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There are about 40 important red grape varietals grown in the world today. The major ones are listed below.
To grape growers and winemakers, Pinot Noir presents both the ultimate challenge and the ultimate reward. At their best, Pinot Noir grapes produce wines that are rich and complex, tasting of black cherries, red berries, earth and spice, with an aroma that's been likened to everything from herbs and cola to bacon and roses. Pinots can be high alcohol, light in color and low in tannin, though oak aging can increase the tannin levels. One of the most exciting developments in the world of wine is the recent advances Oregon and California winemakers have made in producing first rate Pinot Noirs, respectable rivals to the legendary reds of French Burgundy. Most other Pinot Noirs produced around the world are pale imitations of Burgundy, usually lacking depth, elegance, richness and texture. You may wonder why anybody would bother with such a troublesome, fussy, hard-to-grow, enigmatic grape, but at their best there is no wine in the world that can offer more seductive, velvety, complex flavors than a fine Pinot Noir.
Merlot wines have soared in popularity in the last decade, as they offer something for everyone: from light and simple wines to full-bodied and complex bottlings. Merlots are often less tannic and more lush than Cabernets, though still full-bodied, deep in color and fairly high in alcohol with flavors of cherry, plum and chocolate. Merlot is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon at almost all the great estates of France's Bordeaux region and is the dominant grape of St. Emilion and Pomerol; for example Chateau Petrus is almost 100% Merlot. Other areas where Merlot has been successfully grown (and frequently blended into Cabernets to produce a more complex wine) include northern Italy, California, Washington and the Rogue Valley region of Oregon.
Zinfandel is a "new-world" grape varietal that been around for a long time. It is the one varietal that some say is indigenous to California. Since its mysterious origins of long ago, zinfandel has come a very long way. Once considered a lowly step-child to more noble grapes, California winemakers lately have been paying close attention to its potential and consumers have responded with a cult following.
After suffering an image problem in the 80's when people associated it mostly with its "white" counterpart, zinfandel in its true form, earned mainstream recognition first with the 1990 vintage, which was emphasized a few years later with 1994's stellar vintage. Cut to early fall 1998. By now many small, artisan wineries were making only zinfandel, and many medium to large producers had joined the club. Some were releasing 1997 zins and the positive predictions of the vintage were confirmed. 1997 had been quite warm, but zinfandel fruit loves this weather and it thrived in the heat. The wines are big, robust, and incredibly concentrated. At the annual ZAP showcase in the spring of 1999 - a virtual festival of all things zinfandel - the hype was on, and retailers were in full buying frenzy. Producers across the board were making some of their best wines ever.
The good thing is that along with the high quality, there was high quantity. These wines are out there and they are worth finding. Look for zinfandels from Napa, Amador and The Sierra Foothills. Sonoma in particular, was charmed. Look for Russian River, Alexander Valley and Dry Creek Valley appellations. You will find wines that have depth, color, concentration and balance as well as those exotic spices so unique to zins. They are drinkable now, but will certainly not wilt in the cellar. Think three-cheese pizza, rib-eye steak and especially..summer barbeques!
This is the grape responsible for the wines of Bordeaux's Medoc region, arguably some of the finest reds in the world. It performs well practically the world over, as long as it's not too cold, but in certain appellations in France, and more recently in California's Napa Valley, it produces wines that astonish with their richness and complexity. One theory holds that blending Cabernet grapes with Merlot and Cabernet Franc or Petite Verdot adds character and complexity and offsets its great tannin (such is the case with wines of Bordeaux), while other winemakers (Californians, notably) prefer to let Cabernet tell its own story with no help. The classic Cabernet flavor is one of deep, dark fruits, primarily blackcurrant (cassis) and the best are medium- to full-bodied, intense and firm. Cabernets are almost always aged in oak for over a year, and should age several more years in the bottle. The great Cabernets of the Medoc region in France age for 15 years and more.
Syrah is a rich, full-bodied, complex, spicy, long-lived wine that thrives in the Rhone region of France and produces such famous wines as Hermitage and Cote-Rotie. It is the most popular red wine of Australia (where it is called Shiraz and is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon) and is becoming increasingly popular in California (where it is replacing another Rhone grape called Petite Sirah in America). Syrah can be successfully blended with many other wine grapes (often to give them more backbone and structure); it also can be made in a variety of styles ranging from soft and medium-bodied with some berry characteristics to deeply colored, powerful monsters tasting of roasted peppers, black cherry and smoke. Like California Zinfandels, American Syrahs can be full-bodied wines but often show more spice elements and less berry-like fruit than Zins.
There are 50 major white grapes grown in the world today, 24 in California alone. The three most important grapes are Reisling, Sauvingnon Blanc, and Chardonnay.
Riesling grapes need cooler climates and they produce both refreshing light-bodied wines and full-bodied table wines to pair with the greatest cuisine. As with Chenin Blanc, Riesling has a very high natural acidity, which both balances the sugar (think of the way we have to sweeten lemonade) in sweeter wines and acts as a preservative for long ageing. The oldest, still-living wine ever tasted was not red--it was a German Riesling, a Steinwein, from the 1540 vintage. It was tasted in 1961, after 420 years, and had not yet perished. Rieslings are floral and fruity, and can be delicate, subtle, and low in alcohol, making for a very nice summer wine. But even sweet, low-alcohol wines from the Mosel in Germany balance the sugar with a steely, teeth-cleaning acidity. And though you might think of Rieslings as necessarily sweet, there are many dry Rieslings, the best being from Alsace. These show best with several years of bottle age--though they are certainly fun to drink young!--and pair magnificently with pork, foie gras, and other rich foods.
Crisp, high in acidity and light- to medium-bodied, Sauvignon Blanc is recognizable for its grassy, herbaceous flavor and aroma. When grown in warmer climates the flavors are more fruity, melon-like. The grape is important in California, New Zealand and Northeastern Italy, but it really shines in France's Loire Valley and Bordeaux regions. There it is used prodigiously as a blending grape and is responsible for the stand-alone varietals Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume. Though not as rich and complex as Chardonnay, this is a versatile grape, one that grows well in a number of places, responds well to oak or a lack thereof, and can be drunk young or aged several years. As well, it can make for some fabulous late-harvest offerings
Chardonnay is to white wine what Cabernet is to reds. It is used to produce France's magnificent white Burgundies and is the main grape in Champagne. But Chardonnay also has a populist bent - in the last decade or so, it has become the world's most often-purchased dry white wine. Indeed, because of its great adaptability, it grows in nearly every wine-producing area of the world; some California Chardonnays are stellar examples of the genre. When Chardonnay wines are made with care, they are bold, rich and complex and taste of ripe figs and peach, honey and butter, hazelnuts and spice. The best are medium-bodied, medium dry and high in acidity. Chardonnays, more than any other white wine, love to be aged in oak.
Pinot Gris is a darkly colored white wine grape that evolved from the Pinot Noir. Originally a popular wine from Alsace (where it was once labeled Tokay) and northeastern Italy (where it is called Pinot Grigio), Pinot Gris has become one of the most successful wines grown in Oregon. Most versions are quite dry, but Pinot Gris wines can range from light and delicate to fairly full-bodied. Rarely barrel-aged, Pinot Gris wines tend to be dry and crisp, the perfect accompaniment to salmon and seafood. It can be rather subtle in both flavor and aroma, though the best examples are reminiscent of almonds, minerals and peaches.