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Wine Grape Glossary By
The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition
Awards Tasting is a great opportunity to explore the diverse tastes of California wine. Every significant type and style of wine and all of the major wine-producing regions will be represented. If you have only recently fallen in love with wine, you might want to know what flavors await you in more than 1,000 medal-winning wines. And if you’re an old hand at wine tasting, maybe you want to venture into some fresh territory, seeking out flavors beyond Chardonnay and Merlot. In either case, this reference will help you to anticipate the flavors of the wines you’ll encounter, while providing some clues to foods that will enhance them at your next dinner party. Enjoy!
Riesling. Sometimes sweet and sometimes dry, Riesling reminds me of peaches and limes wrapped in candy and a bouquet of flowers. Often light in body, this wine shines with the diverse flavors in a nibble of sushi.
Gewürztraminer. Like Riesling, Gewürz, as it’s often called, is made in both dry and sweet styles. Often it is full-bodied and reminds me of the taste of fresh lychee and the perfume of roses.
Sauvignon Blanc. Frequently bone-dry, Sauvignon can smell grassy and citrussy. While many wineries opt for the crisp and fruit-driven style, others add the full-flavored richness of butter and oak. Many enjoy the way the former expression of Sauvignon can be a foil to rich sauces based on butter and cream.
Sémillon. Possessing an almost unctuous texture, the thick quality of Sémillon makes a great partner to the acidity of Sauvignon Blanc. The two grapes often team up to produce extraordinary dessert wines that hit high notes with fruit tarts and crème caramel.
Chardonnay. Sometimes tart like a green apple, Chardonnay achieves great popularity when it tastes of warm-weather fruits like pineapple and mango. With a kiss of oak and a dab of butter, the wine can become quite rich and mouth filling.
Roussanne. This grape from France’s Rhône Valley produces aromatic wines with refreshing acidity.
Marsanne. As Sémillon adds weight to Sauvignon Blanc, Marsanne is frequently paired up with Roussanne to make blended white wines in the Rhône and California. Wines made from Marsanne can display aromas of nuts and vegetables and show a softer acidity than Roussanne.
Viognier. This wine combines exotic, perfumed aromas with a scent of peaches and cream. The alcohol level is often as high or higher than California Chardonnay, creating a full flavored wine that gives an impression of sweetness.
Muscat. The grapy, orange-blossom scent of Muscat is easy to remember after only one whiff. Most of the wines range from sweet to intensely sweet and make a lovely complement to fresh berries on a summer evening.
Chenin Blanc. Chenin is frequently made in an off-dry style, riding the cusp between dry and sweet. With aromas of melons, musk, and honey, its acidity acts as the balance to keep any sweetness from tasting cloying.
Pinot Blanc. In Alsace, they call it "Pinot Blanc," and in Italy they call it “Pinot Bianco.” In California, much of what we call Pinot Blanc is actually the melon of the Loire Valley. In any case, styles range from delicate Continued from W7 and rounded to rich Chardonnay knock-offs.
Pinot Gris. As known as “Pinot Grigio,” Pinot Gris runs in style from light and crisp to rich and spicy. Like Riesling, it can be a perfect accompaniment to Thai cuisine.
Arneis. Anative of Piedmont, Arneis is often crisp with flavors of pears and almonds.
Sangiovese. The star of Chianti, Sangiovese can be delicate in color, yet lively with acidity, making it a great partner with marinara sauce. Many of Tuscany’s greatest wines feature a marriage of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Barbera. Prized for its acidity, Barbera often reminds me of the brightness of fresh blueberries with the darkness of tar. The wines can be quite deeply colored and like Sangiovese, they won’t give out in the presence of tomatoes and spicy sausage on a pizza.
Dolcetto. Like Barbera, Dolcetto hails from Piedmont in northwest Italy. Though softer in acidity than Barbera, it can be more tannic and quite fruity.
Nebbiolo. This grape produces deep and demanding wines, with full-on tannin, acid, and general depth of flavor. The wine can age for many years, and the grape is one of the hardest to grow.
Zinfandel. Zin shines in so many of our viticultural areas in California. It is made light and fruity for pizza, as well as big and alcoholic for anything on the barbecue.
Petite Sirah. Certainly not petite, this wine is often the most dense, inky, and tannic of our wines in California. Many winemakers blend it with Zinfandel to fill out the palate, making for a more complete package of flavors.
Pinot Noir. Sometimes Pinot captures the essence of cherries and raspberries. Winemakers often accent these flavors with the brown spice and vanilla of new oak barrels. This often lighter bodied wine has become the most popular red wine to pair with grilled salmon.
Pinot Meunier. It’s like Pinot Noir, in a softer way. Lots of Pinot Meunier is grown in the north of France to make Champagne, and a few producers have embraced it here as well.
Gamay. In France, it produces juicy, fruity red wines. The lightest versions are often served chilled and taken on picnics. Much of our Gamay planted in California is not Gamay at all. Some has been found to be a clone of Pinot Noir, while others are actually Valdiguié from Southwest France.
Syrah. One of the hottest wines today, Syrah’s flavors range from earth and gamy meat, to black pepper spice and onward to jammy bombs of fruit. This diversity of flavors has delighted consumers in Europe, with wines ranging from light to densely packed with flavor.
Grenache. Like Syrah, Grenache was made famous in France’s Rhône Valley, particularly in Châteauneufdu- Pape. This grape can add alcohol as well as spiciness and strawberry fruit, creating many full-bodied Rhônestyle blends.
Mourvèdre. Mourvèdre, a.k.a. Mataro, is a grape that adds the structure of acidity and tannin to lots of Rhônestyle blends. When bottled solo, it makes a wine that stands up well to meats garnished in acidic sauces.
Carignane. This wine can be quite dense, especially from some of California’s old plantings. Its tannins can take time to tame. It pairs best, in youth, with cheeses like cheddar.
Cinsault. Amore delicate horse in the Rhône stable, this grape adds complexity without weight to the final blend.
Tempranillo. This star of Spanish winemaking makes long-lasting wines. The flavors are hard to get a handle on, as this wine has long been associated with a sweetness of oak flavors that can dominate the fruit. Yet with roast lamb, there may be no better choice.
Cabernet Sauvignon. In its greener versions, Cabernet gives a sense of fresh tobacco. In its ripest renditions, the fruit flavors become almost berry liqueur-like. The thick-skinned berries of Cabernet can produce tannic wines that age well for years. In the younger years, such tannic wines cry out for protein-rich foods to tame them.
Cabernet Franc. One of Cabernet Sauvignon’s parents, Cab Franc often has a pleasant herbaceous quality about it, with frequently lower tannin and acids levels than its progeny. This leaner member of the family can actually smell like pencil lead and flowers.
Malbec. There’s loads of Malbec planted in Argentina, and we see it included in many of the Bordeaux-style blends of California. It can taste softer and more round than Cabernet Sauvignon.
Petit Verdot. Like Petite Sirah, this wine has great depth of coloration and can be quite tannic. It often adds extra substance to a Bordeaux-style blend.
Merlot. The darling of many red-wine drinkers, Merlot’s supple tannins, low acidity and plum-like fruit make it easy to love and easy to drink, in the absence of food. More structured versions are produced that stand up straight and marry well with food.
RAY JOHNSON, is the author of “The Good Life Guide to Enjoying Wine” and the editor of WineSmarts.