There are more than 10,000 varieties of wine grapes in the world, about 50% of which are grown in just four wine regions: France, Italy, United States and Spain.
Some of them arise naturally through mutations, while others are the result of specific grape breeding programs. By breeding grapes, grape growers are able to improve characteristic traits, such as cluster size, growth pattern and ripening period. Of all the types of wine grapes, about 1,300 are used to make wine. Of these, only a handful are distributed and known worldwide.
Wine grapes vs. table grapes
By no means are all grapes suitable for making wine. Therefore, a distinction is made between wine grapes and table grapes. Only wine grapes (as the name implies) can be used to make wine. They may seem very similar to table grapes to many of us, but there are definitely major differences between the two:
- Parentage: Most wine grapes belong to the grape species Vitis Vinifera. Although some table grapes also come from this species, most belong to the species Vitis Labrusca and Vitis Rotundifolia. Both are not suitable as wine grapes.
- Size: Table grapes are larger than wine grapes. Because wine grapes are smaller, they have a more concentrated flavor and sweetness.
- Sugar content: Wine grapes a higher sugar content (22% - 30%) than table grapes (10% - 15%.) The higher sugar content results in a higher alcohol content during fermentation.
- Skin thickness: Table grapes have a thin skin and fleshy pulp, making them ideal for eating. Wine grapes have a thicker skin and a higher juice content. This is especially useful in red wine production, because the thicker the skin, the more tannins and color it lends to the fermenting grape juice.
- Yield: Table grape vines have higher yields than wine grape vines. A vine of a mature table grape produces about 15-30 pounds of grapes. In contrast, a vine of a wine grape produces only 8-12 pounds of grapes.
Most popular red grape varieties
Cabernet Franc comes from Southwestern France. Few wines are made entirely from Cabernet Franc. It is often blended with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, for example in the Bordeaux region. In addition to France, Cabernet Franc is grown in Italy, other parts of Europe, the United States and more recently China and Kazakhstan. Cabernet Franc is also used to make ice wine.
The Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most common varieties in the world. Developed as an accidental cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, it produces low yields that are resistant to rot and pests. From warmer regions, Cabernet Sauvignon comes with a dark wine, intense flavor and light acidity, while cooler climates produce a paler, highly acidic wine.
Carmenere is one of six red grape varieties used in traditional Bordeaux red blends. The grape is late ripening and thus a challenging grape to grow. Today, it is mainly grown in Chile. Carmenere has a spicy, herbaceous character (similar to Merlot) and makes exceptional blends with Cabernet Sauvignon.
As early as the 14th century, Gamay became known as a cultivated variety from the town of Gamay, 10 kilometers Southwest of the city of Beaune. With its high yields, the Gamay was a threat to the delicate and sensitive Pinot Noir. With the motivation "harmful to health" the grape was therefore banned from Burgundy in 1395. Gamay is the main grape in the light and fruity Beaujolais wines. Typical for the taste of Gamay wines is the pronounced fruitiness and notes of cherries and raspberries.
This grape is native to the region of Aragon in Spain, where it is called 'garnacha'. It is a late ripening, heat-resistant grape with a low tannin content. The grape has a thin skin with little color and is therefore very suitable for making good rosé. Moreover, it can ripen for a long time, which often results in a high sugar content. The result is often a strong, fruity, almost sweet, port-like wine. The grape is usually blended with other grape varieties; in the Spanish Rioja area especially with the Tempranillo grape.
Malbec is one of the Bordeaux grapes that gained fame in Argentina and gradually became a worldwide favorite. It is a thin-skinned grape variety that produces different wines depending on the terroir of the vineyard and the style of the winemaker. Argentine Malbec wines have softer tannins and bold fruity flavors, while French Malbec offers more savory notes.
Merlot is the flagship Bordeaux grape and used both as a monocépage and in blends with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. In aroma and taste, it is mainly characterized by red fruits, such as cherries, berries and plums. The wines are generally juicier and smoother than those of Cabernet Sauvignon, with less tannin. As a result, they are often easier and younger to drink. They are generous wines with lots of flavor. Merlot is also widely grown outside of France in Italy, California, Australia, Chile and South Africa, among other places.
Pinot Noir is an ancient grape variety with origins in the Côte de Nuits in Burgundy. It is a demanding grape, which must be carefully managed and harvested. Wines made from Pinot Noir do not have a very dark color. They have an attractive aroma and a delicate flavor that makes the wine very accessible from its youth. Despite that softness and suppleness, the better Pinot Noirs can undergo long bottle aging. Pinot Noir is also used to make sparkling wine.
The Sangiovese grape has Italian origins dating back to the 6th century. It is the main grape in famous Tuscan wines, such as Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino. It produces very acidic, full-bodied, tannic wines a taste of blackcurrant, tobacco, cinnamon, cloves and thyme, which can age well in a cellar.
Syrah / Shiraz
There are many rumors about the origin of the Syrah grape (called Shiraz in some countries), such as that it originated in the Iranian city of Shiraz. However, genetic research shows that the grape originated from two grape varieties from southeastern France: Dureza and Mondeuse blanche. It is a grape with an intensely spicy and fruity nose, ranging from carnations and violets to black pepper, chocolate notes, black cherries and berries. The finish - especially if the wine is more than 10 years old - has hints of tobacco, leather and natural cocoa. Syrah is also used for rosé and sparkling wine.
Tempranillo is an early ripening Spanish red wine grape that is mainly used to make high-quality Rioja blends with Gamay and Carignan. It is also grown in Portugal, Australia, South America, the United States and South Africa. The aromatic ruby red wine presents a range of flavors of berries, plums, vanilla and spices.
Zinfandel is a Croatian grape most popular in the United States and genetically similar to its Italian twin, Primitivo. Zinfandel's red wines are intense with pronounced fruity and spicy flavors. Zinfandel also produces the famous American sweet rosé wine - White Zinfandel.
Most popular white grape varieties
Chardonnay is one of the most widely grown white wine grape varieties originating in Burgundy, France. The Chardonnay grape is an integral part of sparkling wines such as champagne and many creamy monocépage wines and blends. Tasting notes of Chardonnay wines after second (malolactic) fermentation indicate hints of butter, tropical fruit, vanilla and coconut.
Chenin Blanc is a popular white grape variety in South Africa and France. It creates wines with high acidity and medium body. The grape can be used in various wine styles such as dry, sweet and sparkling wine.
Gewurztraminer is a derivative of Sauvignon Blanc (or the Italian Traminer.) The grape is found in France, Germany, Italy, Australia and New Zealand. Gewurztraminer wine has a lush aroma of lychee, rose petals, ginger and grapefruit.
Muscat refers to a group of 200 grape varieties, used worldwide to make a variety of wines. Muscat wines are aromatic with spicy and floral notes. Muskat Momjanski is a Croatian grape variety used in sweet dessert wines.
Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio)
Pinot Gris is a mutated variety of the Pinot Noir grape, native to Burgundy, France. Originally called Pinot Gris, the grape is known as Pinot Grigio in Lombardy, Italy. It eventually spread to Switzerland, Hungary and Germany. The grape produces white, pink and orange wines with a light body, great acidity and citrusy flavor notes.
The Riesling grape is used to make some of the best age-worthy white wines in the world. The Riesling grape is also used for ice wine and widely grown in Germany, France, Austria, New Zealand, Canada and the United States.
The highly adaptable Sauvignon Blanc produces great dry white wines. It is grown in several wine regions (notably New Zealand), but its roots are in the Bordeaux region of France. Sauvignon Blanc is a favorite among wine lovers for its intense aromas and delectable taste of elderflower, gooseberry, passion fruit, green olives and asparagus.
Semillon is a high-yielding, golden-colored grape variety that produces both dry and sweet white wines. The Semillon grape variety is grown primarily in France and Australia. Semillon wines reveal rich, citrusy flavors and elegant complexity.
You'll find Viognier in a variety of wine styles. It is a low-yielding, drought-resistant grape that combines the texture of Chardonnay with the vitality of Sauvignon Blanc and the tropical aromas of Gewurtztraminer. Native to the Rhone Valley, Viognier is also a favorite white variety in the U.S. and Australia.
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