So last time on Lusting for Wine, we discussed how to read a label when picking out a wine (here). And you’re like, “Well that’s all well and good: vintages, wineries, appellations, alcohol…varietal? How the hell are you supposed to read the label and pick out a great wine if you don’t know anything about the grape you are drinking?”
Part 2: Varietals
We discussed in the last post how American wineries most often bottle wine by a single varietal instead of by region, which is the European tradition. Here are the characteristics of some of the most popular varietals that you will see being sold in American grocery stores and restaurants. Remember, to put a single varietal on the label, that bottle must contain at least 75% of the juice of that varietal. Anything less than 75% of single varietal and the bottle is considered a “blend” of different varietals.
Cabernet Sauvignon: Arguably the world’s most popular grape, “Cabs” are prolific. A hybrid offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon can grow in just about any climate. Sauvignon is French for savage, at that is pretty appropriate for this powerful varietal. Cabs are full bodied, dry, tanic, and almost always good no matter where they come from. Cabs are also one of the best aging grapes. Pairs best with grilled meat.
Pinot Noir: Almost nobody but serious wine enthusiasts gave a rat’s ass about Pinot Noir until the release of the movie Sideways. The movie created so much demand for Pinot Noir, wineries actually started selling too much, diluting the market with bottles that weren’t ready and almost destroying the integrity of this beautiful grape. Pinot is the opposite of Cab: delicate and extremely hard to grow. Pinot Noir is medium bodied and SUBTLE. It can only grow in climates with hot days and very cool, foggy nights, making it ideal for coastal vineyards in California (Santa Barbara, Monterey, Paso Robles). If cultivated correctly, Pinot can deliver a life-changing wine drinking experience. If the winemaker or vintner isn’t careful, Pinot can be mediocre. Pinot is also the primary varietal used to make sparkling wine. Pairs well with classic french dishes like beef bourgogne.
Chardonnay: The most popular white wine, Chardonnay is a close relative of the Pinot family. In fact, Pinot Blanc is so similar to Chardonnay it took DNA testing to reveal they were actually different grapes. As such, choose Chardonnays that grow in Pinot regions (hot days, cool nights). Chardonnay is one of the only white wines that traditionally goes through secondary malolactic fermentation during production, a process that can cause a “buttery” flavor. Chardonnay is dry and crisp, and can be very fruity and refreshing. Also, because Chardonnay is still typically aged in oak barrels like red wine, it can have an “oaky” flavor that other white wines which are aged in stainless steel barrels (a current trend) will not have. Also used in sparkling wine. Pairs best with poultry.
Merlot: Merlot gets a bad rap from hipster wine tasters, many of whom are persuaded again by the movie Sideways (after the movie Pinot sales skyrocketed and Merlot sales tanked), because it is accessible for new and inexperienced wine drinkers. Merlot is medium bodied and easy to drink with subtle floral flavors. The truth is: a Merlot in the hands of a great winemaker can be an unbelievably beautiful and satisfying experience. Don’t be a snob about it. From the same region in France as Cabernet. Pairs well with pasta with a red sauce.
Zinfandel: Another wine that hipsters decry because it is popular with new wine drinkers due to accessibility (spawning several awful pun-based labels like “Seven Deadly Zins”). Zinfandel is actually one of the world’s great grapes. Called Primitivo in Italy, Zinfandel grows best in very hot climates. Check out Zinfandels from Lodi in California. It comes in two types: dry and spicy, or fruity to the point of being jammy. Like Merlot, a great Zin will surprise and blow you away. One of the few varietals that does best without much aging. Drink Zin with a grilled burger or fried chicken.
Syrah: Called Shiraz in Australia, Syrah is another French grape that spans the world. Syrah is full bodied and does well in intense heat. Don’t confuse Syrah with Petite Sirah, which is a completely different grape. Syrah ages extremely well and won’t disappoint a wine drinker looking for bold, intense flavor. Pairs well with grilled red meat and pork.
Sauvignon Blanc: I heard an experienced wine drinker once say the world has two types of people: Chardonnay drinkers, and Sauvignon Blanc drinkers. The other white wine, “Sav Blanc” is a parent of Cabernet Savignon, and can grow all over the world. Soft and citrus-y, Sav Blanc typically finishes very clean, which contrasts it to the buttery or oaky finish of Chardonnay. Pairs well with shellfish and cheese.
Malbec: Malbec means “bad break” in French. Once the principal grape to blend with Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec was replaced by Merlot. Shunned by proper French society, Malbec found a new home in South America. Malbec from the Mendoza region in Argentina is now one of the world’s most exciting varietals. Apart from rooting for the underdog, Malbec enthusiasts love its velvety blackberry notes, and the fact that it is now the mascot of South American wines which are continually gaining more and more respect around the world. Pair Malbec with Mexican food or any spicy chili dish.
Carmenere: Speaking of South America. Carmenere is the legendary “lost grape.” Pliny the Elder wrote about Carmenere in the first century A.D. It was once a proud and ancient French varietal, until it was hit by a grape destroying plague called phylloxera in the nineteenth century and was wiped out. French vintners assumed Carmenere was extinct, and it disappeared for the next century. And then out of nowhere, Carmenere was discovered growing in Chile in 1994. DNA testing revealed that a group of European immigrants had planted Carmenere in Chili in the late nineteenth century thinking it was Merlot. It was fruitful and multiplied in its new South American home. The flagship grape of Chile, Carmenere is medium bodied and earthy, and pairs well with steak or empañadas.
Sangiovese: If you want to delve into the complex world of Italian wines with your friends, invariably you will spend the vast majority of your time talking about Sangiovese. The flagship grape of Tuscany, Sangiovese is the primary varietal used in Chianti. Sangiovese is the quintessential Italian wine drinking experience. It tastes like your grand mother’s spaghetti and meatball dinner put into a blender and made into wine. If you are out wine tasting and hear the winemaker mention a “Super Tuscan,” don’t expect to see a mustachio’d Italian superhero swoop in and swoon your girlfriend. It’s actually a Sangiovese blended with certain French grapes. More on that later. Drink Sangiovese with a pizza right out of the oven, or with any tomato-based pasta.
Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio: Yet another variety of Pinot, Pinot Gris originated in France but hit world fame in Italy known as Pinot Grigio. Rich and tart with a smooth finish, Grigio can easily hold its own against other more popular white varietals. Chill a bottle of Grigio and head to the beach on a hot day; you won’t be disappointed. Pairs best with risotto and white-sauced pasta dishes.
Riesling: The prince of German wines, Riesling is a white wine commonly drank with dessert due to its high potential for sweetness. Riesling is gaining in popularity in the United States, and American Riesling drinkers are discovering how complex it can actually be. Also, holy aging, Batman. Riesling can succeed for multiple decades. Pairs best with after-dinner sweets, but also try it with oysters or cold shrimp.
Tempranillo: What Sangiovese is to Italian wine, Tempranillo is to Spanish wine. The principal grape in “Rioja” blends, Tempranillo is the ever present native Spaniard. Tempranillo ages well and can range from medium to full bodied. Tempranillo means “early” in Spanish, and was so named because it is harvested before Garnacha. Pairs well with tapas, olives, and lamb.
Garnacha/Grenache: One of the most underrated varietals in the world, Garnacha originated in Spain and found a home in the Rhone region of France with its blending partner Syrah, where it became known as Grenache. On its own, Grenache is incredibly complex, sporting great spice and seemingly impossible layers of flavor. Blended with Syrah in “Rhone” blends, Grenache becomes a powerhouse. Buy a Rhone whenever you see one and try for yourself. It is also sometimes called a “GSM” in America, due to the blend of Grenache, Syrah, and the third Rhone child, Mourvedre. Try pairing Grenache with ribs.
This only scratches the surface of the world’s vast variety of varietals. You could write an essay about each of these. But, as I said from the beginning, I don’t intend to make you an expert, only to make you know what the hell you are talking about. Don’t ever let anyone tell you one varietal is superior to another. Every varietal has the potential for greatness. As wine is a living thing: imperfect, tempestuous, stubborn, beautiful, complex, sensual… it is also impacted by the living imperfect human beings that produce it. Every wine has the potential to excel, or fall short. Find a varietal that speaks to you and stay loyal to it. Then switch and try something else. The world is made better by diversity. This is also true in wine.
A Note on Red vs. White: Inexperienced wine drinkers pick a wine color like they’re picking a team. “I’m a red wine drinker/I only drink white wine.” The more you wine taste the more you realize: red or white is the least important aspect. Red wines vary so drastically, one red is as distinct to another red as it is to white. White wines can be as complex and powerful as the best Pinot Noir. If you’re just sitting around drinking wine, drink whatever color you are in the mood for. If you’re having wine with dinner, then you do want to be specific because certain wines do pair better with certain foods. Here’s a very loose guide: White meat/White Sauce/White Wine. Red Meat/Red Sauce/Red Wine.
For more quick reads on these grapes and more, check out these awesome flashcards, Vinifera: The World’s Great Wine Grapes and Their Stories.
More delicious wine knowledge to come. Stay tuned to Lust for Cooking.