Vitis vinifera is the classic family of wine grapes and includes such renowned varietals as Zinfandel and Chardonnay. The vines originated in what’s now southwestern Russia. In the United States, v. vinifera now thrives in California and the Pacific Northwest, and also does well in microclimates scattered from the Mid-Atlantic to the Midwest. V. labrusca is a family of vines that’s native to North America. These vines are more hardy and disease-resistant than V. vinifera, but aren’t quite as ideal for making wine. Hybrids, also called French-American hybrids, are a cross between V. vinifera and V. labrusca. Hybrids can produce excellent wines; they combine the superior wine-making qualities of V. vinifera with the toughness of V. labrusca. Below is a quick guide to some common wine grapes.
This fine Italian varietal lends itself well to dry, acidic, crisp styles.
A traditional grape of Burgundy, Pinot Blanc is a subtle varietal that should be gently taken through a cool fermentation and then barrel aged.
The Muscat family of grapes (which inclues Orange Muscat, Muscat Canelli and Muscat de Frontignan) all exhibit heady floral aromas while packing a strong fig-guava punch.
Typically thought of as a German varietal, this grape actually originated in northern Italy. It is often made in sweet or off-dry styles and carries floral and spice notes.
Laden with floral, apricot and peach notes, Riesling makes wonderful sweet as well as dry wines – all aromatic and lush in aroma and flavor.
Often called the “King of the White Varietals,” Chardonnay has never been more popular among wine consumers. When crisp, bright and judiciously oaked, Chardonnay lives up to its royal title.
The “Other Chardonnay” is a native of the Bordeaux region of France. Sauvignon Blanc is relatively easy to make and can range from grassy and vegetal to fruity and floral. It is often fermented cold and not barrel aged.
The Syrah grape originated in Asia Minor where it was called the “Shiraz” grape, as it still is by the Australians. Syrah makes up the primary red wines of the Rhone Valley of France and can make for lush, berry-cherry wines or spare, truffle-earthy wines.
Zinfandel is one of the most popular grapes grown in California and is known for its robust tannins, well-rounded aromas and lush flavors. Jammy, berry, fruit and black pepper are the most common descriptors.
The superstar of the Tuscan winemaking scene, Sangiovese takes a long, warm growing season to produce the best fruit, redolent of truffles, blackberries and black currants.
Cabernet Sauvignon is perhaps the most famous grape varietal in the world. California’s best red wines often are made of this grape, which is suprisingly easy to grow and make into wine. Abundant aromas and flavors are black currant, bell pepper, cedar and blackberry jam.
Merlot is the most important grape varietal grown in Bordeaux and forms the backbone of many “meritage” (Bordeaux-style) blends. It is similar to Cabernet Sauvignon, but displays more fruity than herbaceous or vegetal character.
Burgundy’s most important red grape varietal, Pinot Noir has become a sort of Holy Grail for winemakers of late. It is a very difficult wine to get right. Its brambleberry and coffee aromas often show their best in the most expensive cool-climate fruit.
Known for its heady, heavily-scented wine, Niagara is a varietal grown for the bottle as well as for eating.
Hearty and productive, well-established in American winemaking history, Catawba tends to ripen late. So it often has inadequate sugar levels.
Concord is most famous for being the “grape juice” grape. It’s also most likely to end up in a jam or jelly jar! Concord’s distinctive grape-juice aroma renders it only suitable for winemakers who enjoy this element in their wines.
Small clusters and pink-skin berries distinguish this grape. When treated correctly, it can rival the aromatic and perfumed off-dry wines of Alsatian France and Germany.
Not very resistant to cold or disease, Ives may be on the way out these days. But for decades, it was – and still is – known for port-style red wines.
This hybrid can compete with some of the finest dry white wines made from Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc.
With a delicate floral aroma, this white varietal has won many commercial and amateur winemaking contests.
Vidal Blanc is often used in late-harvest dessert wine styles but must be watched carefully in the vineyard. If left to ripen too long into a damp, early winter, mildew and bunch rot are quite likely to develop.
An early ripener with cranberry-currant flavors and a bright red color.
Quite tannic and known for its plum-cedar aroma, this grape is susceptible to powdery mildew and must be carefully scrutinized before crushing.
Possibly the most abundantly planted red hybrid varietal, Chambourcin has blue-black berries with cherry-berry aromas.