About Wine Types

Varietal is one word you’ll see applied to most non-European wines; it simply refers to the grape variety used to make the wine. In Europe, the finest wines are usually named after the region (the other is appellation) in which the grapes are grown; examples include Bordeaux, Chianti, Piesporter, Champagne, etc. In most of the rest of the world (including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America and the United States) the finest wines are usually labeled with the name of the grape variety that the wine is made from (i.e.: Cabernet, Chardonnay, etc.). The Europeans have had hundreds of years to determine which grapes grow best in which regions, and they often have regulations controlling their labeling. For example, Pinot Noir is the only red grape allowed to be grown in most of the Burgundy region. As non-European countries establish reputations for the wines of certain regions, they often add the region’s name to the varietal name; for example, Napa Valley Cabernet, Russian River Pinot Noir.

Serious wine-producing countries and states regulate the amount of a particular grape that must be present before the wine can flaunt that grape’s name. In California and Washington any wine referred to by the name of the grape (Chardonnay, for example) must be at least 75% of that grape; most varietals in Oregon must be 90% of the named grape; and Alsace requires 100%.

The types of grapes used to make a wine are probably the single most important factor in the taste of the wine. However, the flavors of a wine are also affected by how old the vines are, what types of soils the vines are grown in, exposure to sunlight, climates and microclimates, how the grapes are handled and fermented, types of yeast used, whether the wine is aged in wood, etc. Therefore, the same grape types can be grown in France, Australia, California and Chile, but various factors result in wines which taste different! Half the fun of experiencing wine is the incredible array of flavors available!

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Many of the world’s finest wines are a blend of varietals: almost all Bordeaux red wines contain Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc; almost all Champagnes contain Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. A wine which is a blend of Cabernet and Merlot, for example, is often more complex than a wine which is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Exploring varietal characteristics makes for a richer wine experience. To that end, we have collected descriptions of the varietals you are most likely to encounter.

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