Jane Nickles – Red Wine Varietals

"Miss" Jane Nickles
The Bubbly Professor 
Excellent Adventures in Wine and Spirits Education

Merlot

Cabernet TopThe Soundbyte:  Thank goodness we are ten years past the movie “Sideways” and we can stop defending Merlot.  Ha! Ok, that was a fantasy.  I still find myself defending Merlot, like this:  despite some serious bashing, Merlot has a lot going for it.  Merlot is loved for its supple texture and forward fruit characteristics.  Merlot is often thought of as just a blending partner for Cabernet Sauvignon, and indeed these two grapes are often combined in some of the world’s greatest red wines.  Merlot does just fine on its own, however, and those very qualities that make it a great blending partner also make it an ideal match for a wide variety of foods.

Typical Attributes of a Merlot-Based Wine:

  • Medium tannin as compared to many red grapes, due to the large size of the grape berries, giving it a higher juice-to-skin ratio than most red wines
  • Smooth, soft, and supple texture…many winemakers say it’s all about the texture when it comes to Merlot
  • Rich red color…often belying the smooth character or the wine
  • Moderate-to-lively acidity, fruit-forward flavors
  • Lighter than Syrah and heavier than Pinot, Merlot ranks just under Cabernet Sauvignon in the rankings-by-heft.

Well, hello my little vixen. You try to look so tough and edgy, yet I know you are velvety smooth...

Well, hello my little vixen. You try to look so tough and edgy, yet I know you are velvety smooth…

Typical Aromas of a Merlot-Based Wine:

  • Fruity:  Grapes—Merlot is one of the few red vinifera wines that tastes like grapes:  Welch’s Grape Juice, Grape Jelly, Grape Jam; Blackberry, Boysenberry, Strawberry, Raspberry, Cranberry, Plum, Ripe Cherry, Currant, Fig, Prune
  • Floral:  Rose, Violet
  • Oak-Derived: Cedar, Cocoa, Cigar, Tobacco, Vanilla, Smoky
  • Herbal:  Mint, Bay Leaf
  • Spicy:  Cinnamon, Clove, Licorice, Coffee
  • Sometimes: Candied Fruit, Fruitcake, Sandalwood, Truffles, Tobacco

Where The Best Merlot is Grown:

  • The Bordeaux region of France, where it is a large part of the blend of most wines, and the predominant variety in the wines of the Right Bank
  • The Languedoc, Roussillon, and throughout Southern France
  • Surprise, surprise…Merlot is the most widely planted red grape in all of France
  • California, particularly the North Coast Regions
  • Washington State
  • Italy, especially Trentino-Alto Adige, Tuscany, Veneto, and Fruili
  • Australia, Chile, and Argentina

Carmenère

CarmenereThe Soundbyte: Carmenère is often called “the lost grape of Bordeaux” and was widely planted in Bordeaux in the years before phylloxera. However, in the 1880’s as phylloxera ravaged the vineyards of Europe and all the vines needed to be re-planted, Carmenère resisted grafting and was essentially forgotten.

Many of the original vinifera vines planted in Chile were brought from Bordeaux during the mid-1800s, as phylloxera was ravaging the old world. Along with its better-known cousins such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Merlot, Carmenère arrived in Chile at the same time.

Carmenère thrived in Chile, where it was often mistaken for Merlot in the vineyard. In fact, much of what was bottled as a particularly spicy style of Chilean Merlot—Merlot Chileno—before 1994 quite possibly contained quite a bit of Carmenère. The mystery was solved in 1994 when Professor John-Michel Boursiquot of the Montpellier School of Oenology noticed the distinctive character of Chilean Merlot and soon confirmed that much of what was considered to be Chilean “Merlot” was actually Carmenère.

In the vineyard, Carmenère is often the last grape to be picked, and it requires a lengthy season to reach full maturity. Therefore, it is not well suited to many parts of Bordeaux—but in the right areas it can produce great wines. Chilean Carmenère is rich in color, redolent of red fruits, spice, and berries, and has softer tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon. Many consider Carmenère to be the signature grape of Chile.

Typical Attributes of a Carmenère-based Wine:

  • Rich with dark fruit flavors of ripe berries and plum.
  • Firm structure, full body and heavy tannins; lush, velvety texture.
  • Deep, dark color.  This is a “big red wine”!
  • Carmenère is distinguished by fruitiness accompanied by the flavors of “spice and smoke”
  • Some experts think Carmenère is a long-established clone of Cabernet Sauvignon, and the grapes do share many qualities
  • Underripe Carmenère, or grapes from a cool growing season, can have a vegetative “green bell pepper” aroma or flavor. Carmenère  takes longer to ripen than other red grapes, so be on the look-out for these flavors.

Typical Aromas of a Carmenère-based Wine:

  • Fruity: Blackberry, Blueberry, Raspberry, Currant, Dark Plum, Cherry
  • Spicy: Black Pepper, White Pepper, Dried Herb, Cinnamon, Anise, Vanilla, Licorice
  • Earthy:  Smoke, Wet Earth, Leather, Tobacco, Coffee
  • Oak-Derived:  Oak, Chocolate, Mocha, Cocoa
  • Vegetative:  Green Bell Pepper, Green Olive, Herbal, Lavender

Where The Best Carmenère is Grown:

  • Chile, where vintners have staked a claim on Carmenère as their “signature” grape variety
  • A few wineries in California and Washington State, where it is largely used in Meritage blends.  The Guenoc Winery in Lake Country brought the grape, which had to withstand a three-year quarantine before being planted, to the United States from Chile
  • Italy’s Eastern Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions, including the Piave DOC, which since 2009 have been allowed to produce a varietally-labeled Carmenère
  • Bordeaux, France; where the grape is grown on a very limited basis, but is still considered part of the Bordeaux Blend. Grande Vidure is a historical synonym sometimes used in Bordeaux. Château Clerc Milon has the largest plantings of Carmenère in the region, but there are still less than ten acres in all of Bordeaux
  • China, which grows a great deal of Carmenère, often under the name Cabernet Gernischt

Grenache

grenacheThe Soundbyte:  Grenache (technically Grenache Noir) might just be the most popular “wing man” in the world of wine.  By that I mean that while Grenache is certainly capable of starring in varietal wines, it is one of the world’s most popular partners in a red wine blend.

In Spain, Grenache is often blended with Tempranillo, Cinsault, and a host of other grapes.  Grenache is one of the three amigos (Grenache-Syrah- Mourvèdre) of the Rhône Blend (otherwise known as G-S-M), while also playing a part in some of the more complex (ie., 13-grapes-or-even-more) wines of the Rhône.   Grenache is also made into dessert and fortified wines, and makes a world-class rosé.

Typical Attributes of a Grenache-based Wine:

  • A typical varietal wine made with Grenache might be described as soft on the palate, relatively high in alcohol and with aromas of spice and berries.
  • The texture of Grenache has been described as “rustic” or “fleshy”.
  • The grape tends to be thin-skinned and low in both color and tannin, however, these factors can vary depending on vineyard conditions and winemaking; some Grenache packs a powerful tannic punch.
  • In addition to varietals, Grenache is used in fortified wines, dessert wines, and delightful rosĂ©s; but its most common incarnation is as the backbone of hearty red blends.

Typical Aromas of a Grenache Based Wine:

grenache grapesFruity:  Blackberry, Blueberry, Strawberry, Cranberry, Currant, Cherry, Raisin, Plum

Spicy:  Black Pepper, Menthol, Licorice

Earthy:  Wet Earth, Leather, Forest Floor, Bramble, Tobacco, Smoke, Leather

Floral:  Roses, Dried Rose Petals, Violet

Oak-Derived:  Chocolate, Mocha, Cocoa, Vanilla, Sweet Wood

Where The Best Grenache is Grown:

  • In France’s RhĂ´ne Valley, especially the Southern RhĂ´ne, where it is the super star grape of Châteauneuf-du-Pape , Gigondas, and Rasteau. Typically, it plays a leading role in the blended red wines of the Southern RhĂ´ne.
  • The grape is part of the blend that is used to produce many delightful rosĂ©s throughout the Southern RhĂ´ne, including Lirac and Tavel.
  • Also in France, Grenache is grown in Provence, Rouissillon, Languedoc, Minervois, Fitou, and Corbières. It is also the leading variety of certain fortified wines in produced in Banyuls and Maury.
  • In Spain, where it is among the most widely planted red grapes in the country, the grape is called “Garnacha”.  Garnacha is main variety in Pirorat and Campo de Borja; and plays a role in the wines of Rioja, Navarra,  Somontano, Catalonia, and La Mancha.
  • Australia, where it makes some awesome varietals, including my favorite, d’Arenberg’s McLaren Vale “The Custodian” Grenache.
  • California, where it has historically been grown in San Joaquin Valley and is now produced in many other regions such as Santa Barbara and Paso Robles.
  • Washington State is also getting into Grenache.
  • Several regions throughout the south of Italy, particularly Sardinia, where it stars in the wine known as Cannonau di Sardegna.

Sangiovese

Sangiovese ChiantiThe Soundbyte:  It is widely accepted that Sangiovese was well-known to the winemakers of Ancient Rome, and it is suspected that the grape was known in Tuscany as far back as the time of the Etruscans. The grape is still is widely grown throughout Central Italy, from Romagna to Lazio, and throughout Italy down to Campania and Sicily.

Outside of Italy Sangiovese is mainly known as the main grape of Chianti, in all its forms, but Italian wine lovers know that it also stars in Carmignano, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Morellino di Scansano, Brunello di Montalcino, Rosso di Montalcino, and Sangiovese di Romagna, among many others.

While often used in a blend, Sangiovese is increasingly seen as a stand-along varietal.  In addition, it is now being used in blends with “international varieties” such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.  You may know these wines as “Super Tuscans”, whose style is now being imitated in other parts of the world.

In a country growing hundreds (if not thousands) of different grapes, Sangiovese reigns as the number one grape varietal in Italy, where it accounts for 10% of the entire wine grape crop.

Typical Attributes of a Sangiovese Based Wine:

  • The flavor profile is complex, with earthy aromas often overtaking the aromas of fruit, spice, flowers, and oak.
  • Sangiovese has a moderate to high level of natural acidity.
  • Medium to full-bodied, with descriptors ranging from supple and elegant to assertive and robust.
  • The finish tends towards bitterness.  I often describe it as “bitter cherry”.
  • Medium tannin due to the grape’s natural “thin skin.”  This is often assuaged with oak contact.
  • This “thin skin” and natural low-level of anthocyanins can make Sangiovese-based wines seem light in color.  It tends to show an orange meniscus, even in younger wines.
  • Sangiovese is often used to produce a “lighter” style red wine, and this approachability has made it a consumer favorite.  Sangiovese makes a wonderful, spicy rosĂ©, and stars in many an Italian rosato.

Typical Aromas of a Sangiovese Based Wine:

  • Fruity:  Plum, Cherry, Blackberry, Raspberry, Strawberry, Blueberry, Mulberry, Orange Peel
  • Spicy:  Tea, Clove,  Cinnamon, Thyme, Anise
  • Floral:  Violet, Dried Flowers
  • Wood-derived:  Cedar, Oak, Vanilla, Sweet Wood, Smoke, Toast, Tar
  • Earthy:  Wet Leaves, Wet Dirt, Forest, Tobacco, Tea, “Dusty”, Herbal

Where The Best Sangiovese is Grown:

  • Italy, its native home, where it is the most widely-grown red grape variety.
  • It especially thrives in Tuscany, where it forms the base of the wines of Chianti and Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, and Brunello di Montalcino as well as many other wines. It is sometimes part of the blend—often alongside Cabernet Sauvignon—in the wines known as the Super Tuscans.
  • Beyond Tuscany, it is found throughout Italy and is a main grape in Umbria, Marche, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, and as far south as Campania and Sicily.
  • Italian immigrants brought Sangiovese to California.  The earliest recorded Sangiovese vineyard in California is the Seghesio Family’s Chianti Station Vineyard, planted near Geyserville in 1910.
  • Sangiovese never really took off in California until the Super Tuscan movement of the 1980’s.  Since then, Sangiovese has been gaining popularity in the United States and is now grown in Napa, Sonoma, and The Sierra Foothills.
  • Flat Creek Estate in Marble Falls, Texas created a Sangiovese-Cabernet Sauvignon blend they call a “Super Texan” in 2005. The wine immediately commanded world wine attention when it won the coveted Double Gold Medal at the San .

 Tempranillo

The Soundbyte:  Tempranillo is a primary red grape for much of Northern and Central Spain, including the famous wines of Rioja and Ribera del Duero.  It is also a key blending grape used in Port—where it often goes by the name Tinta Roriz.  It is often said that the name “Tempranillo” is derived from the Spanish word “temprano,” meaning early, and refers to the fact that the grape buds, flowers, and ripens a full two weeks before Spain’s other leading red grape— Garnacha (Grenache).

There is a fantastic old legend that says that Tempranillo ended up in Northern Spain via the Camino de Santiago.  According to the legend, Cistercian Monks making the religious pilgrimage from Burgundy to Santiago de Compostela left Pinot Noir cuttings behind at the monasteries around Haro, Burgros, and Logroño.  From these vines, the Pinot Noir grape morphed itself into its new surroundings and ended up as the Tempranillo we know now and love.  Alas, this tale must remain with us as “just a good story” seeing as recent have shown no such genetic connection between the two cultivars.  Tempranillo is, these days, believed to be a native son of Northern Spain.

Typical Attributes of a Tempranillo-based Wine:

  • Medium-to-deep ruby-red color in appearance (while young). Tempranillo-based wines can sometimes show a deep hue but lighter color intensity such as is often seen in Sangiovese or Pinot Noir.
  • These are long-lasting wines, and can often improve with significant aging and maturation.  This is in part due to the fact that Tempranillo has a low amount of oxidizing enzyme, making it particularly resistant to oxidation.
  • These wines, made from heat-loving, thick-skinned black grapes, tend to be medium to high in alcohol.
  • Medium-to-high levels of tannin, often described as “firm yet round.”
  • Intense fruit flavors mingled with spice and earth tones, often improved by oak contact.
  • Tempranillo can be made into a fun, fruity, easy drinking wine via Carbonic Maceration.
  • Tempranillo makes some wonderful, dry rosĂ©s.

Typical Aromas of a Tempranillo-based Wine:

Fruity: Strawberry, Blueberry, Raspberry, Blackberry, Black Currant, Red Stone Fruit, Cherry, Plum, Raisin, Prune

Spicy: Vanilla, Dried Herbs, Clove, Cinnamon

Herbal: Green Herb, Mint, Eucalyptus

Earthy: Wet Earth, Leather, Mineral, Tobacco, Graphite

Oak-Derived:  Cedar, Vanilla, Oak, Soft Spice

Where The Best Tempranillo is Grown:

  • Spain, where it is one of the leading grapes and grown throughout the country.  The grape is the star of many of the the wine regions of the North of Spain, including Rioja, Nararra, and Penedès.  Here and elsewhere, it is frequently blended  with Grenache, Cariñena (called Mazuelo in Rioja), and Graziano.
  • Spain’s (arguably) most famous wine and winery, Vega Sicilia, makes a  Tempranillo-based blend and is leading the way for a resurgence of the vines and wines of the Ribera del Duero region of Spain.
  • Tempranillo is also the leading grape variety of the Spanish regions of Valdepeñas and La Mancha, where it sometimes goes by the name of Cencibel, Ojo de Libre, Tinto Fino, Tinto del Pais, Tinto del Toro or Ull de Liebre.
  • Portugal’s Douro Valley, where it is used to produce varietal wines and is also a key blending partner in the fortified wines of Port.
  • Tempranillo is also used as a varietal wine in the Portuguese region of the Alentejo. In Portugal it is usually referred to as “Tinta Roriz” or “Tinta Aragonez”.
  • California, Washington State, and Oregon. The TAPAS (Tempranillo Advocates and Producers) people do a lot to promote Tempranillo in the New World – check them out!
  • Texas – Alamosa Wine Cellars in Bend, Texas made a 100% Estate-grown Tempranillo Blend called “El Guapo” – it  was the first Texas wine I fell in love with! Read more about that story here: https://bubblyprofessor.com/2011/08/26/texas-tempranillo/
  • Australia, particularly McLaren Vale.  Australian producer D’Arenberg has a Tempranillo/Grenache/Souzao blend called “Sticks and Stones”.
  • Chile, Argentina, and Mexico all have some plantings.

Cabernet Franc

The Soundbyte:  Cabernet Franc has often been thought of as Cabernet Sauvignon’s more cerebral and refined little brother.  Lower in tannins and acids, not quite as full-bodied, and more aromatic and herbaceous than Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc is also much better able to withstand cool temperatures and ripens early.  These characteristics most likely led to Cabernet Franc’s plantings in Bordeaux, where it still holds fast as one of the red grapes of the Bordeaux blend.

The grape’s cold weather-heartiness is also leading to increased plantings in much of the new world, and it’s unique “elegant-structured-spicy” quality is inspiring new legions of fans.  However, it might be time to hang up the “Cabernet Sauvignon’s little brother” cliché, and the sooner the better:  recent DNA technology has confirmed that Cabernet Franc, with a little help from Sauvignon Blanc, is actually Cabernet Sauvignon’s father.

Typical Attributes of a Cabernet Franc-based wine:

  • Medium tannins, sometimes referred to as “silky”, “fine”, or “well-integrated” tannins.  Whatever you call it, Cabernet Franc does indeed have a lower tannin profile and a smoother mouth feel than many red wines.
  • Elegance, finesse, and well-structured:  well-earned terms used to describe Cabernet Franc’s balanced, moderate tannin and moderate acidity combination.
  • Typical flavors and aromas include red fruit, berries, perfume, and spice.
  • Bright, sometimes pale-red in color, although the color and depth can be deeper in warm weather versions.
  • Though typically thought of as lighter wines, Cabernet Franc-based reds from strong vintages or warmer climates can be full bodied and well-structured for aging.
  • Cabernet Franc is used to make delightful rosĂ©s in the Loire and in many new world regions.
  • Cabernet Franc’s cold-hardiness makes it a natural for ice wines as well as late harvest dessert wines, as is done in Ontario and New York.

Typical Aromas of a Cabernet Franc-based wine:

Fruity: Raspberry, Blueberry, Strawberry, Cranberry, Red Cherry, Black Currant, Cassis, Plum, Pomegranate

Spicy:  Black Pepper, White Pepper, Dried Herbs, Black Licorice, Rosemary

Earthy/Vegetal:  Tobacco, Cedar, Cigar Box, Green Bell Pepper, Green Olives, Graphite, Mushroom, Tea

Floral:  Violets, “Blue Flowers,” Perfume

Oak-derived:  Vanilla, Coconut, Sweet Wood, Smoke

Where the Best Cabernet Franc is Grown:

  • Bordeaux, where it generally plays third fiddle in the Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Cabernet Franc/Malbec/Petit Verdot quintet.  However, Cabernet Franc often gets to be the star of the show in St. Émilion and in much of Bordeaux’s right bank, where some of the most prestigious wines of the region (and the world) give Cabernet Franc a starring role. The vineyards at Château Cheval Blanc, one of the world’s most renowned wines, are planted to about 57% Cabernet Franc, and at Château Ausone, a St. Émilion Premier Grand Cru ClassĂ© “Category A,” the vineyards are about 50% Cabernet Franc and 50% Merlot.
  • The Loire Valley, where the regions of Chinon, Bourgueil, and Saumur-Champigny make both red and rosĂ© wines from a minimum of 90% Cabernet Franc.  Cab Franc is sometimes called “Bouchy” or “Breton” in the Loire.
  • Tuscany, of all places, where a brave soul at Tenuta di Trinoro makes a blended wine with varying levels of Cabernet Franc, feeling it is “under planted” in Bordeaux.
  • Northern Italy, particularly Friuli and Veneto, where it goes by the name “Bordo”.
  • Many people feel Cabernet Franc might have found a home in the vineyards of Hungary.  Cabernet Franc in Hungary gained lots of attention in the late 1990’s when it became apparent that some regions of Hungary were not optimal for Cabernet Sauvignon to reach its full ripeness. Cabernet Franc is now grown widely in the Hungarian regions of Villány, Szekszárd, and Eger.
  • Ontario, Canada, where is it made into both dry table wines and icewines.
  • New York’s Finger Lakes and Long Island wine regions, as well as the states of Virginia, Michigan and Colorado.
  • California and Washington State, where the grape appears as part of the Meritage Blend as well as in varietal wines. In the warm Napa Valley, the plantings are small, but in some cases quite prestigious.  For instance, Della Valley Vineyards “Maya” is a blend of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Gamay

The Soundbyte:  The Gamay grape—officially known as  Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc—can make uncomplicated, easily drinkable, light bodied, light-colored red wines.  It is also capable of producing richly hued, rather tannic, complex and age-worthy wines.  It’s a vinifera chameleon.

One thing that we can be assured of, though, is that the grape is hearty in the vineyard.  The grape is so prolific and high-yield that long ago it was feared that the grapes would overwhelm the vineyards of Burgundy, and too much Gamay might run the risk of damaging the reputation of the fine Pinot Noir the Burgundy region was (and is) known for. In order to avoid this messy complication, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy in the early 1400’s banished the grape from the Kingdom and declared it to be an  “evil, disloyal plant”.

Grape growers who loved the high-yield, easy-drinking wine were nonplussed and set up their beloved Gamay vines just a bit to the south of the vineyards of Burgundy, where the grape still reigns today.

Typical Attributes of a Gamay Based Wine:

    • Light to medium bodied, although it can surprise you at times with a sturdy wine.
    • Tannins are all over the place; some versions are light to medium, some versions have sturdy tannins.  The grapes themselves are considered high tannin, although wine-making traditions often ameliorate their impact.
    • Crisp, lively acidity.
    • Some versions can have a light, cranberry juice-like clear red colors; others have a deeper red hue that looks just like Pinot Noir.
    • Fruit-forward aromas and flavors of ripe berries, red fruits of all kinds, even apples and pears.
    • Many versions are “picnic wines” – uncomplicated  and easy to drink.  The fact that Gamay can be served  slightly chilled for a refreshing thirst quencher adds to the picnic appeal.
    • Beaujolais, by far the best-known Gamay-based wine around, is often (but by no means always) made via the fermentation technique known as carbonic maceration.  Because of this unique process, Beaujolais often displays aromas of banana, bubble gum, and “red hard candy.”  Whether these aromas are derived from the grape or from the fermentation process is up for debate.
    • Many Gamay-based wines are highly drinkable when young, although Gamay is capable of producing age-worth wines. The Beaujolais Crus are all good examples of age worthy Gamay.
    • We can’t forget the very popular “nouveau” style wine made from Gamay that is  intended to be consumed just a few months after harvest.  Look for Beaujolais Nouveau to be released every year on the Third Thursday of November, along with a good deal of publicity and many excellent parties.

Typical Aromas of a Gamay-based Wine:

Fruity:  Strawberry,  Raspberry, Cranberry, Cherry, Red Plum, Red Currant, Ripe Pears, Red Apple

Floral:  Lavender, Wild Flowers, Violets, Rose Petal

Oak-Derived: Oak, Cedar,  Fresh Lumber, Vanilla, Sweet Spice, Licorice, Nutmeg

Found too often to ignore: Old-fashioned pink Bubblegum, Banana (think Banana Candy, especially “Laffy Taffy”), Red Hard Candy, Skittles and Starburst (try it for yourself!)

Where The Best Gamay is Grown:

  • The Beaujolais  Region of France, just south of (and somewhat overlapping, and technically part of) the Burgundy Region.  The wines of the region include  Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Villages, and highest quality wines known as “Beaujolais  Cru” and labeled with their village names.   The most well-known, Beaujolais Nouveau, accounts for just over 50% of the entire output of Beaujolais.
  • It’s kind of a well-known  secret, but Gamay is still permitted in certain parts of Burgundy such as  the Mâconnais, and just may be surreptitiously tucked in amongst the Pinot vines even in  some of Burgundy’s higher ranking vineyards.
  • France’s Loire Valley, particularly Anjou, Touraine, and Cheverny, where the grape may  turn up in red wines, rosĂ©, or sparkling wines.
  • The Niagara Peninsula  and other parts of Ontario (Canada).
  • California grows  some Gamay, but there was confusion in the past about a wine called “Napa Gamay” or “Gamay Beaujolais”.  It is  now known that these wines were made from a grape known as ValdiguiĂ©, which has its own history and style.  However, you can still find some real Gamay being grown in California these days.
  • Oregon, living up to its nickname of “Burgundy West,”  is trying  its hand with Gamay.
  • Australia and New Zealand have a bit of Gamay.

Malbec

The Soundbyte:  One of Malbec’s earliest claims to fame is the spot it holds as one of the grape varieties approved for making red wines in the Bordeaux region of France.  It seems that Malbec was fairly widely planted in Bordeaux before a “particularly harsh winter” in 1956 wiped out a good majority of the vines, never to be re-planted.  Nevertheless, Malbec is still used in Bordeaux, albeit in small amounts. Malbec  can bring spiciness, very deep color, ample tannin, and a particular plum-like flavor to blended wines. More recently, Malbec has found a new home and a new home in the high-altitude red wines of Argentina.  The best Malbecs can be described as mouth-filling, fruity, and sumptuous.  Worldwide, Malbec is planted in small amounts, but its popularity and acres planted is on the rise.

Typical Attributes of a Malbec-based Wine:

  • Medium to full-bodied.  Malbec-based wines are known for having a high level of dissolved solids, known in the wine world as “extract.”
  • In France the grape is primarily used for blending, although the New World tends to make Malbec into 100% varietals.
  • The tannins tend to be medium-to-full; when young, the tannins are sometimes described as tight or tightly-wound. Wines from warmer regions, or those made  using certain wine making techniques (such as PFM) can have tannins that are described as plush or ripe.
  • Malbec tends to make earthy, “rustic” style wines.
  • Malbec-based wines tend to be very deep red or purple, almost inky, in color.
  • Malbec also makes a delightful rosĂ© wine and…I’m beginning to see some late harvest/sweet wines made using Malbec. 

Typical Aromas of a Malbec-based Wine:

Fruity:  Plum, Dark Cherry, Cooked Berries, Blackberry, Boysenberry, Raspberry, Fig, Black Currant

Spicy:  Anise, Vanilla, Cocoa, Chocolate, Espresso, Tobacco

Sometimes from the Grape, and sometimes from Oak:  Oak, Cedar, Fresh Lumber, Mocha, Toast, Coffee, Tar

Where The Best Malbec is Grown:

  • Argentina…it especially thrives in the province of Mendoza.  Malbec is the major red varietal grape planted in Argentina.
  • In the Bordeaux region of France, where it is blended in small amounts to add spice to the Bordeaux Blend.
  • Cahors, the region in Southwest France known for making Malbec-based  wines sometimes called “The Black Wine of Cahors”.
  • There is small amount grown in the Central Loire Valley of France.
  • There are some plantings in California, Washington State, Oregon and Texas— where it is made into both varietal wines and as a part of the Meritage blend.
  • You may be drinking Malbec but don’t know it; the grape goes by many aliases including “Auxerrois”, “Cot”, and “Pressac”

Pinot Noir

The Soundbyte:  The Pinot Noir grape has been grown in the Burgundy region of France for centuries, and, typically unblended, makes the region’s world famous red wines.  Pinot Noir is also grown in Champagne, where it makes its way into many “house blend” Champagnes as well as Blanc de Noirs and Rosé Champagne.  Pinot also growns in the Loire; Sancerre Rogue is Pinot Noir!

Pinot Noir has also found a home in the Willamette Valley Region of Oregon State, so much so that the region is often referred to as “Burgundy West.”  The grape also does well in the cooler growing regions of California, the warmer spots of New Zealand, and the cool spots of Australia (think Tasmania, Yarra Valley, and the Mornington Peninsula).

However, the grape is incredibly finicky in the vineyard, and many other growing regions are taking a chance with Pinot Noir.  Pinot Noir is often called the “heartbreak grape”, as it is also a difficult grape to handle in the winery, Pinot Noir can be “the best of wines…or the worst of wines.”

Typical Attributes of a Pinot Noir-based Wine:

  • Light garnet to dark ruby in color…sometimes the lightness of the color belies the flavor intensity of the wine!
  • Medium body, medium in tannin
  • The finest Pinot Noir wines combine juicy fruit with good, zingy, balanced acidity.
  • Pinot Noir is potentially one of the most delicate, complex, and food-friendly red wines.
  • Pinot Noir has a signature aromas (imho) of floral notes at the top of the glass, cherry-berry at the bottom, both circling a core of “earthy-wet dirt” hints.
  • Save Pinot Noir for an occasion when you have at least 25 dollars to spend…bad Pinot Noir can be disappointing indeed. (The “New World Hope” exception to this rule just might be Pinot Noir from Tasmania…time will tell.)
  • Pinot Noir makes fantastic sparkling wines and is the most widely planted grape in Champagne.  If you are drinking a Blanc de Noir, chances are, you are drinking Pinot.
  • RosĂ© of Pinot Noir is a beautiful thing.

Typical Aromas of a Pinot Noir-Based Wine:

Fruity:  Black Cherry, Dried Cherry, Raspberry, Strawberry, Cranberry, Plum

Earthy:  Mushroom, Wet Dirt, Wet Leaves, Barnyard, Smoke

Floral:  Rose, Violet, Dried Flowers

Wood-Derived:  Vanilla, Smoke, Oak, Hints of Spice from Barrel Aging

Where The Best Pinot Noir is Grown:

  • The Burgundy Region of France
  • Champagne
  • France’s Loire Valley…Sancerre Rouge is actually Pinot Noir
  • Oregon State…sometimes called “Burgundy West”!
  • California, particularly in and around the Central Coast, Los Carneros, and The Russian River Valley.
  • New Zealand
  • Australia grows Pinot Noir in its cooler regions such as Tasmania, Yarra Valley, and the Mornington Peninsula.
  • Be very wary of Pinot Noir from Other Regions…it is a finicky grape in the vineyard!Mixed flavors such as an array of appetizers or finger foodFood Affinities – Base Ingredients:
  • Beef, Lamb, Veal, Poultry, Pork
  • Heavier seafood such as Salmon and Tuna…this is truly a wine that can pair with both red and white meat (depending on the preparation…)
  • This is an ideal wine for the typical American Thanksgiving menu, as well as most other “everybody brings a dish” type of holiday meals.

Syrah


The Soundbyte: The Syrah grape, also known as Shiraz, is   believed to be native to southeastern France. There’s a lovely legend that tells of the grape as a native to the city of Shiraz in Iran, transported from its Middle Eastern home to the south of France by a knight returning from the crusades—but, alas, it has been proven untrue and will remain with us as “just a good story.”

Today, the grape is widely grown in the South of France, where it stars as the main red grape in the Northern Rhône and a blending partner to a whole gaggle of grapes—including Grenache and Mourvèdre—in the south. It has become somewhat of an icon of Australian Wine.  In order to give the wine its own “down-under” identity apart from other producers, Australian winemakers often choose to call the grape Shiraz.  Syrah is also widely grown in many other new world regions, where it is made into dry reds of both the single-variety and blended-variety.  While it is often made into bubbly, rosé and dessert wine, Syrah is mainly known as a powerhouse red.

 Typical Attributes of a Syrah-based Wine:

  • European-style, Old-World Syrah-based wines tend to be medium-dark in color and concentrated in flavor. Old world Syrah is often blended with softer grapes to minimize or balance tannin and alcohol levels. These wines are often earthy, dense, smoky, herbal and even “gamey” wines.
  • New World Syrah/Shiraz-based wines tend to be dark purple, opaque, and inky in appearance.  Other attributes of New World Syah include high alchohol, fruit-forwardness, and intense tannins. These tannins are sometimes considered “soft”  or “velvety” because they are drinkable when the wines are still young (often a result of winemaking techniques).
  • Australian Shiraz is sometimes described as plush ripey. Who can resist that?
  • The Australians produce sparkling Shiraz.
  • Syrah also makes a lovely, dry rosĂ©

Typical Aromas of Syrah Wines:

Fruity:  Blackberry, Plum, Ripe Cherry, Currant, Prune, Blueberry, Orange Peel

Spicy:  Black Pepper, Cinnamon, Clove, Vanilla, Chocolate, Coffee, Espresso, “Burnt Coffee”

Chemical:  Leather, Burnt, Tar, Smoke, Burnt Rubber, Asphalt, Graphite

Earthy:  Gamey, Smoky, Minty, Barnyard, Garrigue

Floral:  Lavender, Wild Flowers, Dried Flowers, Violets

Where The Best Syrah is Grown:

  • Australia.
  • The South of France.  Syrah stars in the wines of the RhĂ´ne, as the dominant variety in the North (such as the famous wines of Hermitage and CĂ´te RĂ´tie), and as part of a blend in the South (as in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and CĂ´tes du RhĂ´ne).
  • Syrah also does well in the Southern French regions of Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon.
  • South Africa, especially the warmer regions such as Paarl and Franscheok.  For a real treat, try a bottle of “The Chocolate Block” from Boekenhoutskloof Winery (extra credit if you can pronounce it).
  • California, especially Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa, and Santa Barbara.
  • Washington State, the new “hot” growing region for Syrah.

Zinfandel

Soundbyte: Zinfandel used to be known as “California’s Mystery Grape,” as an old-timey legend says that Zinfandel vines of the vitis vinifera species were growing happily in California before European settlement of the New World.

This was fun to believe for a while, but today we know better,  and it is believed that today’s Zinfandel traveled from Croatia to Vienna during the Habsburg Monarchy’s rule over Croatia.  Some cuttings ended up in the Imperial Nursery in Vienna, and from there were sent to a horticulturist in Long Island, who sent some vines out to California, where Italian immigrants working the gold rush appreciated the grape’s sturdy, robust style and planted them with enthusiasm, only to abandon their vineyards when the gold rush fizzled out.  These vineyards, and their mystery grapes, were then rediscovered years later with the post-prohibition wave of California winemakers. Quite a story, right?

DNA fingerprinting has revealed that today’s Zinfandel is genetically equivalent to the Crljenak Kaštelanski grape of Croatia  and either identical to or very-very-very closely related to the well-known Croatian grape known as Plavac Mali. Zinfandel is also either identical to—or very closely related to—Primitivo, as grown in Puglia.

Wherever it came from and whatever you call it, Zinfandel has proved itself as a hardworking, heat-seeking, robust grape.

 Typical Attributes of a Zinfandel-based Wine:

    • Fruit-forward,  intense fruit flavors…the aromas and flavors of blackberry, cherry and plum are quite recognizable.
    • In my wine tastings I generally introduce Zin as “Blackberry/Black Pepper/Black Licorice.”  It’s a pretty good Zin clichĂ©.
    • Medium to high alcohol…sometimes 15% or more.
    • Medium to full  body; more likley towards the full.
    • Medium to high tannin combined with lively acidity.  Warm weather growing areas can mellow the tannins to the velvety type, but they remain quite high.
    • Red Zinfandel’s spice, fruit, and acidity make it a very food friendly wine.
    • Yes….the  Zinfandel grape can be made in the “White Zinfandel” style.  To make white zinfandel, the wine is allowed to ferment on the intensely colored red grape skins for a day or  two, just until the juice turns a light pink color.  At this time, the juice is pressed off  the grape skins while the fermentation process finishes.  While it is true that your Mama’s White Zinfandel most likely had a touch of residual sugar and this style remains popular today, Zinfandel is also made into crisp, dry, serious rosĂ©.
    • Late harvest Zinfandel is often made into a luscious, complex dessert wine; one of my favorites is “Zinnie de Potelle” by Chateau Potelle.
    • Some winemakers freeze their late harvest (or regular harvest) Zinfandel grapes to make to make “ice wine-style” dessert wines, often with cute-cute-cute names such as “Fro-Zin”.

Typical Aromas of a Zinfandel-based Wine:

  • Fruity
    • Blackberry, Blackberry  Jam, Boysenberry, Boysenberry Jam, Raspberry, Raspberry Jam, Plum, Ripe Cherry, Pomegranate, Raisin, Prune
  • Spicy
    • Black Pepper, Cinnamon, Clove, Nutmeg, Allspice, Anise, Licorice, Chocolate
  • Wood-derived:
    • Oak, Vanilla
  • Sometimes:
    • Maple, Mushroom, Mint, Mineral

Where The Best Zinfandel is Grown:

  • California, especially Sonoma Valley, Amador County, the Sierra Foothills, Paso Robles, and Lodi
  • The south of Italy—as Primitivo
  • Croatia, where it is sometimes called “plavac—as Plavac Mali or Crljenak Kaštelanski
  • Texas – including the Texas High Plains AVA
  • While California remains  Zinfandel’s favorite adopted home, it is having some success in South Africa,  South America, and Australia

Food Affinities – Base Ingredients:

  • Beef, Lamb, Venison, Pork, Chicken, Turkey, Duck, Sausage

Food Affinities – Bridge Ingredients:

  • Spicy Foods
  • Spicy, Slightly Sweet Foods like Barbeque Sauce or Hoisin Sauce.
  • Tex-Mex Flavors
  • Grilled Flavors, Smoky Flavors
  • Blue Cheese Bacon Cheeseburgers
  • Burgers with Caramelized Onions
  • Any type of burgers (even turkey burgers)
  • Sausage and Peppers
  • Eggplant, Mushrooms, Black Beans
  • Tomatoes, Sun-dried Tomatoes
  • Mint, Rosemary, Oregano
  • Thyme, Cumin, Blackening Spices
  • Onions, Shallots
  • Walnuts, Pecans, Hazelnuts
  • Chocolate – which many people love, but most folks will recommend that you stick to the sweet versions of Zin for dessert.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Soundbytes: Cabernet Sauvignon is probably the world’s most popular and well-known red grape variety.  It is the main grape in the world famous wines of Bordeaux, and the wine that made the Napa Valley famous.  The beauty of Cabernet is its thick skin, both literally and figuratively.  Literally the grape’s thick skin and small berries give a  wine deep color, complex flavors, and hearty tannins.  Figuratively, Cabernet Sauvignon is thick skinned by being resilient to a variety of climates and soils in the vineyard.  Just about every country that has a climate warm enough to consistently ripen red grapes successfully grows Cabernet Sauvignon.

Typical Attributes of a Cabernet Sauvignon-based Wine:

  • Dark Ruby Red to purple, opaque, and almost inky in appearance
  • Young Cabernet Sauvignon is ripe, powerful, and concentrated.
  • Highly tannic
  • Complex with layers of interesting flavors and textures
  • The high level of tannin in Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines makes them among the most age-worthy of all wines.
  • Aged Cabernet takes on grace, finesse, and an earthy, complex bottle bouquet.

Typical Aromas of a Cabernet Sauvignon-based Wine:

  • Fruity
    • Blackberry, Blueberry,  Ripe Cherry, Black Currant, Cassis, Plum, Prune, Raisin
  • Herbal/Vegetative
    • Vanilla, Mint, Eucalyptus, Bay Leaf, Green Bell Pepper, Green Olive, Rosemary, Dried Herb
  • Earthy
    • Cedar, Cigar Box, Cigar Smoke, Pencil Lead, Graphite, Tobacco, Wet Dog
  • Oak-Derived
    • Oak, Fresh Lumber, Cedar, Chocolate, Cocoa, Smoke

 Where The Best Cabernet Sauvignon is Grown:

  • The Bordeaux Region of France
  • California and Washington State, the far south of Oregon
  • Chile and Argentina
  • Australia
  • Italy, where it stars in some Super Tuscans, and is used in small amounts in many different wines
  • Cabernet grows  successfully in many regions throughout the wine making world…it adapts well to a  variety of conditions.

 

The Urban Legend:  The Cabernet Sauvignon/Chocolate Food Pairing:

According to some…Chocolate and Cabernet Sauvignon is a match made in Heaven.  For other people, it’s not so great and some people really dislike the pairing! In my Intro to Professional Wine Studies Class, I have my students try out the Cab/Chocolate combination without giving them any hints as to whether they “should” like it or not.  In my 16 years as a wine teacher, I’ve led more than 12,000 students through this exercise, and I estimate that the split is just about 50/50, with women more likely to enjoy the combination than men.

The idea behind the combination is a common flavor or aroma bridge…Cabernet often displays aromas of cocoa or chocolate.

The reason some people do not care for the combination is that sweet food tends to dry out and emphasize the acid/bitter/tannic tastes of a dry red wine.  I personally do not care for it…but all I can really do is suggest you try it for yourself