Wine wouldn't be nearly as interesting or enjoyable if all wines tasted basically the same. The most important factor which determines differences in how wines taste is the type of grape used to produce the wine. Many wines sold around the world are sold based on what sort of variety grape it was made from, so a knowledge of the flavors and aromas produced by different grape varieties is indispensable when making decisions about which wines to buy in which circumstances.
What Are Wine & Grape Varieties?
Grapes are separated into varieties, a term which carries the scientific meaning of subdivisions within a species. Most grapes used to produce wines come from the species vinifera. A few other species are used as well like labrusca, which is the species of the American Concord grape used in grape juice, jellies, and some wines. Few wines are produced from non vinifera species because their flavors are much less popular.
Even within vinifera, though, there are over 10,000 different grape varieties. Most of these also don't produce flavors which many people enjoy. The average wine drinker probably only has wine from two or three dozen different varieties over the course of their lives while especially enthusiastic wine drinkers might only end up having wine from a couple of hundred different varieties.
Grape Varieties vs. Wine Varieties
When talking about "varieties" we're talking about the grapes which are used to produce wine and not the wine itself. It's easy forget this because so many wines are labeled according to the primary grape variety used in it. People talk about Chardonnay and Zinfadel wine without always remembering that they are ultimately talking about the grapes rather than the wine itself. This is easier to keep in mind with some wines, like those from France, which are labeled according to the region where they were produced.
How Do Grape Varieties Create Different Flavors?
There are several important characteristics which produce significant differences in wine flavor:
- Acidity: higher or lower level of acid in the grape juice changes the character of wine produced.
- Aromatic compounds: different varieties of grapes produce fruity, floral, or herbaceous aromas.
- Skin: black skins contribute tannins which make a huge difference in wine flavor, with thicker skins providing even more tannins. Smaller grapes have a higher skin-to-juice ratio, so they also have higher tannin concentrations.
What Are the Noble Grape Varieties?
There are many different factors which influence whether a particular grape variety will do well or poorly in any particular region — so many, in fact, that no one has figured them all out yet. After many centuries of wine growing, though, vintners have labeled a few grape varieties as "noble," which means that these varieties are grown in the right region, they have the possibility of producing especially outstanding wines.
Noble Grape Varieties in France
- Chardonnay & Pinot Noir in Burgundy
- Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux
- Syrah in the Northern Rhône Valley
- Chenin Blanc in the Loire Valley