Major Wine Varietals
Grape varietals are different varieties or breeds of grapes, some of which are ancient and others are newer hybrids of other varietals. Different wine grapes have different characteristics and personalities that they instill in the wines that are made from them.
This is our comprehensive list of the major varietals found in the world. Other lists may soon follow but for now, here’s a great place to start.
RED GRAPE VARIETALS
Barbara – Barbera is one of several wine varietals indigenous to the north of Italy, primarily in the region known as Piedmont. It is fruity with good depth and can have some meatiness to it. It has good acidity and pairs well with many foods.
Cabernet Franc – Cabernet Franc is one of the wine varietals that are allowed to be grown in Bordeaux in the southwest of France. This grape has some similarities to Cabernet Sauvignon but is generally considered not quite as noble. It can have a bit of a vegetal or herbal aroma and flavor.
Cabernet Sauvignon – Originally from Bordeaux in the southwest of France, Cabernet is widely planted around the world, featured prominently as a blend or in wines from California, Italy, Australia and others. This is considered one of the “noble” wine varietals, producing some of the most profound red wines in the world. Cabernet tends to be a full-bodied wine varietal which can often age very well. It is often described as having flavors of cassis (black currant liquor), blackberries and other dark fruits mixed with complexities such as pencil lead, tobacco and cigar box cedar.
Gamay – Gamay is primarily grown in the southern part of Burgundy in France. It makes a light to medium-bodied which tends to be very fruity. Gamay is considered a seasonal celebratory wine, helping to celebrate the joy of the recent harvest.
Grenache – Grenache is one of many wine varietals grown in the southern Rhône valley of France, California, particularly in the central coast, Australia and Spain. While grenache is known for its rich, ripe fruitiness, they can be quite complex, with earthy, floral and herbal overtones. It can be quite full-bodied, high in alcohol and chewy in the mouth.
Malbec – One of the Bordeaux wine varietals, this is primarily a minor part of the blend in wines from this region but single varietal bottlings are most in the southwest of France and in parts of Argentina. Malbec generally has a very dark color. When alone, it can make a deep wine of black fruits with earthy meatiness. These tend to be quite austere and hard.
Merlot – Another Bordeaux region grape, second only in fame to Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot can have a similar character to Cabernet but tends to be more on the red fruit end of the spectrum and tends to be a bit softer, without as much austere tannins.
Mourvèdre – This grape is widely planted in the south of France, really shining in the area of Provence in appellations like Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Bandol. Finicky and hard to grow, most regions do not result in fully ripe Mourvèdre. It is primarily used as a blending grape, adding color and structure to the wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and others. Mourvèdre can be a profound wine with a very aromatic nose, huge depth, and chewy richness.
Nebbiolo – Nebbiolo is the noble grape of Piedmont in the north of Italy. It is a grape that is capable of profound depth, complexity and finesse. The wines can be very aromatic, combining red and black fruits, rose petal and earthy scents like truffles, mushrooms and leather, particularly with age.
Petite Sirah – Grown in small amounts in the south of France, where it is known as the Duriff grape, but primarily grown and bottled in California. Petite Sirah tends to be very peppery and spicy. It also tends to be more black and can be quite hard.
Pinot Noir – Pinot Noir is one of the classic and noble wine varietals from Burgundy in France. It tends to be lighter in body compared to Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. Pinot Noir is very influenced by where it is grown, tasting like red fruits and flowers in one vineyard and like meat, truffles and black fruits in another. The best examples from Burgundy are have extreme complexity, finesse, a silky, caressing and seductive mouthfeel with lush, heady aromas.
Sangiovese – Sangiovese is a red Italian wine grape variety whose name derives from the Latin sanguis Jovis, “the blood of Jove.” Young Sangiovese has fresh fruity flavors of strawberry and a little spiciness, but it takes on oaky, even tarry, flavors when aged in barrels.
Syrah/Shiraz – Syrah is a wine varietal indigenous to the northern Rhône Valley in France. Also known as Shiraz in Australia where it is planted extensively. California, particularly the central coast, grows a lot of Syrah as well. Syrah tends to make a big, deep wine with red and black fruits as well as considerable complexity which can include everything from the earthy to the floral. The texture and mouthfeel can have lots of finesse but tends more towards the velvety end of the spectrum as compared to the more silky.
Tempranillo – The primary grape of Rioja in Spain, Tempranillo is also planted heavily in many other appellations in Spain. It can make a full-bodied wine, but tends to be a bit lighter than Syrah or Cabernet, producing beautiful red fruits which have a supple and caressing texture and lovely aromatic complexity.
Zinfandel – This grape is planted almost entirely in California. It is capable of everything from simple fruity wines to huge, ripe wines of considerable heft and depth. Generally tending towards the fruity end of the spectrum but often has nice spicy aromas and flavors. It is capable of intense ripeness with high alcohol and cloying ripe fruit.
WHITE GRAPE VARIETALS
Chardonnay – Classically grown in Burgundy in France, Chardonnay is now widely planted around the world from California to Australia, Italy to New Zealand. Generally, it is a more full-bodied white wine with a rich, round texture. The best examples from Burgundy have an intense minerality and acidity which gives it intensity and grip in the mouth.
Chenin blanc – Chenin Blanc is grown widely in the Loire Valley of France and is known as Steen in South Africa. These can be quite full-bodied whites but when young the dry wines have intense acid and minerality, making them seem laser-like. With age, they round out, gaining complexity and developing a honeyed richness.
Gewürztraminer – Meaning “spicy”-traminer, Gewurztraminer sounds like it would be a German grape, but while it is grown somewhat in Germany, the best examples come for Alsace in France. It tends to have a floral, rose petal aroma along with tropical fruits and lychee fruit. The mouth is big and round with rich, bold flavors that tend to be quite spicy, hence the name.
Grüner Veltliner – Grüner Veltliner is a white grape grown primarily in Austria. It produces pale, crisp, light to medium-bodied wines.
Muscat – Muscat grapes are one of the major varieties grown in Chile and is a minor variety in California and Italy. In Italy, it is widely used in sweeter sparkling wines like Asti. The breadth and number of varieties of Muscat suggest that it is perhaps the oldest domesticated grape variety. Muscat is known for musky, fresh-grape flavors and range from fine, light wines to sweet, dark versions.
Pinot Grigio / Pinot Gris – Grown in many parts of the world, Pinot Gris is most famous from Alsace in France. However, in Italy it is known as Pinot Grigio. Pinot gris from Alsace is a full-bodied, round and supple wine which can be fermented dry or with residual sweetness. In Italy, they are generally produced dry and also tend to be lighter-bodied with fresh fruitiness.
Riesling – Riesling is planted widely but is classic to Germany and Alsace in France. Riesling produces intense, minerally wines with great acidity to balance any residual sweetness and are capable of great complexity and intensity. Their specific flavors can vary greatly depending on the site they are grown.
Sauvignon Blanc – Sauvignon Blanc the primary grape in several appellations in the Loire valley, France most notably Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. It has also seen a lot of success in New Zealand, South Africa and is widely planted in California. It tends to be a medium-bodied white with tropical fruit flavors which are often highlighted by either smoky, flinty aromas or grassy aromas.
Viognier – Most known as the principle white grape variety in northern Rhône. Viognier produces peachy aromas with dry, luscious flavors of tree fruit, nuttiness and an undertone of spice on the palate.