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Decoding the Wine Grape

Flavor Profiles of Wine Grape Varietals


In my previous article, I wrote about Decoding the Wine Label. Here, I focus on decoding wine grape varietals.

There are seven grape varietals that you are likely to run into when scouring the wine shelves:
REDS – syrah, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir
WHITES – chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and riesling

The individual flavor nuances of these varietals will vary based on myriad factors but, generally speaking, these are the specific flavor and aroma profiles that you can expect from each of these varietals:

Syrah – leather, smoke, pepper, spice, blackberries, damp earth

Cabernet Sauvignon – black currant, cassis, cedar, cherry, chocolate, bell pepper, warm spice

Merlot – blackberry, cassis, mocha, baked cherries, plums (similar in flavor to a Cabernet but more fruit-forward flavors and lighter in body)

Pinot Noir – sweet red berries (strawberry, baked cherry), earthiness (dry leaves, cedar), cured meats

Chardonnay – vanilla, butter, caramel, green apple, tropical fruit, pear
Note: The chardonnay grape is one of the only white grapes that is sometimes aged in oak barrels. Look for a mention of oak or oak-aging on the label, as this can make a world of difference when it comes to the flavors of the wine.

Sauvignon Blanc – straw, fresh cut grass, green tea, herbs, hay, smoke, melon, flint

Riesling – ripe peaches, apricots, melons, floral notes, apple, pear
Note: Riesling wines are made in sweet, semi-sweet, or dry styles, so pay special attention to wine labels when purchasing a riesling. If you cannot find the style of the riesling spelled out on the label, refer to the alcohol content. When grapes are fermented, the sugars in the grape juice are converted into alcohol. If a wine has lower alcohol content (7 – 10 percent), there is probably some residual sugar left in the wine, and thus the wine will taste sweeter. Voila – wine made simple!

You will also encounter red or white wine blends when purchasing wine. Not all wines are made from a single varietal and, in fact, most are not. In the U.S., legal guidelines require that a wine labeled as a single varietal must have at least 75 percent of that varietal in the bottle. For example, a wine could be listed as a cabernet, but it could actually contain 15 percent merlot and 10 percent syrah, (in addition to the 75 percent cabernet). Some labels may just list “red blend” and not a single varietal because the wine is a combination of different red varietals, none of which makes up at least 75 percent of the wine.


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