Thursday, December 24, 2009

What is a Varietal? The short anwer is a type of grape... first draft of my guide to Varietals

If you are new to wine and wondering what you might like, or you have drunk the same wine for years and are eager to branch out and try something new, you are probably overwhelmed with the choices available today!

Let me help you with a quick guide to the most popular and readily available wines in the world. I’ll start with two famous white grape varietals that are very popular in the United States, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

White Wine Grape Varietals

Chardonnay is the grape responsible for greatest dry white wines of the world, the white Burgundies, like Chablis, Pouilly-Fuisse, Macon-Villages and Puligny-Montrachet. Make a note to try these famous French wines in 2010.

In the US, California is the epicenter of U.S. wine production, and has the most perfect locations for Chardonnay, which is a cool-climate grape. Oregon and Washington are not far behind, turning out wonderful wines every year. Why not try some Oregon and Washington wines this year?

Chardonnay is a dry (not sweet)  table wine that not only goes well with food, but drinks very well by itself. Chardonnay typically comes in three styles: the most popular has some peach and tropical flavors, and no noticeable oak, which seems to hit the “sweet spot” for most Chardonnay lovers. The second is medium-light, pleasant, and the taste runs toward white peaches and pears. The last is barrel fermented, aged in oak and tastes of tropical fruits like guava and mango. I usually associate the taste to "flint" with this wine. Notice that there are three types of Chardonnay, not just the classic two types that most wine experts call "oaked" and "un-oaked."  Oak used to be from the barrel that contained the wine. Chardonnay is frequently highly processed and might not ever "see" a barrel, giving new meaning to having a "refined" wine.

Now grown world wide, Sauvignon Blanc got its start in France’s Loire Valley. To make the white wines of Bordeaux, it is always blended with Semillon. In California, it was always a blending grape, until Robert Mondavi opened his winery in the ‘60s and produced a 100% Sauvignon Blanc called “Fume Blanc”. A Sauvignon Blanc or a Fume Blanc from California is usually all Sauvignon Blanc, although some winemakers do occasionally add a dollop of Semillon for a soft and rich note.  Make note that  Robert Mondavi might be a good base line for your tastings this year.  Compare all of your tastings to the Robert Mondavi standard wine in that Varietal variety.  Another hint, by law, if the name of the varietal is on the label, it only needs to be 65% of that variety grape. If it is vinteaged by date, i.e. Sauvignon Blanc 2007, it must have at least 75%.

French Sauvignon Blancs are more acidic and have more grassy flavors, while examples from New Zealand tend to taste of gooseberries and grapefruit. All should be experienced, but some of my favorites come from California and may have hints of fresh grass or grapefruit, but are predominately noted for their ripe fruit flavors. Note:  I prefer New Zealand and Oregon Sauvignon Blancs, because they have MORE fruit flavor.
Keep in mind, we are not talking about sweet fruits. When wine articles start going on and on about the flavor notes in the wine, I get bored.  But I am old and losing my sense of smell and taste. Note: at your next wine tasting put out glasses with the suggested flavor note in the glass:  put out some grapefruit, gooseberries, fresh grass, peaches (fresh) or coffee beans in tasting note glasses. Spice up the tasting! Have some fun with it!

Red Wine Grape Varietals

The three most famous red wines in the world have their roots* in France, but have spread world wide, as they offer great taste and drinkability. Cabernet Sauvignon is rightfully loved by people world wide, as it offers delicious, complex flavors. Pinot Noir and Merlot are popular with most folks who drink wine, and are sure to please your guests as well.

*ROOTS Interesting historical note:

Cabernet Sauvignon is the famous grape of Bordeaux and reigns supreme there. Bordeaux tends to taste of cassis and dark fruits accompanied by smells of cedar, sweet tobacco and sometimes a nice vanilla finish from aging in French oak. Cabernets from California are usually higher in alcohol and have riper fruit flavors because the fruit gets riper in the California sunshine. They also tend to show more black cherry flavors and sometimes smell of chocolate and black currants.

The well known French red grape, Pinot Noir, got its start in Burgundy. It is also widely grown in California and Oregon, and there are some fantastic wines available to drink. Cooler climate areas are best for Pinot Noir, since it needs a longer, cooler growing season like Chardonnay. Pinot Noir generally tastes of earth (some say forest floor), mushrooms, foie gras, leather and cherries (the last particularly noted in American Pinot Noirs).

Merlot is the most plentiful red grape of Bordeaux, and is used as a blending grape in many outstanding Bordeaux wines. While Merlot is used as a blending grape in the U.S., it is also widely sold by itself, or at least as the primary grape on the label. Merlot can be confused with Cabernet Sauvignon in “blind” tastings as it has some of the same color profiles and smells emanating from the glass. Merlot ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, is a little smoother (less tannic), and usually tastes of ripe plums.

Remember that wine is fun, not hard, and meant to be drunk and enjoyed! Start with the varietals above, and try a few of each. Did you like that Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand? Try one from Australia with your next meal! Experiment, and above all, have fun!

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