Popular (and Some Not-So-Popular) Wine Varietals

It is essential to understand the characteristics of different grapes in order to appreciate wine. Each different variety, even when grown and produced in different areas, always displays certain qualities. Knowing what flavors are expected, and what each variety can achieve at its best, is key to developing an appreciation of fine wine. What follows is a brief description of several common and not-so-common grape varieties, in alphabetical order.


A red wine usually sourced from Italy’s Piedmont region, this wine has a high level of acidity, deep ruby color, full berry flavors, and mild tannins.


Typically light, this is a fresh, fruity red wine from an area south of Burgundy, near Lyons, in eastern France. 


Used both in Bordeaux blends and as a stand-alone varietal, this red wine is most often grown in Italy, California and, more recently, Israel. This wine is medium bodied but can be intense with fruit and herbaceous flavors.


The king of red wines, this grape has been in use since the 18th century. Grown in many regions around the world – Italy, France, Israel, the United States and Australia, to name a few – this dark purple varietal exhibits a strong character on its own, or when blended with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, and Malbec. Cabernet is usually aged in oak for 15 to 30 months, which imparts a toasty or vanilla flavor to its classic flavors of currant, black cherry, tobacco, spice, and plum. Characteristically, this wine displays full body, intense concentrated flavors, and firm tannins.


Champagne is the only wine that people accept in a large multitude of styles. Champagnes can range in taste from burnt caramel with full bodied fruit and yeast characters, to light and citrusy, and everything in between. Each of these wines can be altered in its amount of residual sweetness from a bone-chilling dryness to sugar syrup. Bottle age will also alter the weight and character of each of these styles.


A rich and complex white wine, Chardonnay has been popular in the United States since the 1970s. Its flavors are bold, intense ripe fruit such as apple, pear, peach, pineapple and citrus, along with honey and butterscotch. This wine can vary from simple to fairly complex and sophisticated.


This white grape can produce potent spice notes, along with floral flavors and crisp acidity. When left for late harvest, it becomes a complex dessert wine. 


This medium bodied red wine is fruity and spicy, with supple tannins. Popular in France and Spain, it has also increased its popularity in Israel and California. Usually blended, this grape is seeing increased use as a varietal of its own.


Once the most widely planted grape in Austria, this can also be found in some parts of Eastern Europe. This white wine shows pepper, tobacco, and citrus flavors along with high acidity. Similar in body to a Riesling.


Argentina has been very successful with this red varietal, but this grape is most often used as part of the Bordeaux blend.


This red wine became very successful in the 1990s. Mainly used for the Bordeaux blend, it has become a popular stand-alone. This grape marries well with oak and shows currant and cherry flavors, as well as occasional herb and chocolate flavors, along with firm tannins.


This red wine is popular across the south of France, and has gained acceptance in Spain. This is a medium weight wine, with spicy cherry and berry flavors, and medium tannins.


Dark in color and having strong tannins, this red was often used as a blending wine. California and Israel have been producing some remarkable versions of this wine, which is complex and shows intense notes of pepper and fruit.


Also known as Pinot Gris in France, this white Italian wine has a medium golden color, a gently perfumed aroma, and is soft with medium acidity.


This red grape, originally from France, is one of the most difficult grapes to grow. This varietal, now also grown widely in California and in Oregon, offers flavors of black cherry, raspberry, currant, spice, herb, tar, and earth, and can be very tannic.


One of the greatest of all white wine grapes. This dry, full bodied varietal is grown primarily in Germany, France, and Austria, but has become more common in California, Oregon, Washington, New Zealand, and South Africa. It possesses high acidity, along with distinct floral, peach, citrus, and mineral accents, with occasional notes of apple and honeysuckle. 


Sometimes known as blush, this light pink wine varies from crisp and dry to slightly sweet, and is produced by removing the skins of red grapes early in the fermentation process or by mixing red and white grapes.


A white wine long used in blends, this grassy, musky wine has a crisp flavor profile, with vegetal and herbaceous flavors. As a late harvest wine, the taste becomes very rich and complex.


Known as Shiraz in Australia, this red has the ability to age for decades. This distinct wine is rich and complex, with notes of spice, black cherry, leather, and roasted nuts. Tannins have a smooth, supple texture. For years, this grape was only used in blends, but has become very popular as a stand-alone varietal. 


Rarely grown elsewhere, this red grape is Spain’s major contribution to the world of red wine. Often used in blends, Tempranillo is the dominant grape in wines from Rioja. It is garnet-hued with deep aromas and flavors of tea, plum, tobacco and vanilla, along with strong tannins and medium acidity.


A rare white grape from France, this is also a very difficult grape to grow. It has medium complexity, with spicy and floral notes. More recently, it has also begun being grown in Israel by some of the country’s finer wineries.


A very popular red grape thought to have originated in southern Italy, is one of the most widely planted red grapes in California. Some is vinified into white Zinfandel, which is slightly sweet and blush colored. Red Zinfandel has been used as a blend with Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah. When produced as a stand-alone, it has a rich claret color, and exhibits flavors of spicy pepper, berry, cherry, earth, and light toasted oak with mild tannins. As a late harvest wine, Zinfandel features ripe raisin flavors and chewy tannins.