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Grapes are tiny beings, but quite smug. It takes roughly 600 of them to make a bottle of wine, and they are all too aware of their power in numbers. Now, hang around the wine industry long enough and you learn there is much more to the complexity and flavor of the wine then the grape. What type of soil was the grape grown in? That can change the color, aroma, and acidity of the wine. Was it fermented in a barrel or stainless steel? Perhaps you’ve heard of wine with hints of vanilla, smoke, or oak. These all come from the barrel. Even topography effects taste. Are the vines located on a hillside, or valley? This can have a major impact. Still we wouldn’t have this nectar of the gods we love so much without one tiny singular factor: The grape itself.
This brings us to the topic at hand today. In order to explore the nuances of winemaking at its finest, we first need to have a fundamental understanding of the types of grapes used and why. We need to walk before we can run, in a matter of speaking. So strap in friends, we’re taking a step by step journey through the life of the all-powerful grape!
What is the difference between the grapes in my wine and the grapes on my breakfast table? Mostly the differences lie in the way they are bred or cultivated and when they are harvested. Table grapes are larger, thin skinned, and usually harvested when their sugar content is lower (usually around 15%). Wine grapes are smaller, thicker skinned (much of our wines aroma and taste is yielded from the skin so this is important!) and a higher sugar content. Sugar content varies from wine to wine.
How many different varietals are used in wine making? Here’s my exact figure for you all: A LOT. There are thousands of grape varietals used in making wine. You could devote a life time to studying each one individually. But considering most of us are reading about wines in between yoga and picking up the kids, or right before our big meeting with a client who just happens to know his cabernet from his claret, let’s keep it simple.
What kinds of grapes are used in producing white versus red wine? This is nice and simple. Red wines are produced from grapes with a dark skin, usually varying from Red to Purple to Black in color. The skin is kept with the grape through the fermentation process and thus the wine retains its color. White wines are generally produced from grapes with a green or light yellow in color. However, certain white wines are made from grapes with darker skin. It does not affect the color because the skins are removed early on in the production of white wine. Let’s dive a little deeper…
The Reds. Let’s talk about five major red grape varietals hitting the markets: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, and Shiraz or Syrah (name depending on your region and if you happen to have a lisp).
- Cabernet Sauvignon – Arguably one of the most popular red wine varieties in existence. This is the golden child: the most successful, collegiate, over-achiever at the dysfunctional grape family dinner. Brought forth from the loins of the Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc grape, this little guy got his start in France and has been taking the world by storm ever since
- Main Characteristics: (i.e. bold, dark color, strong tannings, and a deep need to be understood for who they are… ok I made up that last one).
- Ideal mate: A nice fatty steak to neutralize its tannins.
- Merlot – If Cabernet Sauvignon is our golden child, Merlot is the classic middle. Not enough love to go around for this poor little grape but certainly a decent fan base to sing its praises, when it’s not singing its own. This little guy also finds his origins in France, also from the loins of the Cabernet Franc (that little tramp gets around doesn’t he) and is currently the most planted grape variety in Bordeaux. It is well known, like its Cabernet rival, throughout the globe but is generally considered less tannic and well suited for blending.
- Main characteristics: smooth, soft, well rounded, easy to drink
- Ideal Mate: meats, shellfish, and certain greens
- Pinot Noir – This wine just sounds exotic and mysterious. It’s the grape of the burgundy region, can be quite temperamental to grow, and is difficult to peg depending on the region grown (sounds like a classic youngest to me, whispered the blogger who happens to be a youngest child).
- Main characteristic: lighter in color, lighter in tannin, can range from fruity to woodsy depending on its upbringing
- Ideal Mate: Pinot Noir can be more of a love the one you’re with type of wine, so it pairs well with a variety of foods. Try a fattier fish, mushrooms, pasta dishes, or duck.
- Zinfandel – ah the orphan. Its origin was a mystery for quite a while, but it eventually found its family in a line of Croatian grapes. It has long been adopted into the Californian family and found its true home in that soil.
- Main Characteristics: dark skinned, medium tannin, tend to be spicy!
- Ideal Mate: Meat or Cheese are its true soul mates but Zin is very versatile and can be paired well across the board
- A Pearl’s Opinion: This is my favorite varietal. I love the rich berry and spice that it embodies. Try Bremer’s Zin for a truly wonderful tasting experience.
- Syrah/Shiraz – The child of divorce. In France it is known as Syrah, is Australia it changes its name to Shiraz. It takes a lot of confidence to balance two families at the same time, and this grape has it in abundance.
- Main Characteristics: Bold, decent tannin quality, peppery
- Ideal Mate: lamb or something grilled
The Whites. What would the sharks be without the Jets? The Capulets without the Montagues? Well they’d be alive, but also they’d be boring. And so would a discussion about red without discussing their counterparts. The royals in our family of Whites are Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Grigio
- Chardonnay – She’s popular and she knows it. Picture her as the cheerleader of the grape community, a team player but well aware she’s the prettiest. Chardonnay, the principle white from burgundy, rose to its popularity in the 90’s and has been a staple ever since
- Main Characteristics: often referred to as buttery, oaky, and full bodied.
- Ideal Mate: Fish or Chicken
- Sauvignon Blanc – Reared in Bordeaux, She’s fun and fruity, maybe not a ton of substance but always a good time.
- Main Characteristics: Fruit, Fruit, and more Fruit. On occasion maybe the faint hint of fresh cut grass (no lie)
- Ideal Mate: Pair with shellfish or a really nice crisp salad.
- Riesling – a tough German broad whose life has left her dry, crisp, and slightly acidic.
- Main Characteristics: dry but sweet
- Ideal Mate: Pork, Chicken, or Fish. She’s tough enough to stand up to a salty eel or tuna
- Pinot Grigio – like any feisty Italian girl, she’s has a decent bite!
- Main Characteristics: dry and acidic
- Ideal Mate: Come on guys she’s Italian. Pair her with everything!
And the winner of this round is: The grape. You may be smug but you are important, and I happily bow to your versatility and power. Maybe you need the barrel, hillside, and soil to make you great but there’s no doubt you reign supreme.
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