Culinary Arts

What Are the Different Types of Wine Grapes? A Guide to the Various Types of Red and White Wine Grapes in the World

Written by MasterClass

Jun 24, 2019 • 6 min read

Humans have been cultivating grape vines (vitis vinifera, a different species than the table or concord grape) for wine since the neolithic era. There are now more than 10,000 wine grape varieties in the world, but only a few dozen have achieved widespread popularity and acclaim. Some grapes, like primitivo/zinfandel and syrah/shiraz, have different names depending on where they are grown. The most popular grapes, including cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, are easy to grow in various climates, and can be made in a variety of styles to fit a broad range of consumer tastes. Here’s what you need to know about some of the most important wine grapes of the world.

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What Are the Different Red Wine Grapes?

Pinot Noir: This red wine grape is the only grape allowed in the esteemed red wines of Burgundy, France. Pinot noir is notoriously difficult to grow, but wine drinkers are willing to pay a high price for its delicate red cherry, pomegranate, and cedar flavors. Blanc de noirs Champagne can be made from pinot noir grapes. Pinot noir is also made in the Willamette Valley in Oregon; in Baden, Germany; and in New Zealand.

Cabernet Franc: This red wine grape grows in France’s Loire Valley and Bordeaux, as well as in New York’s Finger Lakes region. Wines made from cabernet franc have medium body, with moderately high acidity and tannin, and are less likely to have new oak aging. They have flavors of red cherry, graphite, and bell pepper.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Cabernet Sauvignon is the main grape in France’s Bordeaux wines, where it is often blended with merlot and cabernet franc. Cabernet sauvignon shines in varietal wines from the Napa Valley in California. In both areas, the grape’s bold tannins are often softened by aging in new oak barrels. Cabernet sauvignon wines are full-bodied, with flavors of black currant, mint, and bell pepper, along with cocoa and baking spice from oak aging.

Carménère: Carménère is another grape in the cabernet family. Its green pepper aroma is even stronger than the similar note in cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. Carménère was once a part of Bordeaux blends in France, but is now significantly more popular in Chile’s versions of Bordeaux-style wines. Carménère is herbal and spicy, with ripe red fruit aromas and mocha tones when aged in oak.

Merlot: This red wine grape gained fame as the key grape in Bordeaux wines from the region’s Right Bank, where it is blended with cabernet franc. It is now grown throughout the world, including in Italy (where it is part of some Super Tuscan blends) and the US states of California and Washington. Merlot has a velvety texture, and fruit flavors of plum and blueberry.

Malbec: This red wine grape originated in southern France, but is now better known as the main grape grown in Mendoza, Argentina. Malbec is most often a varietal wine with that is deep purple in color with a vibrant magenta rim in the glass. It is full of dark fruit flavors like black cherry, blueberry, and prune, with coffee and chocolate overtones. Malbec is smooth and drinkable because of its natural acidity and moderate tannins. If you like Malbec, try wines made from Piedmont, Italy’s barbera grape.

Petit Verdot: This red wine grape is a minor blending grape in Bordeaux, and a more important blending grape in New World Bordeaux-style blends. It produces dense, tannic wines with flavors of blackberry, licorice, pepper, and dark chocolate. Petit verdot wines are best paired with smoky, meaty cuisine.

Grenache: This red wine grape is best known as the main grape of the Southern Rhône wine region in France, where it is often blended with syrah and mourvèdre grapes. Grenache ripens easily, making high alcohol, violet-scented wines full of candied red fruit flavors. Grenache is also grown in France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region, northern Spain, South Australia, and in California’s Central Valley. Grenache blanc and grenache gris are less commonly planted mutations of grenache.

Tempranillo: This red wine grape is the main grape of Spain’s most famous wine, Rioja. Tempranillo produces medium-bodied wines with moderate tannins and lower acidity. Spanish tempranillo has notes of red plum, cherry, tobacco leaf, and earth. It is usually aged in American oak barrels, which contribute coconut and herbal aromas.

Primitivo: This red wine grape is called primitivo in southern Italy and zinfandel when it is grown in the US, where it is identified strongly with California. Italian primitivo wines have denser tannins than their American counterparts. They tend to be rustic and high in alcohol, with a sweet finish. Recent improvements in the wine industry in southern Italy have lead to more high quality wine being produced.

Sangiovese: This red wine grape is the main grape in central Italy’s best wines, Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino. It produces medium- to full-bodied wines with high acidity and moderately high tannins. Sangiovese wines have red and black cherry, tobacco, herb, and leather notes.

Syrah/Shiraz: This red wine grape goes by the name syrah in France, and shiraz in Australia. It has no relation to the similarly named petite sirah grape. French syrah has moderate to high acidity and tannin, and is rarely aged in oak barrels. Australian shiraz has riper fruit, more robust tannin, and higher alcohol than its European cousins. In both places, the grape shows notes of olive, smoked meat, violet, and boysenberry.

Zinfandel: Zinfandel is a red wine grape variety that is the second-most planted red grape in California. The grape makes robust, aromatic, juicy wines that are high in alcohol. Zinfandel was the wine of miners during the Gold Rush, gaining a reputation as the “Bordeaux of California,” but it declined in popularity following Prohibition. Zinfandel is not grown with the zeal that it once was, but the few examples on the market are high quality wines that showcase the grape’s exuberant fruit profile and complexity from being grown on old vines.

What Are the Different White Wine Grapes?

Chardonnay: This white wine grape is grown the world over, from Burgundy and Champagne in France, to California, to southern hemisphere countries like Australia and South Africa. It can be citrusy and floral, but because it has relatively little aroma on its own, chardonnay is especially good at reflecting terroir and winemaking techniques. Chardonnays range from steely and acidic to lush, buttery, and spicy, depending on climate and vinification.

Pinot grigio: This white wine grape is grown in the Veneto region in northern Italy, where it is made into crisp, citrusy, dry, white wines that are often a good value. The grape is known as pinot gris in Alsace, France, or in other places when it is made in the French style, which has riper fruit, higher alcohol, and sometimes a touch of sweetness.

Riesling: This white wine grape, native to Germany, makes some of the world’s most age-worthy white wines. Riesling has very high acidity, and can be made in a range of styles, including sparkling wines, from dry to sweet. Tasting notes often include honeysuckle, lime, slate, and petrol. Australia’s Eden and Clare Valleys make zippy, lime scented examples.

Sauvignon blanc: This white wine grape produces powerfully aromatic, crisply acidic varietal wines in New Zealand and in France’s Loire Valley. Aromas of grass, grapefruit, and gooseberry abound. Most are aged in stainless steel to retain their freshness; one exception is California’s oak-aged style known as Fumé Blanc.

Learn more about wine in James Suckling’s MasterClass.