There are tens of thousands of wine grape varieties grown around the world. You don’t need to stress about the sheer amount though – even the savviest wine connoisseur hasn’t tasted every single grape variety out there.
When you’re learning about wine and trying to understand your personal preferences, the first step is to recognize the most common varieties that you will come across. The following eight grapes as some of the best known international varieties. They’re grown all over the world and make some pretty iconic wines.
Pinot is one of the most finicky varieties to grow. It needs cooler temps to retain its bright acidity and not develop jammy flavors. This grape is generally found in “varietal” wines, meaning that it’s not often blended with other grapes. Pinot-based wines will taste like red berries (cherry, raspberry, cranberry), rose petals, and sometimes mushrooms and earth. These wines are lighter in body, with very gentle tannins and high acidity.
Cab is easily the most recognizable variety in the world and grows in every wine-producing region. It is known for yielding wines that are fuller-bodied with fairly high levels of tannins and acidity, along with flavors of blackcurrant and dark berries. When Cab Sauv doesn’t reach complete ripeness, it can display herbaceous, green pepper notes. Cab is incredibly blend-friendly, and winemakers pair it with practically every red variety, especially Merlot.
Merlot tends to get a bad rap. People swear they hate it, but for those who think Cab is a little harsh, Merlot is a great velvety-textured alternative. It can be a little lighter in body than Cab and also lower in tannins with gentle acidity. Merlot-based wines taste like red and black fruit (plum and cherry) and sometimes even fruitcake. Just like Cab, Merlot blends well with many different grapes varieties.
Syrah (aka Shiraz) makes full-bodied, spicy wines with big flavors. If you ever taste an unknown red that has intense notes of black fruit, black pepper, and even bacon or beef jerky, you’ve got a Syrah there, fellah. No, ‘GSM’ isn’t a K-Pop boy band – it’s Syrah blended with its Rhone Valley buddies Grenache and Mourvèdre.
Grenache (aka Garnacha) is one of those grapes that loves the heat. It grows in some of the warmer wine-producing regions around the world and winemakers use it to produce wines that are pretty high in alcohol and have notes of strawberry jam, sweet spice, and dried herbs-de-Provence. It blends well with Syrah, which provides balance since Grenache can often lack acidity.
Chardonnay is a wine chameleon. When grown in cool climates, it tastes like citrus and orchard fruit, while in warm climates it can display notes of melon, peach, and tropical fruit. In the cellar, winemakers can put their twist on the grape through the use of oak, malolactic fermentation, and lees stirring. All of these processes will change the flavor, body, acid, and texture of Chard. If you think you don’t like Chardonnay, it’s probably because you haven’t found the right style. We’re partial to unoaked, cool-climate versions (think Chablis).
Oh Riesling, how we love you so. Riesling is a high-acid, fairly aromatic variety that produces wines that taste like citrus, stone fruit, white flowers, and minerals. People often associate Riesling with sweet wines, but it can be used to make styles that range in sweetness from bone-dry to luscious, and everything in between – and every single one is absolutely delicious.
Sauv Blanc is another personal favorite. This aromatic variety is used to produce wines that are jarringly acidic and that taste citrusy and herbaceous – think gooseberry, grapefruit, and grass – with tropical fruit notes developing in warmer climates. Some people find that wines made from this grape taste like cat pee, but in a good way. Sauv Blanc is sometimes seen blended with Semillon. These two make up the tastiest dessert wines from Sauternes in Bordeaux.
These eight varieties are among the most widely planted in the world and easily the most economically important. Get to know them, and you’ll be on your way to building some serious wine chops.
Next up – totally obscure grapes that are well worth seeking out.