Monday, January 23, 2012

WINE STUDY: Grape Characteristics (2)

Winter pruning in the Loire
Assessment of any wine(s) appearance(sight), aromas(smell) and taste(flavor) are the foundation for varietal and quality recognition in what sommelier's call the 'tasting grid'.  Years of practice and discipline are usually required to train the palate and our olfactory memories to the typical characteristics of growing environments, production treatments, relative wine age and its grape variety. Plus, there are a multitude of wine 'styles' and literally thousands of Vitis Vinifera grape varieties or blends in today's global production. As I continue to prepare for the next part of the Wine Educators Certification exam(by drinking, of course), a continued review of the world's most popular wine grape varieties will, I hope, prove to be the foundation of success in this effort. 

Loire Valley Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc(Steen, Pinot de la Loire), is a bit of a workhorse white grape variety, being produced in dry, sweet and even sparkling stylings in its native Loire. These wines of bright acidity with typical stone fruits, quince or apple personalities are capable of luxurious aging, versatile food pairings and rich, viscous texture. It is among the most widely planted varieties in South Africa, where it is known as Steen.
Gewurztraminer, born in the Italian Tyrol, can offer rich aromas of lychee nut, citrus, and spice like ginger or nutmeg.  In fact, 'gewurz' means spice in its native dialect. With a propensity for quick ripening, low yields and low acids within its high extract, this aromatic grape balances what can be high alcohol with rich floral and spice notes.  In its best examples, however, like the Alsace AOC Grand Cru's, this spicy variety balances its rich exotic perfume with the same power on the palate.

Muscat(Moscato), which may be the ancestor from which all other wine grapes descended, is all about rich qualities that could only be described as 'grapey'. With a very high concentration of 'flavonoids', like those found in red grapes, high-extract Muscat has become a workhorse, producing just about all wine styles imaginable. Within this widely grown and very large family are popular global varieties such as Muscat Blanc a' Petits Grains(Asti DOC), Moscatel de Setubal, and ancient Muscat of Alexandria, among others. Sometimes its aromatics are quite earthy, but generally, a pungent, almost floral aroma is one of its signatures. 
Viognier, an ancient grape, is the only grape variety allowed in Condrieu AOC wines from the Northern Rhone. The grapes origins and even its name are a bit of a mystery, but it remains popular in spite of the challenges in growing a low acid, high extract grape that is prone to the malady powdery mildew.  The reward if found when it is fully ripe and becomes profoundly aromatic with notes of yellow stone fruits, tropical fruits, citrus or ginger, and echos the same personality on a richly textured, or fat palate.

Cote Rotie Syrah terraces
Malbec(Auxerrois, Cot) is one of only six(6) varieties allowed in red Bordeaux wines, in-spite of Argentina growing more of it than the rest of the world combined! Its inky dark color and robust black plum flavors have made it a suitable blending partner over the centuries. But it is in the South West, and Cahors where it can produce an aggressive, youthfully tannic wine that's dark and juicy. In the New World, it tends to be softer in character, yet displaying juicy black fruit and plum notes with under currents of violets and tobacco.
Sangiovese, the backbone of Italy's Tuscan wines, has very often been the base of a blend. Not a heavily pigmented grape, it is low in extract and high in acid with aromas of dried cherries, sour strawberry, toast and sometimes even licorice.  Flavor notes here can be distinctive, offering sour cherry, dried orange peel and spice flavors. Due in part to its site adaptability, Sangiovese clones, like Brunello di Montalcino, are prominent throughout Central Italy, but the backbone of its character remains. 

Syrah(Hermitage, Shiraz) is an Old World dark-skinned grape of powerful, concentrated flavors and a high tannin content that needs late season sunlight to ripen. Inky dark, its herb, spice and tertiary aromas richly mix with black fruits and even smoke in this heavy tannic grape. In the extremes of the Rhone's Cote Rotie, a 100% Syrah appellation, the grape can offer floral aromas dancing with black fruits, dried game and bacon fat. Yum!
Zinfandel(Crljenak Ka┼ítelanski, Primitivo(?)) may have its origins in Croatia, but it is California where today we can find its greatest expression. Moderate in its tannic structure, but with higher acids, this grape can be densely pigmented, but prone to uneven ripening with its thin skins. When ripe, it can be an exotic walk through a berry bramble, almost savory and sweet at the same time. Aromas of ripe berries and spice are common, along with that brambly undercurrent of flavors that offers hints of herb and pepper spice. Sometimes, Zinfandel's physiological & physical ripeness come at the cost of producing a higher alcohol that is out of balance.  When under-ripe, the grape can produce herbaceous and thinly disguised wines that are also unbalanced. As a result, this dark skinned grape is very much subject to the generosity of Mother Nature and the gifts of its winemaker.
Old Vine Zinfandel
Just five weeks remain until the tasting exam in Napa, and there are so many more grape international varieties to have a memory recognition of.  I guess I'll just have to open another bottle and begin working on the next post!  Cheers!

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