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Grape Varieties - Explained

Meet Vitis vinifera, the humble wine grape. 

Believe it or not, there’s a good chance that every single bottle of wine you've ever drunk came from this same plant. Red, white, rosé, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gamay, Aligoté… You name it.

That wine grapes are perfect for winemaking is of course no accident. Humans have been cultivating grapes for thousands of years, adapting them to new ecosystems and breeding them with other grapes to create new cultivars. Then, we selected the best and continued on with the process, resulting in the tremendous variety of grapes we see today.

Unlike table grapes (their larger, fleshier, thin-skinned and generally seedless cousins), wine grapes are small, sweet, very juicy, and full of skins and seeds rich in tannins and other phenolic flavor compounds. But while the different varieties of wine grape share a lot in common, there are lots of differences between them too!

What makes grape varieties different?

Grape varieties possess a number of different characteristics, but the main ones revolve around the kind of wine they can produce, and their agricultural characteristics.

This means:

  • Phenolic compounds (a.k.a. flavor compounds) which make up the taste profile of the grape.

  • Tannins, which produce the characteristic dry mouthfeel of red wine, and are derived from the skins and seeds of the grape. These bring structure to a wine, balancing against sweetness, alcohol and acidity

  • Body, the rich mouthfeel that grapes produce in wine to varying degrees.

  • Acidity, the refreshing tartness that balances against sweetness and alcohol.

  • Sweetness, which influences how much alcohol the grape can produce - more sugar generally means more alcoholic wine. Smaller grapes tend to be sweeter, but this trait is also highly influenced by how ripe the grape is at harvest.

There are also important differences in agricultural characteristics between grapevines. While the two can’t be completely disentangled, differences in cluster size, heat resistance, pest resistance, adaptability, and vigor all play an important role in determining which grapes are planted where, and used to make which type of wine.

That’s less of a concern for us however, since Burgundy wine is almost all made with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay!

Fun fact: wines made from a single grape variety are called Varietal wines.

Well, almost a single variety. In Europe it's a minimum of 85%, and 75% in the US. Any less, and the wine is considered a blend.


What makes the wine - variety or terroir?

Setting aside producer practices for a moment, there are two schools of thought regarding the main determinant of a wine’s character: the grape varieties that compose it, and where the grape was grown. 

In Burgundy (and France in general), the dominant belief is that location is the biggest determinant of a wine's character. While variety has a role to play, the purpose of winemaking is to highlight the terroir of a region, a commune, or even an individual vineyard, rather than the characteristics of the grape itself.

This belief is reflected in France's appellation system, which classifies wines first and foremost by the region or vineyard where they were produced. While grape variety is slowly starting to feature on the label a little more frequently, it’s more of a marketing tactic than a real change of heart. 

The opposing view generally holds in the US and other parts of the New World. Here, wines are categorized mainly by grape variety. Perhaps due to the New World’s comparatively limited legacy of wine history, winemaking has a more experimental quality to it, and producers are more open to mixing and matching different grapes when the moment calls for it. While most will proudly display where their wine comes from, it's usually considered secondary information to the variety itself.

We won't pronounce on the debate, but the truth is probably somewhere in the middle - grape variety and location both matter. 

What do you think? 

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