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Get to know your grapes

Get to Know Your Grapes


The type of grape used in winemaking determines the variety of wine produced. Here’s what you need to know about some classic reds:

Grown only in Tuscany, Italy, at present; a selection of Sangiovese grown for one of the best and most expensive Italian red wines: Brunello di Montalcino.

Cabernet Franc
Grown in the Bordeaux district and middle Loire Valley of France, Italy and recently, California; related to Cabernet Sauvignon and similar varieties. Also called "Breton" in France. Generally blended with Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot in Bordeaux.

Cabernet Sauvignon
Grown in the Bordeaux district and Provence in France, Chile, Australia, California and South Africa – practically everywhere; a very fine red wine grape, responsible for the great Bordeaux reds, particularly Médocs. Usually yields the best red wine of California, with great body and long life.

Gamay Beaujolais
Grown only in California; originally thought to be the "true" Gamay of the Beaujolais district but now identified as a strain of Pinot Noir. Will be gradually phased out in the future; its wines, however, are generally quite fruity and good.

Grown in the Southern Rhône district of France, Spain and California. Grown for Tavel and Lirac, among the best rosé wines of France; generally has insufficient color for red wines and is blended with other grapes, as in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Yields excellent rosé wines in California.

Grown in the Bordeaux district of France, Argentina and in tiny quantities in California. Fine-quality red wine grape; used for wines of Cahors, blended with Cabernet in Bordeaux. Produces rich, full red wines. Should be more widely planted.

Grown in the Bordeaux district of France, Northern Italy and Switzerland – and increasingly popular in California and also South America. An excellent red wine grape; generally not used on its own but blended with other grapes in Bordeaux. Softens Cabernet Sauvignon and is found to improve many California Cabernets.

The most widely planted grape in Bordeaux, Merlot – a red grape – is also grown in most of the same places as Cabernet Sauvignon. And in fact, the two are often blended. Because Merlot in general has somewhat less tannin than Cabernet Sauvignon, it often feels softer on the palate. Its flavors often run to mocha and boysenberry.

Grown in Piemonte and Lombardy, Italy, and on small acreage in California. Grown for all the great Northern Italian reds – Barolo, Barbaresco, Ghemme, Gattinara and Valtellina. Makes very fine wines – rich, slow to mature.

Petite Sirah
Grown in California and also in parts of France; originally thought to be a strain of Syrah; actually a different grape, known as Durif. Produces excellent, very rich red wines, and is increasingly popular as a varietal.

Pinot Noir
Grown in the Champagne and Burgundy regions of France, Switzerland, Germany, Eastern Europe, South America and California. An excellent red wine grape but not always easy to grow, it is vinified as a "blanc de noirs," away from the skins, to make Champagne. Traditionally, California Pinot Noirs have tended to be too light in color, but there has been tremendous improvement recently.

Grown in Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna, Italy; important grape used for Chianti but blended with as many as four other grapes for this purpose. Elsewhere, usually sold as a varietal. Now very promising in California.

Grown in the Rhône district of France. Produces the great Rhône reds – Côte Rôtie, Hermitage and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Recently introduced in California and not to be confused with Petite Sirah. Yields very rich, robust red wines.

The much-loved red grape of California, Zinfandel is grown almost no place else in the world. In fact, its history is still a mystery, though scientists think that the grape may be related to a Croatian grape. Zinfandel has a mouth-filling, thick berry-ness that is sometimes described as jammy or chewy. White Zinfandel (not a separate grape variety) is made when Zinfandel grapes are fermented without their dark purple skins.


Grown in the Burgundy wine region of France, California, Eastern Europe and South America, Chardonnay yields the best dry white wines of California and the Blancs de Blancs of Champagne. Chardonnays are fine, luscious wines: dry, with great scent and class.

One of the most popular white grape varieties in America and throughout the New World, as well as the white grape of the Burgundy region of France. Very easy to enjoy, thanks to its full, round body and buttery, apple flavors laced with toastiness (the latter from the oak barrels used in the making of most Chardonnays).

Chenin Blanc
Grown in the Loire Valley of France, and in California and South America, this fine white wine grape is grown for Vouvray, Coteaux du Layon and Savennières in the Loire. Produces soft, scented wines, generally with a slight sweetness; best when not too dry.

Grown in Alsace, France, and in Germany, Austria, Northern Italy and California. A superior selection of Traminer, it produces full-bodied wines with a characteristic "spicy" flavor. It has reddish berries that give white juice; very full in flavor.

Johannisberg Riesling
Grown in central Europe, Australia and California; an outstanding grape, grown for the great wines of the Rhine and Mosel regions in Germany. Yields excellent results in California, and is best when not too dry. Also known as White Riesling.

Grown in the Mediterranean region; also in Northern Italy, France and California; excellent sweet grape; grown for Asti Spumante, the famous Italian sparkling wine. Known as Moscato, it produces outstanding sweet dessert wines in Italy and California.

Pinot Blanc
Grown in the Champagne, Burgundy and Alsace regions of France; also in Germany, Italy and California; very similar to Chardonnay, yielding wines of the same character and class, but being phased out generally in favor of Chardonnay.

Pinot Gris
Grown in Alsace, France, and in Germany, Switzerland and Northern Italy; a cousin of the red Pinot Noir. Called Pinot Grigio in Italy, Ruländer in Germany and Malvoisie in Switzerland. Produces fine, full-bodied white wines with a fine bouquet.

Pinot Grigio
Like Pinot Blanc, one of the white grapes of the Pinot family and, like Riesling and Gewürztraminer, Pinot Grigio loves cold climates. The most renowned Pinot Grigios come from the northernmost regions of Italy, especially those regions that border the Alps, as well as Alsace, where it is known as Pinot Gris or, confusingly, as "Tokay." In the U.S., Oregon is emerging as the top state for delicious, lively Pinot Grigio with light almond, lemon and vanilla flavors.

Sauvignon Blanc
Grown in the upper Loire Valley and in Bordeaux, France; also in Chile, Australia and California. A very fine grape, it’s grown for Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé in the Loire, and Graves Blanc and Sauterne in Bordeaux. Yields equally good dry or sweet wines; sometimes called Fumé Blanc to distinguish a deliberately dry style from 100% varietal.

Grown in the Bordeaux district of France, in South America, Australia, and California; the second most important grape in white Graves and Sauternes from Bordeaux; excellent for sweet wines. Best when not totally dry, Sémillon is often blended with Sauvignon Blanc.

Grown in Italy and France and on some acreage in California; known as Ugni Blanc in France; grown for brandy production. It is a chief grape used in Soave, Orvieto, Frascati and other Italian whites; also known as "Saint-Emilion."