Exploring Wine Varietals
Chardonnay: This grape takes on different expressions depending on where it is grown, and how it is treated in the winery. In the Grand Cru vineyards of Chablis, one can often find intense minerals, racing acidity, and citrus. Traditional California Chardonnay often finds an expression from malolactic fermentation and barrel aging that is marked by caramel, butterscotch, vanilla, and nuts. When blind tasting, flavors of apple, pear, and quince can be a tip off to this varietal. In the vineyard, it buds early (making it susceptible to frost), can ripen to high sugar levels (hence high alcohol).
Sauvignon Blanc: This varietal is commonly fermented in stainless steel to preserve the fresh, floral, or herbal aromas yet is also barrel aged by some producers in the Loire Valley, California, and elsewhere to give the wine more weight, texture, and to mellow out what can be very pronounced fruit. In New Zealand one finds strong citrus notes such as pink grapefruit from the Marl soil, in the Loire Valley high mineral content and a certain “gunflint” and lemon grass note from the chalk soil, in Bordeaux (where it is often blended with Semillion and/or Muscadelle) herbal flavors (Oregano, Thyme, and Tarragon) from the gravel soil, and in California, often fig and melon from the sandy.
Riesling: Like Sauvignon Blanc, the varietal takes its expression from the soil. It often has its greatest expression in the grand cru vineyards of Germany. In blind tasting, it is often identified by its strong mineral nose, and aromas of peaches, apricots, and sometimes white flowers such as jasmine. Acidity is high, and today the trend is for the dry style (which ranges from bone dry to wine that is technically dry but with some residual sugar).
Cabernet Sauvignon: This thick-skinned, late ripening grape is cultivated all over the world and takes on similar expressions of cassis, dark fruits, black cherry, and with maturation flavors such as tobacco, chocolate, and mocha.
Merlot: This early ripening, thin-skinned grape has less tannin than Cabernet Sauvignon, and is often marked by characteristics of plum and blue fruit in youth. It is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux.
Syrah: Called Shiraz in Australia, this grape gives way to a fruit-driven wine with flavors of violet, blackberries, and with age, a certain animal quality. In the Southern Rhone, it makes up one of the 3 typical GSM blending grapes, the others being Grenache and Mouvedre.