You will find that one of the easiest ways to get to know your way around wine flavors is through grape varieties. Each grape variety has specific characteristics. In some regions, one grape variety is used to make a wine; in others, winemakers blend several varieties in a single wine. To help you identify grape varieties, below is an overview of each of the major red grapes and their characteristics.
Cabernet Sauvignon Cabernet Sauvignon is the big daddy of the red wine world. It is like the Chardonnay, as it is widely planted and distributed. The result of this is that there are so many versions of this grape. Many people think of Cabernet Sauvignon as being a wine that needs to age, but that is only because the best red Bordeaux need age. Most non-premium varieties are ready to go right away. Under ideal conditions, it produces an aromatic, tannic wine that ages and evolves to be both elegant and powerful. Perfectly balanced Bordeaux is one that has classic notes of black-currants, cedar, cigar boxes, pencils, mint and dark chocolate. Sounds delicious!
Gamay For the most part, you will find Gamay produced as Beaujolais. It mainly grows on the hills in south Burgundy. The aroma of a young Gamay is described as a wave of cherry and strawberry fruit. On the palate, Gamay wines are bright and crisp. They are moderate in alcohol and have very little tannin. Wines from Gamay grapes are ideal for all kinds of foods.
Merlot Merlot started out as a Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux and has risen to international popularity. The great wines of Pomerol and St. Emilion in Bordeaux are based on Merlot with Cabernet in the blend. These wines show Merlot at its toughest and most intense. Merlot´s popularity is because it is softer, fruiter, and earlier maturing than Cabernet Sauvignon and displays some of the same aromas along with mint, and tobacco. In general, drink Merlot young.
Pinot Noir At its best Pinot Noir is beautiful with a seductive silky texture and at its worst, it is heavy or flat. A good mature Pinot Noir has complex flavors of strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, violets, all-spice, tobacco and hay. Pinot Noir is relatively low in tannin and acidity and needs a cool climate to grow. Too much warmth, Pinot Noir can develop baked together flavors, losing its elegance.
Sangiovese A taste of Sangiovese and you will immediately conjure images of Italy. The name of the grape may not seem familiar, but it is the principal variety behind Chianti, Italy´s most famous red wine. It is taken very seriously in Tuscany, and you will find it in California, Australia, and Argentina. It is naturally tannic and is best used in a blend, usually with Cabernet Sauvignon. It requires a hot climate in order to produce its required richness and alcohol content. In cooler climates, it tends to have sharp and bitter tannins.
Syrah Called Shiraz in Australia and South Africa, Syrah is one of the greats of southeastern France's Rhone Valley grape. At home in France, it produces wines that are smoky, herby, and austere. Australian Shiraz tends to be richer, softer with a leathery quality and personally one of my favorites. All Syrah/Shiraz need a year or two from the vintage to hit its stride. Top wines will last about ten years.
Zinfandel It is disputable where this grape originated, but it is indisputably California's grape today, with almost no winemakers in other places producing it. The best Zinfandel is spicy and heartwarming. Other styles range from off white to high intensity sweet wines. Try a bottle not more than three or four years old, because that's when the Zinfandel character is strongest.