Wine Grape Varieties and Their Characteristics

Below is a list of common wine grape varieties, their characteristics and the winemaking practices that best suit them. There are of course, plenty more, and the options for blending varietals or adding fruit goes without saying. It's okay if you just came for the beautiful grape photos.

Sauvignon Blanc

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A white variety that can range in its characteristics. The best growing conditions for Sauvignon Blanc is cooler climates as the variety is susceptible to sunburn and if ripens too quickly can lose a lot of its natural acidity. When picked at a lower baumé (11.5-12.5) Sauvignon Blanc will display grassy characters and citrus notes whereas a riper pick (12.5 baumé-13.5) will display more tropical notes such as passion fruit. It is a wine that is generally made in a simple un-oaked style though some French styles do use some oak contact. If making with oak contact it is difficult to find a good balance between oak and fruit so this is not recommended for beginners. This is a variety that relies on primary fruit so it is a wine best drunk young, do not cellar.

Riesling

Though made in a simple style Riesling is actually one of the harder varieties to get right. It is essential to maintain good acidity with Riesling, therefore cooler climates and getting the pick date correct is vital (10.5-12.5 baumé). It is generally made without oak contact and should have delicate citrus characters, white flower, green apple and good acidity. Because the acidity is higher with Riesling some winemakers may keep a small amount of must, chilled to add back to the fermented wine so that the wine is still dry but a small amount of sweetness will make the acid less aggressive. It is a wine that will age well and grow more complex.

Chardonnay

wine grape varieties chardonnay

Perhaps the most versatile of the white grape varieties Chardonnay can be made in an oaked style, un-oaked style and go through Malolactic Fermentation. It should be grown in cool to moderate climates as maintaining acidity is important. It displays a wide range of characteristics: at the lower baumé level you will see citrus, lemon and grapefruit and on the riper spectrum you will see stone fruit, peach, nectarine and melon characters. It is a variety that works cohesively with oak, but when using oak it is all about finding a balance between oak and fruit. Using too much new oak will dominate the fruit of the wine. It is a wine that will age well if the wine has good structure and balance.

Semillon

This is a variety that will grow in similar climates to Chardonnay however the desirable characteristics of Semillon are its grassiness and citrus characters which come from early picking dates (10-12 baumé). It is typically made in a style similar to Riesling to display those fresh characters but will work well with oak. It is also blended with Sauvignon Blanc to add phenolic depth. It is a wine that will age incredibly well.

Pinot Noir

wine grape varieties pinot noir

This is a variety that is incredibly hard to get right. There are a lot of commercial examples that lack Pinot Noir characteristics and drink more like a ‘dry red’. There are also examples that are bitter or ‘stemmy’ due to the extraction of oils in the stems of the Pinot Noir when pressed too hard. Good examples should be complex and show red berry flavors as well as earthy notes of mushroom, forest floor and game. It is a variety that prefers cooler climates. It can be made in an oaked or un-oaked style and the best examples will age will.

Shiraz

Perhaps the most commonly drunk wine variety, Shiraz is a variety that grows in a diverse range of climates from cold to hot with the greatest range of flavors. When grown in a cool climate it will show characters of white pepper, blueberry and plum whereas warmer climates will push into dark plums, blackberry, licorice and black pepper. It is a tannic variety, so it will benefit from oak maturation however it can be made in an un-oaked style. As it is a versatile grape it also works in blends with other red varieties such as Grenache, Mourvedre and even Cabernet Sauvignon It is a variety that will age well.

Cabernet Sauvignon

wine grape varieties Cab Sauv

Cabernet Sauvignon is a variety that typically displays leafy characters, red to dark berry characters, tobacco, plum and cassis. It often requires a longer ripening period to develop is flavor ripeness so it is better suited for cool to moderate climates. In cooler climates if not allowed to develop its fruit ripeness it can come across as green and bitter. When grown in warm climates it can ripen too fast and become simple and jammy. Cabernet Sauvignon is a variety with strong tannins, so oak maturation is recommended. It will blend well with other red varieties such as Merlot and Shiraz. It will age well and become more complex if the wine is made well.

Merlot

wine grape varieties merlot

A variety of declining popularity in Australia. It can often be seen as light, wishy-washy or callow. The best examples should display character of red fruits, black olive and fine tannins. It grows in climate similar to Cabernet Sauvignon and is more often than not seen in a blend with Cabernet Sauvignon as the two varieties work well together to fill what they lack on the palate on their own. This variety will benefit from oak maturation but can be un-oaked as well. Only the best examples will cellar.

Now that you know some of the basic wine grape varieties, you'll be able to plan your next wine batch today with final flavor profiles in mind.

About the Author

Jack has 12 years worth of experience in the wine industry and is an avid home brewer.

Credits

Merlot Grapes
Cab Sauv Grapes
Pinot Noir
Chadronnay
Sauvignon Blanc (Lead Image)

written by Jack Davis

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