White Wine Grapes
Chardonnay - It is the primary white wine of Burgundy. One of the more popular wines in America. You can find it un-oaked, allowing the native characteristics of the grape to shine, or aged in French oak barrels or American oak. French oak imparts a milder flavor than American. Watch for distinct aromas and flavors of butter in most Chardonnays.
Gewürztraminer - This grape has made a significant foray into the American market. The name means "spice" in German. It can have a peppery, floral, or nutty character. Originating in Germany and Austria, it's also grown in Italy, California, Niagara Canada and Australia.
Grüner Veltliner - A white-wine grape grown in Austria. Used to make fresh, fruity whites best consumed very young. Also known as Veltliner.
Pinot Blanc -predominant in Alsace, Italy, and Austria, this grape suggests some of the character of Chardonnay, and is often used to make sparkling wines.
Pinot Gris / Pinot Grigio - Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are actually the same white grape. In Italy and California it's known as Grigio, and in Oregon and France it's known as Gris. Other regions use the terms interchangeably. This is a mutation of the Pinot Noir grape, which is red. Pinot Blanc is not the same as Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio - it is a further mutation of this varietal. The Italian version is typically dry and light, with a mineral taste to it. California's output can be richer in flavor, but still have the mineral taste. Often, they finish with a lemony or citrus flavor. French Pinot Gris wines usually come from the Alsace region. These are more fruity and flowery, though they still have that mineral aroma. It's also known as Rulander or Grauer Burgunder.
Riesling - The Riesling grape is believed to be indigenous to Austria and Germany, and has been planted there for almost 1,000 years. Riesling does very well in central Europe, Canada and in California, and is also grown in Australia and New Zealand. Riesling is affected by where it is grown - New World Rieslings (California and Canada) are dry and have the taste of melons, while German Rieslings are more tart like Grapefruit. In Niagara Ontario, Riesling is used in the creation of Ice Wines, as are Vidal grapes.
Sauvignon Blanc - A popular alternative to Chardonnay. It makes a crisp, light wine. Sauvignon Blanc has herbal flavors, olive and a soft, smoky flavor. They can range from sweet to dry, but are typically quite light. American Sauvignon Blanc is often quite prominently "grassy" whereas the Canadian and New Zealand versions are often more balanced and pleasant. This is also a principle variety in Sauternes, the elegant dessert wine from the area of the same name in Bordeaux. The other blending partners are Semillon and a bit of Muscadelle.
Semillon - This is an early-ripening grape which is often blended with Sauvignon Blanc. It is the primary grape in White Bordeaux wines, notably also in Sauternes. It also has a grassy character.
Red Wine Grapes
Cabernet Sauvignon - Often called the king of wine grapes, this varietal is rich in tannins, and provides the strength and complexity necessary to make a wine that's good for aging in a cellar.
Grenache - often used for rosé wine, and is common in France, Spain and California. Light in tannins, it produces a lighter-bodied, fruity wine.
Merlot - Merlot has traditionally been used for blending with other grapes to shape the character of a wine. This is a friendly wine to everyone's palate, even a newcomer to the wine scene. It can offer up some rich berry, honey, or mint, and is not as tannic as a Cabernet Sauvignon.
Pinot Noir - The premier red-wine grape of the Burgundy region of France. It produces a red wine that is light in color compared to other reds. Also grown in cooler regions of North America. Characteristics: cherry, mint and berries, such as raspberry or strawberry.
Sangiovese - A red-wine grape grown in the Tuscany region of Italy. Used to make Chianti and other Tuscan reds. Some versions (clones) include Sangiovese Grosso, and Sangiovese Piccolo. Also grown in California where it is used to produce up-and-coming medium-bodied reds with rich cherry or plum-like tones.
Syrah / Shiraz - Shiraz is the name of an old city in Iran (Persia). That's probably where the grape variety originated. It is known in France and California as Syrah, and in Australia as Shiraz. The Rhône region of France has grown it for centuries. In the new world, it is often a mixing partner with Cabernet Sauvignon. Syrah can possess a mineral, blueberry, or sometimes spicy/peppery flavor. Some remarkable wines are being produced in Australia and South Africa with this grape.
Zinfandel - An important red-wine grape grown mostly in California. This varietal produces robust reds and is also made into the popular blush wines (white zinfandel). It may have been developed from an earlier varietal from southern Italy. It has spicy, peppery qualities and dark color.