Types of Wine: Varieties Guide

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Vintage Cellars
August 6, 2018
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Wine grapes (known as vitis vinifera) are as varied as the types of apples we eat. Each grape variety has its own distinct personality (and DNA), ranging from fresh and fruity to rich and complex. Some varieties have high natural acidity and go well with spicy food. Surprisingly, most red grapes have pale flesh, so are fermented with their skins to extract colour and flavour, which is why most reds are fuller bodied than whites. The skins also yield tannin, giving reds a savoury profile and hallmark astringency. Oak is a secondary source of tannin (and flavour), building the weight and complexity of red and white wines.

Certainly, the world of varieties is a fascinating one, which is why we've created the Vintage Cellars Variety Flavour Wheel. Dive into the world of varietal variation with this wheel, starting at a variety in the centre, then moving outwards to discover its body weight and primary and secondary flavour characteristics. Using the wheel is a great way to discover new varieties, too. Pick up your free Vintage Cellars Variety Flavour Wheel in-store while stocks last.

An ode to chardonnay

Chardonnay is a noble grape with rich peach and melon flavours that shine with full-flavoured food such as chicken, pork and lobster. The fact that it’s Australia’s most planted white grape is evidenced in the variety of styles on shelves today, from top chardonnays that equal the world’s best to our affordable chardonnays that provide everyday drinking.

Chardonnay comes from the (cool) Burgundy region of France with the first cuttings reaching our shores in 1832. A handful of descendant vines survived until the 1970s, when the white wine boom saw chardonnay planted across the country. It flourished in temperate maritime sites in the Hunter Valley and Margaret River, producing opulent chardonnays that established the Australian style.

However, the overwhelming demand for (any and all) white wine saw chardonnay planted in hot Riverland areas for simple, everyday and cask wine. Oak became the crutch for these chardonnays with these overt styles driving the sunshine in a glass export boom of the 1990s.

These oaked styles saw the variety spurned in the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) mutiny. The bright flavours and drinkability of newly popular sauvignon blanc forced a dramatic rethink among thoughtful winegrowers who crafted fine-boned chardonnays with a balance of fruit, oak and winemaking artifice. Elegant examples from Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Adelaide Hills and Tasmania have now restored chardonnay to its pre-eminent position.

Pinot gris vs pinot grigio

Understanding the difference between pinot gris and pinot grigio is simply language, as they are in fact the same grape variety with the same DNA. Pinot noir ("noir" is black in French) is the dark-skinned version of pinot gris ("gris" is French for grey), a mutate sibling with a distinctive deep pink or grey skin. Pinot gris from the variety’s homeland in Alsace, France, is rich and textural, its spicy flavours partnering perfectly with the region’s similarly rich food – think pork, choucroute (sauerkraut) and foie gras.

Cross the border to Italy and the duo above (pinot noir and pinot gris) translate in Italian to pinot nero ("nero" is Italian for black) and pinot grigio ("grigio" is Italian for grey). However, pinot grigio grown in the cool north- eastern regions of Italy (Alto Adige and Trentino) is leaner, tighter and brighter than its Alsatian counterpart, with apple and pear flavours and a decisive acid thrust. This style suits lighter and spicier food.

So why do we use both names in Australia? It’s simply a question of style, with those tagged "grigio" coming from cooler sites in the King Valley and South Australia's Adelaide Hills, while those branded “gris” coming from the milder climes of Victoria's Mornington Peninsula. To add to the confusion, winegrowers of Italian heritage (naturally) prefer pinot grigio. The Kiwis opt for pinot gris. Whatever your white pinot pleasure, it's a varietal that's fast becoming a firm favourite on Australian shores.

Aromatic tastes of riesling

Riesling was Australia’s first star white, finding fame in the 1970s when innovation set Australian white wine on a new path. Stainless steel fermenters, airbag presses and refrigeration brought a new energy to our whites, with riesling the main beneficiary. Its perfumes of orange blossom, apple and lime juice are upfront and appealing. Vibrant flavours and racy acidity make it a great apéritif or match for oysters, whiting or spicy Asian dishes. Its acidity ensures a long cellar life with mature riesling showing honey, toast and marmalade.

Riesling’s fall from grace in the 1980s was self-inflicted with young, over-cropped vineyards delivering dilute, flavourless grapes. Young college-trained winemakers were taught that leaving some unfermented grape sugars could prop up weak fruit flavours. These simple, lollyish rieslings helped chardonnay seduce consumers.

Since then, Australian riesling has evolved as winemaker influence informed a new style. The vast majority are bone dry with intense flavours from vines planted 50-plus years ago in the boom in the Eden and Clare Valleys. Newer regions are Canberra District, southern Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia’s Great Southern. These cooler sites produce grapes with delicate flavours and high natural acidity balanced by a little retained (grape) sugar to produce an off-dry style recalling riesling’s Germanic origins. These new-wave styles are especially pleasing as an apéritif or with spicy Thai or Vietnamese food.

The many styles of sauvignon blanc

It’s clear that sauvignon blanc is here to stay. Buoyant flavours, bright personality and sheer drinkability have driven sauvignon blanc to the top. That an ocean of "savvy" floods across the Tasman to our shores adds to the variety’s divisive status. What’s amazing is that sauvignon blanc was virtually unknown in the antipodes before the 1980s. Pioneering plantings in Marlborough, New Zealand, produced a distinctive wine but not in a positive way, with funky, tangy notes and lantana typical descriptors. Things came together in 1985 with the inaugural release of Cloudy Bay, with its fresh passionfruit and gooseberry flavours and smart packaging. And the rest is... well, that tsunami across the Tasman reached the rest of the wine world.

Meanwhile, innovation in the Adelaide Hills saw the 1989 Shaw + Smith Sauvignon Blanc create a new (and more subtle) benchmark with citrus and white peach flavours and a bright zesty finish. Most cool regions in Australia now produce consistent sauvignon blanc – the Yarra Valley, Orange and Tasmania to name a few.

Sauvignon blanc’s alter ego is semillon, the pair combining in Margaret River to create a subtle savoury style that mirrors the dry whites of Bordeaux. Sauvignon blanc origins are in the Loire Valley where it lies solo on the guise of Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé. No matter what the style, sauvignon blanc is not shy, its outgoing personality winning over millions of fans with its easy charms.

The bold personality of shiraz

Australia's most popular red grape? It's shiraz, with a diversity of styles beyond those of its Rhône Valley homeland. Australia has the world’s oldest shiraz vines (imported in 1832) and the variety leads our export charge. The temperate regions of South Australia (McLaren Vale, the Barossa and Clare Valleys) form the heart of our old-vine plantings, delivering rich plum and blackberry flavours, a firm tannin structure and the power to age for decades. It’s this bold, brash style that caught the attention of global wine critics.

However, in the 1980s, the fashion shifted to more elegant wines with cabernet sauvignon favoured over shiraz and its Rhône companion, grenache. Sadly, 100-year-old vines were grubbed out and the move to plant vines in cooler regions saw a new style of shiraz emerge – lighter, brighter and spicier, with Victoria leading the way. The Adelaide Hills, Great Southern and Canberra have joined the "cool" cult and pushed shiraz back to its top spot.

Syrah is shiraz's French name, with our cuttings coming from the hill of Hermitage in France, (which explains why Aussie shiraz was first called hermitage). It was thought the original shiraz vines came from Persia (Iran) due to the city of the same name. DNA has proved this wrong and dated shiraz back to the ninth century, and possibly even further, on the banks of the Rhône River. Australian winemakers use the French name to denote a lighter, spicier style, and it’s this breadth of styles that makes shiraz our greatest grape.

Characteristics of cabernet sauvignon

Cabernet sauvignon is an aristocratic grape that needs time to mellow. Blending with other grapes (such as merlot, cabernet franc and malbec) adds both depth and complexity. It’s a formula that harks back to cabernet sauvignon’s time-honoured Bordeaux heritage.

Back to cabernet sauvignon and its stern personality – it’s all about tannin, and cabernet sauvignon’s small berries and tough skins deliver tannin in spades. Cabernet sauvignon has abundant flavour to balance these tannins – blackcurrant dominates with savoury flavours of bay leaf and cedarwood. The trick to producing really good cabernet sauvignon is picking it ripe but not overripe. Cooler regions with reliable Indian summers are best – Central Victoria, Coonawarra and Margaret River, for example. Warmer regions like the Barossa and Clare Valleys produce their best cabernet sauvignon in cooler vintages. Oak plays an important role and explains why cabernet sauvignon is so age-worthy.

Australia’s original cabernet sauvignon cuttings originally came from Bordeaux, as did malbec. Merlot, cabernet franc and the fifth Bordeaux variety, petit verdot, missed the boat in 1832, arriving with much fanfare in the 1980s. While blending is the key in Bordeaux, Australians like straight varieties, with Coonawarra favouring that approach, and Margaret River playing it both ways with compelling results.

Fruity flavours of grenache

Grenache is the warm-blooded cousin of shiraz – both come from the Rhône Valley with syrah or shiraz in the northern area near Tain-l’Hermitage, while grenache basks in the warm sunshine near Avignon, where it’s the dominant variety in Côtes du Rhône and the revered wine, Châteauneuf du Pape. There’s compelling evidence that grenache originated in Spain, where it’s known as garnacha.

Grenache loves heat, with the bulk of our plantings sitting in South Australia where its generous red-fruited flavours and abundant grape sugars (therefore alcohol) saw the grenache plantings of the mid-late 1800s turned into fortified wine before the return to popularity of dry table wines. That grenache made excellent port was a bonus.

Grenache swaps structure and tannin for profuse juicy red fruit flavours – raspberry, cherry and plum with candy floss characters. Many Australian winemakers follow the French by blending, although there is wonderful pure grenache, especially from McLaren Vale. Shiraz is the most likely collaborator, bringing structure and drive; mourvèdre (or mataro) adds earthy funk. These blends have been nicknamed GSM (grenache, shiraz, mourvèdre) though SGM and even MSG blends are also common.

In the 1980s, grenache suffered the same fate as shiraz with many old vineyards removed. A few wise Barossa growers realised their heritage was at risk and championed the pair. A special part of our vinous history was saved.

Savoury sangiovese styles

Sangiovese is a mid-weight red with distinctly savoury characters – think fresh tobacco, liquorice and chinotto with a lift of fresh raspberries. Oak tannin marks it easily, so the best sangioveses are aged in older and/or large-format vats. Sangiovese is made for food rather than the show circuit, and it drinks well in its youth.

The backbone of Tuscan reds, sangiovese only arrived in Australia 30 years ago. Montrose winemaker, Carlo Corino, brought cuttings to Mudgee in the early 1980s with McLaren Vale winegrower, Coriole, an early adopter. In Tuscany, sangiovese is not labelled as a variety but is the dominant grape in the Chianti region and its neighbours, Montepulciano and Montalcino. The top wines from Montalcino labelled as Brunello are long lived with the local clone, known as sangiovese grosso, not for its big berries but intense flavour and tannic backbone. However, most Tuscan reds are mild-mannered unless blended with French varieties like merlot and cabernet sauvignon. These are often referred as Super Tuscans.

The temperate climate of Tuscany is mirrored in many parts of Australia – Mudgee, Hill Tops and Canberra District in NSW, McLaren Vale in South Australia and Heathcote and – especially – the King Valley in Victoria. For many years, the passionate Italian families of the King Valley have championed the sangiovese variety under brands such as Pizzini and Dal Zotto.