What is that grape?
Along the Wine Road, we grow more varieties than any other wine region in the world. The wineries of the Wine Road, with their coastal and inland growing regions and distinct microclimates and soils, have the immense good fortune to be able to produce spectacular harvests from many different grape varieties.
The grapes that are grown along the Wine Road are used to produce world-renowned wines. Small lots of grapes are still being grown on plots of land that have produced grapes for over 140 years.
What is the difference between a variety and a varietal? The term variety is used to describe a type of grape. A wine made from that grape is referred to as a varietal (e.g. Pinot Noir).
What is the difference between a single varietal and a blend? Referring to a single varietal means the name of the wine listed on the wine label. Although that wine may have up to 25% of another varietal or varietals, it is still considered a single varietal. A blend is a mixture of two or more wines blended together; generally no varietal is more than 74%, keeping the winery from using the varietal name on the bottle.
Here are some of the varieties grown along the Wine Road, “click” on variety for descriptions:
A cross between Petit Bouschet and Grenache, Alicante Bouschet is one of the few red-fleshed grapes. Most red grape varieties have white flesh under the skins. Because of the red flesh and dark skins of this grape, the wine produced will be a deeper, more intense color.
Originating inItaly, Barbera found its way to California in the 1880s. Along with Sangiovese, Barbera was a favorite of Italian immigrants who settled throughout Sonoma County. Known for its rich color, low tannins and high acid, Barbera was used as a blending grape. Today, it is part of the “Cal-Italia” varietal trend and is produced by several Sonoma County wineries.
Wine produced from Cabernet Franc grapes can have the intensity of flavors of a Cabernet Sauvignon without the overpowering tannins, allowing it to be enjoyed without waiting years for the tannins to soften. The lighter body with less tannin and acid than Cabernet Sauvignons has helped to increase its popularity as a single varietal. Cabernet Franc continues to be blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot or Malbec to produce Meritage or Bordeaux varietal blends.
Noble, Aristocratic and the King of Red Wines are just a few phrases used to describe this small grape that produces some of the most magnificent and sought after wines in the world. Through DNA fingerprinting, Cabernet Sauvignon was found to be a cross between Cabernet Franc (red grape) and Sauvignon Blanc (white grape). Made in a variety of styles and often blended with otherBordeaux varietal grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon can be enjoyed when it is young or in some cases, cellared for years. Proper aging of a classically produced Cabernet Sauvignon will result in a smooth, delicious wine where once a tough tannic monster existed.
Popular in France and Spain as a blending varietal, Carignane was grown and produced by early California wine pioneers. A vigorous grape that produces fruit-driven, easy-to-drink wines. Carignane continues to be used as a blending wine, but is also produced as a single varietal wine.
Thought to be a relative of Barbera or Dolcetto or both varieties, Charbono is not produced as a single varietal in Italy. It dates back to the 1880s in California, and has found a small resurgence in popularity with the current “Cal-Italia” movement in the wine industry.
A Rhône varietal used as a blending grape or to produce an aromatic rosé. Cinsaut produces a softer, lighter bodied red wine with perfumey aromas and fruit forward flavors.
From the Piedmont region of Italy. Dolcetto, which means little sweet one, is produced in two distinctly different styles: a soft, slightly sweet aperitif styled wine or a robust, hearty rich wine. A classic Dolcetto exhibits flavors of citrus peel, almonds, blueberry and even licorice.
Known primarily as one of the French varieties used in the classic Châteauneuf-du-Pape from the Rhône region. In California, it is not often found as a single varietal but is often used in delicious Rhône varietal blends or in Rosé.
In the Bordeaux region of France, small amounts of this grape are often used to blend with Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. In California, Malbec is used in Meritage blends, but occasionally is found as a single varietal wine.
One of the classicBordeaux region grapes from France, Merlot was traditionally used for blending. In the early 1970s Merlot gained popularity with wine drinkers seeking a softer, fruiter red wine. Merlot can be enjoyed sooner, meaning less aging time, than Cabernet Sauvignon due to its softer tannins, yet has similar rich flavors.
With plantings in the Mediterranean regions of Spain and France, Mourvèdre is thought to have arrived in Northern California in the 1870s where it was called Mataro. Needing warm summer days to fully ripen, it found a perfect home in Sonoma County. This grape is often used in blending with varietals such as Grenache, or to create a fruity, crisp Rosé.
An almost extinct Rhône region (France) variety. Through DNA testing, it has been identified as having ties to Petite Sirah.
Used to blend with Cabernet Sauvignon or with other Bordeaux varietals, this wine is rarely found as a single varietal. It is usually blended to add color, a spicy quality and additional structure or backbone to a wine.
DNA studies show Petite Sirah is the Rhône grape Durif, which is a cross between Peloursin and Syrah. Although called “petite” the wine is anything but—it offers robust flavors and plenty of tannins.
Grown in the cooler regions of Sonoma County, this fog-loving grape has skyrocketed in popularity in the past ten years. Renowned in the Burgundian region of France, Pinot Noir is also an essential component in the production of some French Champagnes. Pinot Noir is both demanding to grow and to produce as a fine wine. Tasting notes for Pinot Noir encompass the widest vocabulary of any varietal in order to capture the sensual and elusive qualities that attract so many wine lovers to this varietal.
Brought to Sonoma County by Italian immigrants, Sangiovese is the most widely planted grape in Italy. Once known as the backbone of Chianti-blends, Sangiovese took a new direction in the late 1980s when winemakers inCalifornia and Italy began blending in small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon or the other Bordeaux grapes to create super-Tuscan Sangioveses. In California, Sangiovese is rarely used as a blending wine today. Rather it is produced as a varietal wine with possibly small amounts of other wines blended in to add a layer of dimension or additional flavor components.
The Australian and South African name for the Syrah grape. See Syrah for additional information.
Grown throughout the world, Syrah experienced a surge in popularity in the U.S. in the early 1990s. In order to fully ripen, Syrah demands a warm climate, which describes many of the growing regions within the Russian River Wine Road. Californians only recently distinguished between Syrah and Petite Sirah (a cross between Peloursin and Syrah), partly due to the Syrah clone called Petite Syrah that is grown in the Rhône region of France. Typical Syrah wine characteristics include white pepper, leather, wild gamey and intense dark berry flavors.
The renowned red grape of Spain’s Rioja region, Tempranillo has many names including Tinto Fino, Tinta Roriz, Tinta del Pais, Aragonez and Valdepañas. Some believe that Tempranillo originated in southern France as a natural hybrid of Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir. Considered the Cabernet Sauvignon of Spain, Tempranillo is generally blended with other varietals, similarly to the use of Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux.
For years it was known as Napa Gamay or Gamay until DNA fingerprinting properly identified the variety as Valdiguiè. This original French variety has all but disappeared as a varietal in France just as it has gained in popularity in California.
ZinfandelAlthough it remains a mystery how the first Zinfandel vines arrived in the United States, DNA testing has linked it to both the Italian variety Primitivo and the Croatian variety Crljenak Kasteljanski. Zinfandel was a standard variety found in field-blend wines produced by the Sonoma County wine pioneers. This robust wine has an enormous following among wine lovers and an organization (ZAP – Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) devoted entirely to its promotion.
The queen to Cabernet Sauvignon’s king, Chardonnay is grown and produced throughout the world. This white grape variety produces the famous Champagne, Chablis, White Burgundy and Maconnais wines from France. As a varietal wine, Chardonnay can range from rich, oaky and buttery to fresh, crisp and fruity. Chardonnay continues to reign as the most popular white wine in the world.
Once a popular wine ranging in style from dry to semi-dry to sweet, Chenin Blanc is primarily used for blending. Today acres of Chenin Blanc grapes have been replaced by higher demand varieties like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. This fruity, well-balanced wine is more challenging to find as a single varietal, but for white wine loves it can be worth the hunt.
Also known as Colombard, this white grape variety originated in the Charente district of France. Once the second most planted grape in California, today French Colombard is rarely found as a varietal wine. With its fruit forward flavors, it is generally used as a blending grape.
Originally from theAlsace region of France, Gewürztraminer quietly gains fan throughout the U.S. Noted for its strong floral aromas and classic lychee-nut and spicy flavors, this versatile, fruity white wine can be made bone dry to semi-dry and as a late harvest dessert wine.
A white grape originating in the Rhône region of France, where it is often blended with other Rhône varietals such as Roussane and Viognier. In California, the Rhône Rangers have helped to gain appreciate for these once lesser-known Rhône grapes. Rhône blends have increased in popularity and so have the number vineyard acres dedicated to them.
A versatile grape with ancient roots dating back to early civilizations. There are several Muscat grapes including Muscat Blanc, Muscat of Alexandria, Muscat Hamburg (Black Muscat), Orange Muscat and more. Because of its perfumey aromas and fruit-forward flavors, Muscat is produced in a variety of styles from sparkling wine to low alcohol table wine to sweet, high alcohol dessert wine.
Pinot Grigio is the Italian name for this French variety that is a natural mutation of Pinot Noir. This grape yields a soft, perfumey white wine. The grapes can vary in color from ashen-yellow to bluish-silver to mauve-pink. This variation in the grapes results in subtle variations in the wines color from winery to winery.
Also known as Johannesburg Riesling or White Riesling. This classic German varietal was once produced by many California wineries, but now is rarely found on a winery’s tasting list. Generally a flowery, fruity dry wine with high acid and low alcohol, it can be also be made in a semi-dry and late harvest style.
A Rhône variety that got its name because of the rust-colored tinge to the green grapes. Frequently blended with Marsanne, Rousanne contributes good acidity and aromas of herbal tea and floral notes to the blend. Occasionally small amount of Rousanne are blended with Syrah to soften the tannins and intensity, and add a touch of elegance to an overpowering Syrah.
Also referred to as Fumé Blanc, a name coined by Robert Mondavi for his barrel fermented Sauvignon Blanc wine, Sauvignon Blanc is a classic grape variety from the Bordeaux and Loire regions of France. Wine styles can vary from grassy and herbaceous to citrus qualities of lime and grapefruit to flint and mineral qualities with gooseberry flavors. Sauvignon Blanc continues to grow in popularity with wine drinkers as an alternative to Chardonnay.
Traditionally blended with Sauvignon Blanc to produce with dry table wine or a sweet dessert wine, including the renowned dessert wines from Sauternes, France. When produced as a single varietal, Semillon displays aromas and flavors of figs and honey.
From southern France, in the Rhône region, Viognier is now planted worldwide. Wines produced from Viognier have a distinctive fragrance, a combination of floral and fruity in both the aroma and the flavors. Sometimes small amounts are blended with Syrah to tame and add elegance to the wine.
Fanciful Terms (not the actual name of a grape)
Term for sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France.
A fanciful name for Sauvignon Blanc. See Sauvignon Blanc for details.
A term used to describe wine made from grapes picked after the normal harvest time, generally late fall. Such grapes have a much higher sugar content, or Brix. A high Brix measurement can translate to producing a sweet wine, and one that is higher in alcohol. Late Harvest wines can be made from a wine variety of grapes and usually will be higher in residual sugar and alcohol, making them a perfect compliment for after dinner. Because of this, they are often referred to as dessert wines.
A trademark name developed by the Meritage Association to identify blends made from specific Bordeaux varietals. Wineries must be member of the Meritage Association in order to call their Bordeaux varietal blend a Meritage. A red wine must be produced from a blend of two or more of the following varieties to be called a Meritage:Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, St. Macaire, Gros Verdot, and Carmenere. No single variety can be more than 90% of the blend. For a white wine Meritage, the wine must have two or more of the following varieties and no single variety can be more than 90% of the blend: Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Sauvignon Vert.
This term is to describe the famous fortified sweet wine made in Portugal. Port is a blend made from up to five red grape varieties — Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz, Tinto Cão, Touriga Francesa, and Touriga Nacional. There are numerous styles of Port, the best known styles are Tawny Port and Vintage Port. Port-style wines are also made in the United States from a variety of grapes including Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah.
A pink or salmon colored wine produced from red grapes. The red grapes are crushed and as the juice separates from the skin and seeds, it picks up some of the pigmentation from the skins. This gives the juice a rose or salmon color. Because the juice has limited contact to the skins and seeds, which give the wine structure and tannin, Rosé is a soft, easy-to-drink wine best served chilled.
A wine that bubbles when poured into a glass due to carbonation. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are the most commonly used grape varieties in making sparkling wine. The grapes are harvested early to capture the tangy flavors and high acids. To produce the carbonation, a second fermentation, which takes place in the individual bottles, starts with the addition of a small amount of sugar. Carbon dioxide, a natural by-product of fermentation, is trapped in the bottles and creates tiny bubbles when the sparkling wine is uncorked. This method of producing sparkling wine is called methode champenoise.
White Zinfandel (also see Rosé)
Produced in a similar style to a Rosé, White Zinfandel is produced from Zinfandel grapes. The grapes are crushed and as the juice separates from the skin and seeds, it picks up some of the pigmentation from the skins. This gives the juice a rose or pink color. Because the juice has limited contact to the skins and seeds, which give the wine structure and tannin, White Zinfandel is a soft, easy-to-drink wine.