
One of the leading red grapes of Trentino-Alto Adige, the northernmost region in Italy. The grape makes fascinating, highly structured wines with lively blackberry fruit and tar characters. Teroldego is a grandchild of pinot noir and an unknown variety, and itself has spontaneously crossed with an unknown variety to produce lagrein.
Grown on the Italy-Slovenian border and in Croatia (where it is known as Teran), it is part of the refosco group. The wines have firm tannins and elegant fruit flavors, and often age well.
Rare Portuguese grape historically grown on the island of Madeira where it was once used to make the highly appreciated, rare style of Madeira also known as terrantez. While bottles of old Terrantez Madeira still come up at rare wine auctions, the variety is virtually extinct as a commercial variety.
Grown in southern France in the Languedoc Roussillon, Provence, and in the southern Rhône. Of good but rarely great quality, terret noir is often a minor part of the blend in southern French appellations such as Fitou, Minervous, Cassis, Côtes-du-Rhône, Gigondas, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
The California name for the seedless table grape variety sultaniye, the world’s most widely planted variety, but consumed vastly more as table grapes or dried for raisins, than made into wine. A prolific grower, it was used in California jug wine blends after World War II.
Well-known variety all along the French Riviera and especially along the gulf of St. Tropez where it is used primarily to make rosé wines. The same as rossesse di Dolceacqua in Liguia across the Italian border.
The name means “black baroque.” Native to the Douro region of northern Portugal where it is one of the grapes commonly used as part of the blend to make Port, as well as in the dry table wines.
Native to the Duoro region of Portugal where its name means “French black,” though DNA analysis reveals the grape has no links with France. Used as one of the minor grapes in the blends to make Port.
Grape most often used on the Portuguese island of Madeira for basic Madeiras of modest quality. The grape is Spanish in origin and its more proper name is negramoll.
Spanish grape also known as tempranillo. One of the grapes commonly used as part of the blend to make Port as well as in the dry table wines of Portugal’s Douro region. (See tempranillo).
The name means “red dog,” but it’s not clear why a grape would be so named. Old Portuguese variety native to the Douro and Dão regions. Commonly used as part of the blend to make Port as well as in the dry table wines of the Douro and Dão.
Specialty of Argentina, where it can make beautifully aromatic, slightly viscous dry wines that are drunk as aperitifs. Yet torrontés is not a single variety, but three distinctly different ones all indigenous to Argentina: torrontés Mendocino (not highly thought of); torrontés Sanjuanino (also unexceptional, planted mostly in the province of San Juan); and torrontés Riojana (the most aromatic and highest quality torrontés, often grown in the high elevation vineyards of the province of Salta). DNA typing suggests that torrontés Riojana is a white skinned natural cross of muscat of Alexandria and the red grape mission (listán prieto), both of which had been brought to the Americas in the sixteenth century by Spanish missionaries and conquistadores. In Spain and Portugal, the name torrontés is used for several other distinctly different varieties, causing complete confusion.
High quality variety native to the Duoro region of Portugal even though the word “Franca” might seem to imply it came from France. Used as one of the leading grapes in the blend to make Port. Has somewhat more finesse and a more refined aroma than touriga nacional which is one of its parents. The other is a Portuguese grape called marufo. Touriga Franca is also used in the dry table wines of Portugal’s Douro region.
Probably native to Portugal’s Dao region, but today widely known as the leading powerhouse grape in many of the blends that make Port. The grape has many attributes including richness, depth, a commanding tannic structure, good deep coloring, and good aromas. Also used in the dry wines of the Douro.
Probably native to northern Portugal and still grown in the Douro and Minho and used in vinho verde. Brought across the border and today more famous as one of the grapes (known as treixadura) grown in Galicia, Spain, where it’s used in the wine regions of Ribiero and Rías Baixas. Makes dry, fresh whites with a slightly exotic character. Sometimes blended in small amounts (along with loureira) into albariño. In Portugal, it is known as trajadura and is part of the blend in vinho verde.
Also known as savagnin, one of the “founder varieties” that led to dozens of others. In the northern Italian region of Trentino-Alto Adige, a special clone of traminer—traminer aromatico—is the source of delicious, exotically aromatic wines. It is also grown in Austria and other parts of eastern Europe.
The name given to a whole group of different varieties that share large clusters and mostly vigorous growth. Varieties called trebbiano this or trebbiano that are among the most prolific vines in the world, yielding millions of gallons of neutral, bland wine yearly. Grown principally in Italy (where it is listed as one of the permissible grapes in more than 80 DOCs). There is a trebbiano in Abruzzi, a trebbiano in Lazio, a trebbiano in Emilia Romagna, a trebbiano in Umbria, and a trebbiano in Tuscany and, genetically, they are all different varieties. (In Italy, so-called trebbiano is also part of the blend that makes up the popular wine Soave, though that trebbiano is actually the better-quality grape, verdicchio bianco). In France, trebbiano Toscano is also known as ugni blanc and the grape is used in distillation to make both Cognac and Armagnac. Trebbiano Modenese (another variety with trebbiano in its name) is the main grape in the top balsamic vinegars of Emilia Romagna.
A darkly colored grape that probably originated in central Portugal and is now grown all over southern Portugal, where it makes rustic wines. Sometimes known by the synonym tinta amarela, “black yellow.”
One of the leading grapes of France in terms of production, it is the same as the variety known in Italy as trebbiano Toscano. Makes a thin, neutral-tasting wine that is the basis for Cognac and is one of the grapes used to make Armagnac. Also known as St.-Emilion.
Southwestern French variety now virtually extinct there but growing in tiny amounts in California, where, in the past, it was the source of some wines known confusingly as Napa gamay.
Grown in (and probably native to) the north-central Spanish province of Rueda. Makes one of Spain’s top dry whites popular for its bay laurel and bitter almond flavors. Verdejo (from verde, “green” in Spanish) can also show a slightly piquant green character in the manner of sauvignon blanc. Indeed, some Rueda wineries blend the two grapes with successful results.
The most planted white on the Portuguese island of Madeira where the grape probably originated. The name is used on the label to indicate a medium-dry, nutty style of Madeira which falls between the styles Sercial and Bual. Verdelho is also grown in Australia. Not the same as Italian verdello.
One of the minor blending grapes in the Italian wine Orvieto. Despite its virtually identical-sounding name, it is not the same as Verdelho, a key grape in making one of the medium dry styles of Madeira.
Usually simply known as verdicchio. Cultivated principally in central Italy where it’s usually made into simple, clean white wines in the region known as the Marche. But in the top sites and at low yields, can make a racy, bold, crisp wine with more personality. This is the grape used in the Veneto with garganega to make the best Soaves (though there it is confusingly called trebbiano di Soave).
More accurately verduzzo Friulano, is grown in northeastern Italy, primarily in Friuli Venezia-Giulia, where it makes both dry and deliciously honeyed sweet wines. The most famous of the latter is Verduzzo di Ramandolo.
Well-known along the Italian Riviera, where it is the source of dry, floral white wines considered indispensable partners for Ligurian fish soups. Also grown on the Italian island of Sardinia and the French island of Corsica, where it’s sometimes called malvoisie. Grown in southern France, vermentino is often known as rolle.
Lively, light, slightly bitter tasting Italian wine grape grown around the touristic Tuscan hilltop town of San Gimignano. Vernaccia di San Gimignano was the first Italian wine to be awarded, in 1966, Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) status. The grape has a long history in Italy and was praised in the 14th century poem, The Divine Comedy—The Vision of Paradise, Purgatory, and Hell by Dante Alighieri. Italy’s other famous vernaccia—vernaccia di Oristano grown on the island of Sardinia—is a completely different variety and used to make Sherry-like wines.
French-American hybrid created in France in the 1930s by Jean-Louis Vidal who was hoping to invent a hearty variety that could be used in making Cognac. Vidal’s parents are trebbiano Toscano (ugni blanc) and rayon d’or, itself a hybrid. Now grown primarily in Virginia, New York State, and Canada. In the latter two places, it is made not only into dry wines but also into some terrific ice wines. Also known as vidal blanc.
A Los Angeles restaurateur once described viognier this way: “If a good German riesling is like an ice skater (fast, racy, with a cutting edge), and chardonnay is like a middle-heavyweight boxer (punchy, solid, powerful), then viognier would have to be described as a female gymnast—beautiful and perfectly-shaped, with muscle but superb agility and elegance.” Viognier is one of the finest but rarest French white grapes. The grape nearly went extinct in the 1960s until it became fashionable in California and in the Languedoc Roussillon. Today, fewer than 300 acres are planted in the grape’s home, the northern Rhône. Through DNA analysis, it appears that viognier is related to mondeuse blanche and, thus, may be either a half-sibling of syrah or possibly a grandparent of syrah. In the northern Rhône, viognier makes the prestigious wines Condrieu and Château-Grillet (a miniscule appellation, Château Grillet has just one estate, also called Château Grillet. It is now owned by Bordeaux’s Château Latour). A small amount is also planted in among the syrah vines of Côte-Rôtie. These white viognier grapes are harvested, crushed, and fermented along with the syrah grapes giving Côte-Rôtie (which is a red wine after all) a slightly more exotic aroma than it might otherwise have. Viognier is usually a full bodied wine with honeysuckle, apricot, gingerbread, and musky aromas and flavors, with a mesmerizingly lanolinish texture. Like gewürztraminer, its extroverted fruity/floral aromas mean that many drinkers assume it’s a little sweet, even when it’s bone dry. Viognier exploded in popularity in the United States in the 1990s. In half a decade, the number of California producers went from a mere few to more than thirty. By 1998 there were more than a thousand acres of this variety planted in California. But the demand has since ebbed there and plantings are now in decline. One of the reasons may be that few California viogniers have the beauty and purity of Condrieu. In California, viognier often suffers from having too little acidity to give it definition, and the wine is too often oaked to within an inch of its life (not true of Condrieu). Besides France’s Rhône Valley and California (and a few other U.S. states such as Virginia), viognier is also well known in Australia. Among the most exquisite viogniers I’ve ever tasted have been those from the Australian producer Yalumba.
Grown in the Isonzo and Carso regions of eastern Friuli-Venezia Giulia and across the border in Carso/Kras region of Slovenia. Makes fascinating, fleshy dry white wines with elegant, floral, herbal, and fruit flavors. A surprising natural cross of Tuscany’s malvasia bianca lunga and the grape variety glera which is used to make prosecco.
The leading white variety in Spain’s Rioja region, where it is the source of simple, dry whites. In the Penedes region where it’s used to make Spanish sparkling wine (cava), it’s known as macabeo. A far smaller amount is grown in France, in the Languedoc Roussillon, where it is known as maccabeu.
The name Austrians use for the grape graševina, which is thought to have originated in Croatia (where it is the leading white grape variety). Used in Austria, especially in Burgenland, to make delicious late harvest botrytized wines. Also widely grown in Slovenia (laški rizling) and in Hungary (olasz rizling). In Italy it’s known as riesling italico and makes dry light wines in Lombardy. Despite the word riesling in its names, the grape is not directly related to riesling genetically.
Highly regarded Catalan grape grown in the Penedès for cava, Spanish sparkling wine. Used for cava, it contributes body, flavor, and structure. Also made into good, bold-flavored still table wine in the Penedes.
Sometimes spelled xinomavro. From xyno, acid, and mavro, black. Greece’s most intense, well-respected red grape. Probably originated near the Naoussa region in northern Greece and still used to make the wine called Naoussa, one of the best Greek reds. Also used in blends to make many other impressive Greek wines including Gouménissa and Rapsáni.
Ancient Slovenian variety where it is used as part of the blend in the crisp, pale red Slovenian wine called Cviček. Known worldwide for a different reason—namely, the presumed oldest vine in the world—a 450-year-old vine in the Slovenian town of Maribor—is žametovka. Its nickname is Stara Trta, Slovenian for “old grapevine.”
Austrian variety with powerful orange/spice flavors and considerable body weight. Blended with rotgipfler to make a powerful spicy white that is a specialty of Austria’s Thermenregion.
For decades, zinfandel was the most widely planted red grape in California until cabernet sauvignon surpassed it in 1998. Now number two in acreage, zinfandel is a chameleon. It can be (and is) made into everything from blush wine to sweet fortified wine. But the zinfandel that knowledgeable wine drinkers love—true zinfandel—is a soft-textured dry red wine crammed with jammy blackberry, boysenberry, and plummy fruit. Made in this style, it’s usually concentrated, medium to full in body, and notorious for (temporarily) staining one’s teeth crimson if you drink enough of it. Until 1972, zinfandel was always a hearty, rustic red wine. But in that year, the large California winery Sutter Home made the first “white zinfandel”—actually light pink—by quickly removing zinfandel’s red skins before much color was imparted to the wine. Soon after its invention, white zinfandel began to outsell true (red) zinfandel—a fact that remains the case today. Yet because it is often slightly sweet and almost always mass produced from less than top-quality grapes, white zinfandel is considered a beginner’s wine by serious wine drinkers. The zinfandel grape’s history in California goes back to the 1830s when it was imported from Croatia (then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). In the 1990s, DNA typing revealed zinfandel to be the Croatian grape called, in modern times, crljenak kaštelanski. During the Middle Ages and earlier, however, the grape was called tribidrag and was grown all over the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia. Linguistically speaking, it’s not known how tribidrag evolved to crljenak kaštelanski evolved to zinfandel. Moreover, in southern Italy, where it grows predominantly in the region of Apulia, the same grape has yet another distinct name: primitivo. Zinfandel vineyards are some of the oldest in California. Zinfandel vines well over a hundred years old still thrive in Amador County and Sonoma County, for example. Wines from old zinfandel vines are, in fact, especially prized, and many producers use the term “old vine” on their zinfandel labels. The term has no legal definition, but many winemakers suggest that a zinfandel vine—like a person—turns the corner, becoming “old” after forty.
Austrian cross of blaufränkisch and St. Laurent made in 1922 by an Austrian researcher named Fritz Zweigelt. It is now one of the most widely planted red grapes in Austria and is the source of grapey, fruity purple/red wines in that country.
“Dare to experiment, to ask questions and to embrace wine as a process of lifelong learning. Expect each bottle to be both a pleasure and a lesson (even when that lesson is “Never, ever order Latvian Verktvine again”). Then you can stop fearing wine and get on with the business of loving it.”
Author, Waiter There’s a Horse in my Wine