Grapes are the base ingredient of wine. While the soil, the climate and the expertise of growing and making wine matter too it is the grapes that provide the colour, the flavour and the taste. Therefore it is of interest for a wine lover to gain a fundamental knowledge of which grape (or grapes) is responsible for which wine.
The dozen or so grapes cultivated to produce the classic French wines are referred as ‘noble grapes’. Here are some of the noblest of them all.
Chardonnay Perhaps the noblest of white grapes as it is used in making White Burgundy and Champagne. The range of flavours subscribed to it is citrus, apple, peach, toffee, vanilla and more.
Sauvignon Blanc It is grown in Bordeaux and Bergerac but it expresses itself magnificently in the upper Loire Valley in the wines of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. The flavour is flinty and grassy, highly aromatic yet acidic.
Sémillon This is the main stay of white grapes in Bordeaux where the sweet Sauternes and the dry Graves are made of. The flavour is that of citrus, honey and toast.
Riesling This grape is unique in France to Alsace producing one of the best dry white wines of the country. It also produces a late-harvest sweet wine which compares well with the best sweet wine of France, the Sauternes. The flavour is described as green apple and orange as well as a bit mineral.
ViognierThis grape is a rarity. It is responsible for Condrieu, an elegantly dry, full-bodied, flagrant, pricey white wine produced only in a small patch on the Rhône Valley south of Lyon. In the south of France vineyards are growing this grape but without the same success. The flavour is one of apricot and peaches.
Chenin BlancThe one white grape immediately associated the Loire Valley as it is grown rarely elsewhere. It produces the quality dry wine of Vouvray as well as famous sweet wine of the Loire. The flavour is apple-y, a bit nutty and honey when sweet.
Cabernet SauvignonIt is considered the noblest of red grapes as it is responsible for almost all the Classed Growth Chateaux red wines of Médoc in Bordeaux. Its high tannin content allows the wine to age for up to 20 years or more. The flavour is widely described as black-currant, green pepper, chocolate and tobacco.
Cabernet FrancThe poor cousin of Cabernet Sauvignon is used to improve the blend in Bordeaux. However it comes into its own in the Loire Valley where it is used in the wines of Chinon and Bourgeuil. The property and flavour are similar to Cabernet Sauvignon but less pronounced.
MerlotThis is the most widely grown red grape in Bordeaux (and elsewhere in France). It is used as a minority blend in Médoc while in Pomerol and St. Emilion of Bordeaux it is the leading grape. Its flavour is one of plums and black-currants.
Pinot NoirThis is the noble red grape of Burgundy and Champagne responsible for some of the most expensive wines in the world. The wine is light in colour, low in tannin and acid. When the conditions are good the wine is glorious otherwise it can be mundane. The flavour is that of cherries and berries.
SyrahThis noble red grape of the northern Rhone Valley is responsible for the quality and expensive wines of Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage. The wine is deep in colour, full-bodied and alcoholic with great ageing possibility. The flavour is one of spices, black-currants and berries.
GrenacheThis is the grape of the south of the Rhone Valley (and widely planted in the south of France) responsible for great wines such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas. It has a flavour of pepper and berries.
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