The Art of Tasting Wine with James Flewellen: Top 10 Red Wine Grapes
My last post covered what I consider the ‘top 10’ white wine producing grapes. Finding a similar list for the top 10 red wine grapes is no less difficult — perhaps even more so with the propensity for red wines to be a blend of a number of different grapes. Again, the order is my own preference, based on commercial importance, potential quality of the grape, and whether it produces a ‘classic style’.
TOP 10 RED WINE GRAPES
Malbec is one of the six permitted red wine grapes in Bordeaux, although few producers take advantage of its rich, plummy flavours. You are more likely to find Malbec predominating in blends of southern French appellations, such as Cahors, where the grape is called ‘Cot’. These wines are typically full-bodied, deep in colour, with plum flavours alongside ferric, inky notes too. Malbec has found a second home in Argentina, where it is the country’s signature red grape. In Argentina, the mineral notes subside somewhat, and a purer fruit note comes to the fore. The tannins, plentiful in Cahors, are softer in the Argentinian expression.
This rather romantically named grape (‘Blood of Jupiter’) is the key component of wines from the Chianti region in Tuscany — arguably Italy’s most famous red wine export. The grape produces ruby-coloured wines with notes of cherries and almond. The palate can show high acid with tart cherry flavours, medium to high levels of alcohol and drying, austere tannins. The best examples develop savoury, tea-like notes with age and undeniable complexity. Brunello di Montalcino is perhaps the most interesting expression of Sangiovese, from a wine-lover’s perspective. Best served with food on account of the fierce tannins though! Sangiovese is also a component in many of the so-called ‘Super-Tuscan’ blends, along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
As Sangiovese is to Tuscany, Tempranillo is to the Rioja region — and indeed to many parts of Spain. Rioja is now perhaps Spain’s most famous wine export after Cava and within this region the Tempranillo grape has found a plethora of styles. The traditional style of Rioja saw ageing in mostly American oak barrels, complementing the strawberry notes from the grape with a sweet vanilla and coconut aroma from the oak. The balance between oak and fruit notes depends on the length of time the wine is aged in the barrels. With age, these wines develop pleasant grassy and ‘farmyardy’ aromas. A ‘new’ style of Rioja has emerged in recent years, favouring French oak and pushing fruit notes to the fore. Tempranillo is also a key component in many other regions of Spain, such as Ribera del Duero, and in Portugal too, where it is known as Tinto Roriz.
6. Cabernet Franc
The second Bordeaux grape on the list, although in Bordeaux, Cabernet Franc usually plays second or third fiddle to Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot. This by no means diminishes its importance for the region, however. For a classic expression of a varietal wine we head north to the Loire valley — to classic regions such as Saumur, Chinon and Bourgueil. Here, the grapes produce a medium-bodied purple wine with high acidity and fine, powdery tannins. Due to the cooler climate in the Loire, these wines have leafy, herbaceous notes to go with blackcurrant, blackberry and a distinctive mineral note many describe as ‘pencil shavings’!
Grenache is the stalwart of the Southern Rhône, where it makes up the dominant component of blended wines along with Syrah, Mourvèdre and many others. This grape is a the heart of famous appellations such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Vaqueyras. Unusual among grape vines, it can tolerate heat and drought remarkably well with its ability to close its stomata to minimise water loss through evaporation. This feature also explains its success in South Australia — another hot, dry part of the world. The Aussies have followed the Southern Rhône model and produce similar blended wines — typically called ‘GSM’ after the three major grape components. Grenache is also to be found in Priorato and other parts of Spain, where it is known as ‘Garnacha’ and typically blended with Cariñena (a.k.a. Carignan). Grenache produces wines with high alcohol, low acidity and fine, dry tannins. The flavour profile is usually of strawberry with a characteristic white pepper spiciness.
Merlot was much maligned by Paul Giamatti’s character in the film Sideways – although in an ironic twist, his prized bottle of 1961 Cheval Blanc contains a major component of Merlot. Perhaps Merlot’s unfairly poor image comes from the many mass-produced French and New World wines where the grape is used to make soft, undemanding, plummy, easy drinking wines. However, at its best, Merlot produces elegant wines with savoury flavours combining with juicy plum and fruitcake spice notes. While the grape does not lend to the most structured wines, there can still be relatively firm, drying tannins, allowing the best examples of Merlot to age very well. The most famous examples of Merlot come from the Right Bank of Bordeaux in appellations such as St Emilion and Pomerol. Here, Merlot is typically blended with Cabernet Franc to produce some of the finest wines in the world. Merlot is, of course, a component of the Left Bank Bordeaux wines, although here it comes in second to Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot can also be found in Bordeaux-imitation blends around the world and as a varietal wine in parts of the New World – especially California, New Zealand and Chile.
Whereas the Southern Rhône follows the model of blending many grapes to create Grenache-dominated wines, the Northern Rhône sticks to a single grape: Syrah. Historically, Syrah has produced the most revered wines in France — emanating from Hermitage, Côte-Rotie, St Joseph and Cornas — and it has only been relatively recently that the focus has shifted to Bordeaux and to Burgundy. The best examples are very long-lived and offer very good value to the fine wine connoisseur. Syrah from the Rhône is medium- to full-bodied, with firm, slightly coarse tannins, crisp acidity and complex notes of plum, blackcurrant, black pepper, roasted meat, liquorice, treacle, herbs, among others. Syrah is, of course, equally famous in Australia, where it is known as ‘Shiraz‘ and found throughout the entire country. In fact, Australia has the oldest Shiraz grape vines in the world, with a number of regions unaffected by the phylloxera blight that destroyed European vineyards in the late 1800s. The classic style is that of the Barossa Valley or McLaren Vale — jammy black fruits, often with notes of spicy salami, black pepper, and eucalyptus. Australian Shiraz is usually more full-bodied with lower acidity than that of the Rhône, although wine from the slightly cooler region of the Hunter Valley can approach a Rhône-like style.
2. Cabernet Sauvignon
The predominant grape in some of the world’s most revered and expensive wines: those of the Left Bank of Bordeaux. In the right climate and on the right soils, Cabernet Sauvignon offers elegance, power, structure and harmony that few other grapes can match. However, in search of the perfect structure the grape can produce austere flavours in the wine, which is why this grape is best suited to blending with others. This is the origin of the ‘Bordeaux blend’, which sees Cabernet Sauvignon melded with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. Cabernet Sauvignon brings classic notes of blackcurrant, cedar, and bell peppers alongside vanilla and nuts from maturation in new French oak, which is typical in Bordeaux. On the palate, the grape brings crisp acidity and firm, structured tannins, and both of these can ensure a long ageing potential. The Bordeaux style has found favour in many other parts of the world, from the ‘Super-Tuscans’ of Italy to equivalents in Spain, California, Australia and South America. The best examples of these are among these nations’ finest wines also.
1. Pinot Noir
As Chardonnay is the Burgundian king of white wines for me, so Pinot Noir is the queen of reds. Fickle, hypersensitive, ill-tempered, yet oh-so-magical when it all pays off, tasting a great Pinot Noir is an unforgettable experience. At its best the grape offers up swirling, subtle aromas of raspberry, strawberry, cherry and blackberry, a refreshing minerality and an earthy, leafy quality that is quite indescribable, yet summed up beautifully in the French term sous-bois – or ‘forest floor’. Burgundy still holds the crown for the most desirable Pinots – indeed wines – on the planet, due in no small part to its 1,000-year history in growing the grape. The grape is notoriously difficult to work with and susceptible to very minor changes in climate. Various places around the world have taken on the challenge of making great Pinot – New Zealand, Oregon and Tasmania are considered the best pretenders to the crown and can produce some very good (and much better value-for-money) wines. But these are all new kids on the block, and have a few centuries ahead of them to really get to know the grape, and for the grape to get to know their new homes.
James Flewellen is The Rambling Epicure wine columnist. James is a biophysicist at the University of Oxford. Originally from New Zealand, the huge range of wine James discovered in Europe spurred his interest in all things vinous. He became involved in the University’s Blind Wine Tasting Society and has recently completed a two-year term as its President. During this time he represented the University in a number of domestic and international wine tasting competitions, winning several awards. He is currently completing the WSET Diploma in Wine and Spirits. James has a passion for wine communication and education and runs the Oxford Wine Blog and wine tasting courses through the Oxford Wine Academy.