This Week at the Shop: The Noble Grapes

The Week’s Schedule:

The Noble Grapes:

According to Jancis Robinson and her book, Wine Grapes, there are 1368 grape varieties that are used to make wine around the world commercially. Yet, when you walk into any wine shop, including here, six varieties dominate the selection and they have become known as The Noble Grapes! These, mainly French varieties, popularity is a combination of timing (the French being the master wine producers of Europe during colonial expansion) and their ability to grow and produce well in almost any wine-growing climate. In recent years, many have suggested expanding this list from six to closer to twenty, but start with these and you wine exploration here and you still have a lot of ground to cover!

  • Chardonnay: By far the most famous and widely planted white wine grape in the world, its spiritual home is Burgundy but top-notch versions come from California, Australia, and Chile. It is very expressive of its climate, terrior, and vinification. Cool climate chardonnay (aka Chablis) are lean and crisp with higher acidity, flavors of apple, pears, lemon, honey, and touches of minerality. Warmer climate chardonnay (aka California) are fuller and richer with ripe fruit flavors of melon, pineapple, and other tropical fruits. Oak and malolactic fermentation is often used to add notes of vanilla, spice, and smoke and a creamy texture.
  • Sauvignon Blanc: Most famous from New Zealand’s Marlborough, believed to be from Bordeaux, but with it’s real spiritual home in Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé in the Loire Valley, Sauvignon Blanc offers expressive versions from Chile, California, Spain, South Africa, and Australia. Depending on the climate, Sauvignon Blanc’s flavors are a mixture of bright grapefruit/lime/lemon with gooseberry, green apple notes and more savory characteristics of bell pepper and fresh cut grass. It is rarely oaked, but oaking does add texture and a smokey note.
  • Riesling: Coming from Germany, Riesling make some of the greatest white wines in the world! While it is still shaking off its reputation from the 1970s and 1980s for low quality sweet wines, it makes wines that can be cellared for decades that develop an astonishing array of aromatic qualities. This is the only Noble Grape that is slightly picky about its conditions because it needs cooler climates to succeed. Apart from Germany, you can find great Riesling from Austria, Alsace, Northern Italy, South Australia, Washington State, New Zealand, Oregon, and Chile. They come is a variety of styles from fully sweet to completely dry and have crisp, piercing acidity with citrus flavors of lemon/lime, green apple, and passion fruit; there can also be desirable notes of petroleum and beeswax.
  • Pinot Noir: Pinot Noir is king! It makes some of the world’s most expensive, elegant, and breath-taking wines. It is a heartbreaking grape to grow because it is difficult but can produce such beauty. It is very expressive of climate, terrior, and vinification. In cooler climates, it has notes of strawberry, red cherry, and violets. In warmer climates, these flavors appear weightier. Depending on the style/terrior, notes of forest floor or mushroom will often be present. Pinot Noir is also an important grape in the production of sparkling wine (it, alongside Chardonnay, is one of three allowed grapes in Champagne). Great examples of Pinot Noir can be found in Burgundy, Germany, Northern Italy, Oregon, New Zealand, and California.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon: By far the most famous and probably the most widely planted grape in the world, its home is Bordeaux, where it is the dominant grape of the Left Bank. Today, it is the most important variety (and the most iconic) in many wine producing regions. It is often blended with other varieties (Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, et al) to add complexity and body to wines, just as has always been done in Bordeaux. No matter where it is grown, Cabernet Sauvignon is known for its common traits: deep dark color, solid tannin structure, medium acidity, blackcurrant notes, spiciness, and ability to handle oak. Cabernet Sauvignon can be found from every wine growing region in the world but iconic wines come from California, Australia, Chile, and Bordeaux.
  • Merlot: The second Noble Grape to come from Bordeaux, Merlot is dominant in blends from the Right Bank of Bordeaux and is used to add softness and elegance to blends. Merlot has had its ups-and-downs in popularity but is France’s second most widely planted variety and is also widely planted in many other grape growing regions because it works so well in blends. Typical Merlot has notes of plums, raspberries, and black cherries with plenty of savory notes like cedar, tobacco, and clove. Besides Merlot-heavy blends from Bordeaux, great Merlot comes out of the Washington State, California, Argentina, Australia, and Southern France.