We’re midway through a long holiday weekend — and you don’t want to do any work today, do you? Instead, let’s take a few minutes to round off your growing knowledge of wines. Here’s a quick-reference chart of the 10 most important wine-grape varieties. If you learn these, you will be “fluent” in most wine discussions (even those that surround the best wine). Print out the chart and spend some time studying it when you get a chance. Then keep it handy to refer to from time to time.
Vitis vinifera is the original Roman grape from which todays 4,000 to 5,000 varieties come. It is the viniculture equivalent of the Indo-European language. This is a good phrase to have in your pocket in case you should bump into a wine snob at a restaurant. You can put your nose to the wine and say something like, “Ah, she sings still of Vitis vinifera.” Dont sweat about the many varieties; you need to know only 10 to consider yourself competent in the world of wine.
1. Cabernet Sauvignon. The No.1 red grape. Originally from Bordeaux, its now grown in California, Australia, Spain, Italy, Bulgaria, and Chile. It has a strong, tough, tannic flavor.
2. Chardonnay. The Chardonnay grape, from the Burgundy area of France, is used to make red and white wines, including Champagne. Like Cabernet Sauvignon, it has a strong taste that tends to be reliable regardless of where it is grown. Thus, it is grown all over.
3. Chenin Blanc. This is a white grape grown in the Loire Valley and also in South Africa. Generally, it produces wines that have a strong, sour taste — except in some areas of the Loire Valley, where it produces, according to the experts, some of the worlds best white wines.
4. Gewürztraminer. Also known as Traminer, this grape gives a pronounced, spicy aroma. Some people love it. Some people hate it.
5. Merlot. The second-best-known grape from Bordeaux, Merlot has much of the richness and body of Cabernet Sauvignon but without so much of the tannins. Thats why it can be drunk younger. Like Cabernet, it is grown everywhere.
6. Pinot Noir. A temperamental grape grown in Burgundy, California, and Oregon, it is simpler and a bit lighter than Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot but quite good. The Oregon Pinot Noirs are supposed to taste more like the Burgundian wines than the Californians.
7. Riesling. The best German white grape, it makes a tart wine that is best drunk young. One of the most important things to remember about Riesling is how to pronounce it: reesling, not riseling. (In German, you generally pronounce the second vowel in a vowel cluster.)
8. Sauvignon Blanc. This is the white grape that is used to make Sancerre (which the Brits love) and Pouilly Fume (which served as my introduction to wine, just after Mateus). In California, they call it Fume Blanc.
9. Semillon. The worlds most undervalued white-wine grape, it makes great Sauternes. 10. Syrah. This is the worlds most undervalued red-wine grape (though that is rapidly changing). The Aussies call it Shiraz.