Getting to grips with grapes and wine taste
From the moment that the grapevine was first cultivated, wine has been integral to human culture. Over the centuries, thousands of different grape varieties have been identified. Some have now become household names, such as Pinot Grigio and Merlot, while others are decidedly more obscure – Fetească Regală, anyone?
Knowing the various qualities of the main grape varieties is a great way to start understanding wine, so here’s a guide to the different flavours and characteristics that can be found.
White grape varieties can be divided into two main types: aromatic or neutral. The former tend to have strong, distinctive flavours that come through regardless of origin or winemaking influence, whereas the latter are more of a blank canvas, and their flavours can vary hugely.
That’s why Chardonnay is probably the most misunderstood white grape variety. In cool regions such as Chablis it has apple and citrus flavours, often accompanied by a chalk or flint aroma. Whereas hotter regions give Chardonnay a more tropical fruit character, like pineapple and mango.
At the other end of the scale are varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc. This popular grape makes wine with strong gooseberry flavour, as well as herbal aromas like cut grass and capsicum. These characteristics come from a group of compounds known as pyrazines, which Sauvignon Blanc has in abundance.
Black grape varieties also have two major styles: those with red fruit flavours (raspberry, strawberry), and those with black fruit flavours (blackcurrant, plum) – although some varieties have both, so it’s not always clear cut.
Pinot Noir is the classic example for red fruit flavours, while Cabernet Sauvignon is known for its strong blackcurrant taste. Both originate in France, but are now grown around the world, and the best examples exhibit that aromatic typicality wherever they come from.
Other black grapes are more famous for their non-fruit flavours – for example, the Italian variety Nebbiolo is often described as tasting of tar and roses, which sounds strange but tastes delicious! But don’t forget that some flavours don’t originate from the grape at all – for example spicy flavours usually originate from ageing the wine in oak barrels.
All wine contains acid and alcohol. Reds also have tannin, while whites can sometimes be sweet (so can some reds, but these are rare). Together, these elements form the structure of the wine.
As with flavour, certain varieties are known for having particular structural characteristics. Riesling has distinctively high acidity, leaving a mouth-watering crispness on the palate, whereas Sangiovese, the main grape variety of Chianti, tends to be high in tannin, which gives a drying, grainy sensation to the mouthfeel.
However, origin can be as much of an influence as variety for structure. Grapes grown in hot climates tend to have lower acidity and higher alcohol regardless of the grape variety, while the reverse is true for cooler climate viticulture.
The closer you look, the more complicated it gets, but working your way through the main grape varieties is a great way to start learning about the wonderful world of wine.