Friday, January 13, 2012

WINE STUDY: Grape Characteristics

A tasting rationale, a blind varietals identification, and a wine faults recognition exam now lie ahead in my pursuit of successfully completing the Wine Educators Certification. Knowing the genus Vitis, specifically species Vitis vinifera, the vine which is native to Europe and west Asia, is simply essential. Each vine has innate varietal characteristics which are influence by many factors including environment, climate, also winemaking practices, and even branding. It can be the nature of the vine's fruit to ripen early or late in the season, and to thrive in cool regions while almost becoming unrecognizable in hot or vice versa. Also at its nature can be the regular production of high acid fruit, or the most inky extract due to its dark pigmentation and thick skins.  With these variables and many more, finding a grape's typical characteristics will obviously aid in identification, but also be of benefit to anyone who find enjoyment in raising a glass. Looking at some of the most popular grape varieties, white and red, is a good place to start.
Appearance is a Clue

Chardonnay(Gamay Blanc, Morillon), is a neutral, medium-bodied white wine, where aromas of apple, yellow/orange stone fruits, melon or pear, with notes of honey, butterscotch or vanilla possible. With moderate grape acidity often produced in warmer climates, higher acid Chardonnays are usually offered in most Old World stylings. Additionally, a richly textured mouthfeel which accompanies moderate acidity, like the difference between low fat to whole milk, can heren be enhanced by various oak treatments in the cellar. 
Pinot Grigio(Gris, Rulander) is a high acid grape that is generally brightly mineral driven over a collection of restrained aromas ranging from apple to lemon to honey and even flint. Italian Grigio can be light-bodied and very crisp, whereas noble Alsatian Gris can be produced in richer medium to full-bodied styles within similar fruit profiles. New World examples of this variety can be found in both styles, almost irrespective of the variety named(Grigio or Gris) on the bottle.  It may depend in part on for whom(market) they make the wine.

Riesling(Johannisberg Riesling) is richly aromatic and characteristically a high acid wine of lower alcohol,  offering aromas of citrus, or stone fruits like peach or apricot, with notes of jasmine, flint or minerals. Due to its lower alcohol, in its best expressions it reaches a delicious balance between rich, almost lanolin texture and refreshing acidity. As a result, it is seldom influenced with oak, and it exposes a white variety that is strongly influenced by its growing environment, yet remains fruity. German Rieslings distinctively show their mineral and slate origins, gaining a 'petrol' aroma with aging, and Austrian varieties can be razor sharp. Warmer New World offerings often are challenged to consistently produce the whole balanced package between high acid and rich fruit that this noble grape can produce.
Sauvignon Blanc(Sauvignon Vert) can be aromatic, is generally high in acid and like Riesling, is a chameleon grape which is typically reflective of the site where grown. Aromas can run the table from tropical pineapple, grapefruit and pear, to green bell pepper, gooseberry and asparagus for this early ripening variety.  This world traveler generally offers those riper fruit traits in warmer climates, with green flavor compounds developing in cooler environs.  If labeled as Fume Blanc, this wine should expect to have been influenced by an oak treatment.

Cabernet Sauvignon is a high tannin, high acid, high pigment world traveler which also reflects its growing environment and loses its youthful astringency, thus becoming more supple, as it ages. Typical aromas in fruit driven warm climates can be cherry with eucalyptus or mint overtones, while in cooler regions it becomes more spice driven with red currant and mocha notes. With its firm structure, solid extract and depth of flavors that are enhanced by barrel aging, Cabernet Sauvignon is a variety that shows its noble qualities with a matured harmony that is the result of significant bottle aging.
Granache(Garancha) is widely grown around the globe and very adaptable to warm, dry climates, like Sardinia or South Eastern Australia. As such, it tends to be a low pigment, low tannin, and low acid reliable ripening grape that can be high in wine alcohol. It is as a result very often blended, as it is throughout southwestern Europe, but on its own it usually offers bright red fruits, like strawberry, sour cherry and with some spicy notes.

Merlot is Cabernet's feminine side, with moderate tannins and lower acids, so can becomes easier drinking at an earlier date. Typically it has aromas of plum, of berry, cherries and spice with an aromatic combination that often reminds me of fruitcake. Being a thinned skinned, loosely bunched grape, Merlot tends to have a lighter body than Cabernet, offering a more 'fruity' character and richer balance of flavors earlier in its potentially-long bottle life.  A very adaptable food wine, international Merlot is Bordeaux's most widely planted grape, and has seen significant growth in the vineyards of the New World. Until very recently Merlot was mistaken for Carmenere(a minor Bordeaux varietal) in Chile.
Pinot Noir is a low to moderate tannin noble variety that forms in tight clusters, and is most successfully grown in cool environments. Its thin skins make it susceptible to vineyard maladies such as bunch rot, and typically finds its richest expression in low yields. Having lower pigmented coloring material in its skins than Cabernet or even Merlot, Pinot produces lighter, almost garnet hued wines. At its best, Pinot Noir can have pungent, broad aromas and a bouquet offering earthy flavor notes of red fruits like cherry and plum, often with violets, combined with the complexities of the organic aromas of mushrooms and earth, or exotic spice, flowers and sandalwood. When produced in rich balance, the variety Pinot becomes the epitome of wine's expression for many lovers of fermented fruit.

Pinot Noir in Burgundy

More varieties will be explored in our next installment!

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