One of the most important elements to wine education is the knowledge of grape varieties main characteristics.
Among the thousands of existing grapes varieties, only a few hundred are used to make wines.
Ten of them have established a prominent reputation for making premium quality wines in different locations across the World and are now considered as international grape varieties:
Chardonnay, Chenin blanc, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon for white grapes and Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Grenache for black grapes.
Chardonnay is a very delicate variety which is not aromatic and has the particularity of being able to generate premium wines in very different type of climates. Its flavors can vary from green fruits to tropical fruits depending on the climate. Moreover, the production process has a great influence on the wine flavours and Chardonnay is often associated with a creamy taste. Burgundy is the classic region of production but an increasing number of countries such as Australia, New Zealand, United-States, Chile, Argentina and South Africa can also produce premium quality wine from Chardonnay.
Chenin Blanc is very acid and can be vinified in a number of different styles, from dry to sweet and from sparkling to fortified. The classic region of production is the Loire Valley in France, and the other most famous country for premium Chenin Blanc is South Africa.
Riesling is a fruity and floral aromatic variety who can develop different kind of flavours depending on the climate of the region it is grown. It can be used to produce dry wines as well as sweet wines. Germany and France (Alsace) are the classic regions of production while Austria, Australia and New Zealand are the other most famous countries able to produce prime quality Riesling.
Sauvignon Blanc is an aromatic variety and produces usually dry wines with high acidity, medium body and display aromas of green fruit and vegetation. Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé in the Loire Valley of France are the two classic regions of production. Nowadays, New Zealand, Australia and Chile can also produce premium sauvignon blanc.
But Sauvignon Blanc can also be used to produce sweet wines. In Sauterne, it is added to Semillon to provide fruit flavors but also and mainly acidity which is needed to balance the sweetness of the wine. Nowadays, Chile, France and Australia are the main countries cultivating Semillon.
Cabernet Sauvignon has thick skins that generate deeply coloured wines with lots of tannin, acidity and black fruits flavours like blackcurrant.
Cabernet Sauvignon is often blent with Merlot wich is the perfect match, providing alcohol and structure and minimising the astringent character of cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot can develop flavours of black or red fruits, depending on the climate where it is grown. In Bordeaux, the blend of these two grapes is sometimes completed by Cabernet Franc and eventually Petit Verdot.
Pinot Noir has thin skins, is difficult to grow and produce a delicate wine with light colour and low to medium levels of tannins. It usually displays flavours of red fruits with sometimes vegetal or animal traces. Burgundy is the classic region of production for Pinot Noir while Central Otago in New-Zealand and Oregon in North America are the most other famous premium regions.
Pinot Noir is also one of the 3 main grape varieties that are used to produce Champagne.
Syrah, called Shiraz in Australia, is made of thick skins like the Cabernet Sauvignon. It produces full body deeply coloured wines with medium or high level of tannins and medium acidity. It displays black fruit and chocolate flavours with hints of spices. Syrah is often blended to Grenache which is the third most widely planted black grape variety worldwide. It has large berries with thin skins, low acidity and high level of sugar. It produces light coloured but full body wine with red fruit flavours.
Grenache is the main grape variety of Southern Rhone while Syrah is the only black grape variety accepted in Northern Rhone. Apart from France, many other countries are now producing wines from these two grapes and the most famous ones are Australia for Shiraz and Spain for Grenache.
If you want to know more about wine you can listen to podcast such as:
I'll Drink to That!
Guild of Sommeliers
You can also read some classic books about wine such as:
THE OXFORD COMPANION TO WINE by Jancis Robinson
THE WORLD ATLAS OF WINE by Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson
WINE GRAPES, A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, including their Origins and Flavours by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, José Vouillamoz
BORDEAUX LEGENDS by Jane Anson
If you wish to boost your wine and spirits knowledge, several internationally recognized qualifying programmes are available here: