Did you know that there are over 10,000 types of wine grapes in the world? Exploring the world of wine can be like hiking through a forest without a guide, so we've written this list to provide you with some of the wine expert essentials.
So read on and learn about the 12 top wine grapes out of 10,000 that every wine drinker should know!
For more essential wine knowledge, learn What The Differences Are Between Old World And New World Wines
Red Wine Grapes:
1. Cabernet Sauvignon
There's a fair chance that the first wine you drank was a red Cabernet Sauvignon (or as the cool kids call it, “Cab Sauv”) because it is the most planted wine grape in the world. Wineries around the world use a total of 720,000 acres to grow Cabernet Sauvignon. Because it's a hardy variety, it is grown in very different kinds of environments and is frequently used in wine blends that contain more than one variety of grape. It also plays a big part in two of the most famous wine regions in the world: Bordeaux and Napa Valley.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a relatively modern grape variety (created in the 1600s in France) that is a crossing between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, a red grape and a white grape.
- Key regions: Bordeaux (France), Napa Valley (USA), Tuscany (Italy)
- Colour: Dark Ruby
- Aroma: Red fruits, berries, bell pepper, black pepper, cooked fruit
- Character: Heavy body, medium intensity, medium acidity, medium to high tannins
- Best paired with: Grilled beef, BBQ, mushroom-based dishes, yakitori, teriyaki, 90% dark chocolate
Merlot is another popular red wine grape. It’s used to make both expensive fine wines and affordable easy drinking wines.
Merlot means “young blackbird” in French.
Merlot is like that friendly kid in high school who got along with everyone. It is often used in blends with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot or Malbec to bring in more fruitiness. But Merlot is still a world class grape by itself and it is responsible for some very fine wines such as those from Saint Emilion, Pomerol and Fronsac in Bordeaux Right Bank.
- Key regions: Bordeaux (France), Tuscany (Italy), California (USA), Colchalgua (Chile), Barossa (Australia), Hawke’s Bay (New Zealand)
- Colour: Dark Ruby Blue
- Aroma: Red fruits (cherries, raspberries), black fruits (black berries), chocolate, tobacco
- Character: Medium body, intensity, acidity and tannins
- Best paired with: : Grilled meat, Char Siu; Poultry (for lighter Merlot)
3. Pinot Noir
If your red wine comes in a bottle with an unusual shape with shoulders that slope downwards instead of having the standard high shoulders, it’s likely a Pinot Noir. A signature grape of the famous wine region, Burgundy, the gently sloping bottle is called a Burgundian Bottle! It makes a wine that is very light in colour and not very aromatic. Mostly used as single varietal, it can also be blended with other varieties of grape to make Champagne.
Some of the most expensive wines in the world are made from Pinot Noir.
- Key regions: Burgundy (France), Germany, Oregon (USA), Adelaide Hills (Australia), New Zealand
- Colour: Light Ruby
- Aroma: Red fruits (strawberries, cranberries, raspberries); green aroma (young Pinot Noir) or earthy and mushroom note (older Pinot Noir)
- Character: Light body, medium intensity, high acidity and low tannins
- Best paired with: Grilled seafood, veal, pork, mushroom or truffle dishes
Read about a 12-bottle case of Romanee-Conti 1988 from Domaine Romanee-Conti that is expected to reach £130,000 at an auction in London.
If your Burgundian Bottle isn’t Pinot Noir, we bet it’s a Syrah/Shiraz instead. What’s the difference between Syrah and Shiraz? Shiraz is the Australian way of saying Syrah, which originated from Rhone Valley in France. Wines made from Syrah are usually big, strong, and tannic. They often have a high alcohol content, which makes for bigger tears in the glass.
Syrah is often blended with Grenache and Mourvèdre in Rhone. People call it the “Rhone Blend”, but if you really want to sound knowledgeable you can call it “GSM”, which is short for Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre.
- Key regions: Rhone Valley (France), Barossa Valley (Australia)
- Colour: Dark Purple
- Aroma: Black fruits (blackberries, blueberries, blackcurrants), spices (black pepper), flowers (violet), smoky liquorice tones
- Character: Heavy body, high intensity, medium acidity, strong tannins
- Best paired with: Grilled meats, burgers, goat cheese, Thai herbs and spices
Grenache, or Garnacha in Spanish, is a very aromatic grape, which always smells like strawberries and cinnamon. Wines made from this variety usually have a relatively high alcohol content.
The Grenache Association created a special day, every third Friday of September, just to celebrate Grenache. It is aptly named “The Grenache Day”.
Grenache is usually blended with more austere grapes to add some flesh and fruit to the final wine. It is often blended with Syrah and Mourvèdre to create the Rhone Blend. Grenache also plays a supporting role as a blending component for some of the world's finest red wines, and it can be aged for exquisite and fantastic values.
- Key regions: Rhone Valley (France), Castillo (Spain)
- Colour: Light Purple to Light Garnet
- Aroma: Red fruits (strawberries, cherries, raspberries), sweet spices (cinnamon), tobacco
- Character: Light body, high intensity, medium acidity, light to medium tannins
- Best paired with: Grilled meats, burgers, goat cheese, Thai herbs and spices
When people think of Italian wines, Sangiovese is often the first grape variety that comes to their minds. This top Italian red grape is used to produce famous wines designated Chianti or Brunello di Montalcino.
Sangiovese came from the Latin “Sanguis Jovis”, which mean “the blood of Jove”.
Grown all over Italy, Sangiovese is a versatile and adaptable grape with different styles and profiles,.
- Major regions: Italy, Corsica (France), California (USA), Hunter Valley (Australia)
- Colour: Ruby Red
- Aroma: Red fruits (sour cherries, strawberries), black fruits (plums, blackberries), chocolate, leather, fig, herbs
- Character: Medium body, medium to high intensity, high acidity, strong tannins
- Best paired with: Tomato, Italian fried dishes, meat-based dumpling
Easily found in supermarkets in Argentinian reds, Malbec originated in France but was made legendary by Argentina. The grape has all but disappeared in its original birthplace, Bordeaux. Malbec makes wines that are rich in dark fruit flavours with a smoky finish.
If you love Malbec, make sure you remember the region of Mendoza, as it produces 75% of all Argentinian Malbec.
- Key regions: Mendoza (Argentina), Languedoc (France)
- Colour: Dark Purple
- Aroma: Black fruits (cherries, plums, blackberries, blueberries), spices (cocoa, black pepper, vanilla) and some greenness
- Character: Medium body, medium to high intensity, medium acidity, medium tannins
- Best paired with: Grilled or Charred meat
Fans of Spanish wine will definitely know Tempranillo. In fact, most of Spain’s finest wines are made from Tempranillo in the Rioja or Ribera del Duero regions.
Spain has some of the oldest cultivated grapevines in the world with over 2,000 years of winemaking history, producing some of the finest Spanish flagship wines, such as Vega Sicilia.
Tempranillo is often enjoyed fairly young, but has great ageing potential.
- Key regions: Rioja (Spain), Ribera del Duero (France)
- Colour: Ruby Red
- Aroma: Red fruits (raspberries), black fruits (plums, blackberries)
- Character: Medium body, medium intensity, medium acidity, strong tannins
- Best paired with: Tomato, slightly spicy food like tacos, burritos, Thai chili chicken
White Wine Grapes:
As one of the easiest wines to find, Chardonnay could easily be the first white wine you tasted. It is one of the most widely planted grape in the world and around 160,000 hectares are used for its vines. Chardonnay also holds the record for being the grape that is planted in the largest number of regions globally.
Chardonnay is the best-selling wine in the United States. Americans consume over 840,000 bottles of it every year!
An extremely versatile grape, Chardonnay can be found in many styles of wine: sparkling, oaked and unoaked.
- Key regions: Burgundy (France), Champagne (France), Loire Valley (France), California (USA), Australia, New Zealand
- Colour: Medium Lemon to Pale Gold
- Aroma: Green fruit (apples, pears), citrus fruits (lemon), exotic fruits (pineapple)
- Character: Medium body, low intensity, low acidity
- Best paired with: Light or seared seafood (Sparkling); White and light fish (Unoaked); Raw seafood (Dry and Mineral, such as Chablis); Poultry, mushroom-based sauce, foie gras (Oaked)
10. Sauvignon Blanc
Like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc is another one of the most recognizable white wine grapes. For many it is their go-to summer thirst quencher and is renown for making fresh, crisp, and zesty wines.
Sauvignon Blanc originates from the south of France, and its name translates to “little wild white”, a nickname we certainly agree it has the character to back up.
Some white wines made from Sauvignon Blanc have reached a cult status and are drunk in astonishing volumes all over the world.
- Key regions: Marlborough (New Zealand), Loire Valley (France), Bordeaux (France), Margaret River and Adelaide Hills (Australia), Napa Valley (USA)
- Colour: Lemon-green
- Aroma: Green fruits (pears, green apple, apple skin), citrus fruits (lime, grapefruit, lemon), stone fruits (white peach, nectarine), exotic fruits (passion fruit, pineapple)
- Character: Light body, high intensity, high acidity
- Best paired with: Seafood, vegetables, herbs
If you love aromatic wines, Riesling is for you. Riesling is often called the King of White Grapes, and it reigns over the whole of Germany and the Rhine region where it originates from. Wine made from German Riesling is among the most complex and the most aromatic of all white wines and ranges from bone-dry to sweet.
Did you know that before Aussie Chardonnay caught on, Riesling was the predominant grape Down Under?
- Key regions: Germany, Alsace (France), Clare Valley and Eden Valley (Australia), Marlborough and Central Otago (New Zealand), New York State (USA)
- Colour: Pale-lemon
- Aroma: Citrus fruits (lime, lemon), white flowers, exotic fruits (passion fruit, pineapple), slate, chalk, flint, petroleum (older Riesling)
- Character: Medium body, high intensity, medium acidity
- Food pairing: Raw or very lightly cooked seafood, sushi (Dry); Meaty white baked fish, prawn, lobster, Thai food (Off Dry); Roast chicken, goat cheese, sweet and sour dishes (Medium Sweet); Vanilla pudding, egg tarts, red bean paste (Sweet)
Gewürztraminer isn’t easy to pronounce or spell, but it makes some of the easiest white wines to drink and identify. They are aromatic wine with lots of fruitiness. Although it has a German name, the most popular styles of the grape are from France and the US.
The name "Gewürz" literally means "spice’ or 'perfumed."
Many Gewürztraminers have a deep, golden color, often with a pinkish tinge. This is because the grape, unlike most white varieties, actually has a rosy-pink skin.
- Key regions: Alsace (France), California (USA), Germany, Eden Valley (Australia), Austria
- Colour: Deep Golden
- Aroma: Lychee, citrus fruits (grapefruits), stone fruits (peaches), exotic fruits (pineapples)
- Character: Light body, high intensity, low to medium acidity
- Food pairing: Chicken and apricot tagine, Thai pineapple fried rice, cumin, Sichuan pepper, nuts, dried fruits, curry
Now you know something about the most common 12 grapes in the wine world. But as they say, practice make perfect and there is no shortcut to be a real wine expert.
So starting from today you should try to taste as much wine as possible and put your knowledge to use.
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