Your Guide to Five of the World’s Most Popular Grapes

You may drink them all the time, but what do you really know about Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot? It's time to learn more.
Illustration by Julia Lea

Get to know five of the world’s most popular wine grapes. Since bottles of each variety are widely available and easy to find, you can start exploring countries, regions, and styles to discover your preference.

Chardonnay

Chardonnay Grapes
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Chardonnay is popular around the world, in part because it can ripen almost anywhere. A rather bland grape on its own, it takes well to fermentation and/or aging in new oak barrels. Much of its broad appeal, especially in less-expensive versions, may also be credited to the use of oak flavorings and a bit of residual sugar left in the finished wine.

Some of the greatest Chardonnays are made in Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune region as well as in Champagne, where it’s the sole grape for Blanc de Blancs and a component in most nonvintage bottlings.

Superb, ripe, tropical fruit-laden Chardonnays are made in the warmest regions of California and Australia. You’ll find racier versions that spend little or no time in new oak from coastal California, Oregon, Australia’s Margaret River and coastal Chile. All-stainless Chardonnays suggest fresh green apples in scent and flavor.

Another common technique is to put Chardonnay through malolactic fermentation, which softens the acids and adds a buttery note. Barrel aging can bring flavors of butterscotch, caramel, smoke and toast. It’s also versatile with a vast range of foods, from soft white cheeses to poultry, shellfish, pasta and salads. Even pork and heftier fish like swordfish and halibut work well with Chardonnay.

Chardonnay Recommendations 

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Sauvignon Blanc Grapes Sancerre
Vineyards in Sancerre, home to some of the world’s finest Sauvignon Blanc. Image via Getty.

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc is grown all over the world, yet it flies under the radar for many wine drinkers. Sometimes labeled Fumé Blanc (a vague term originally coined as a marketing ploy), it’s a wine that can inspire such unappealing descriptions as “cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush.”

Those words don’t necessarily inspire you to pull that cork.

And yet, it’s a wonderful grape. Sauvignon Blanc shows quite well in France’s Loire Valley, notably in and around the villages of Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire. There, it has a penetrating minerality and pungent herbaceous character.

Benchmark New World Sauvignon Blancs come from New Zealand, where the intensity of the green citrus and berry fruit flavors put an immaculately fresh spin on the grape. In California, it’s often ripened and occasionally barrel-fermented to showcase peach and tropical fruit flavors, much like Chardonnay. In Chile, these wines are often described as racy and briny, scented with bell pepper and tasting of celery, cactus and lime.

When made as a late-harvest wine, Sauvignon Blanc is often blended with Sémillon, and it tastes of honey, butterscotch and caramel. The wines of Sauternes and Barsac are exemplary, and given their high acid and sugar levels, they can age gracefully for decades.

Sauvignon Blanc Recommendations

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Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes
Just-picked Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, Napa Valley. Image via Getty.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon is the principal grape of most great Bordeaux reds. As a solo variety, it almost single-handedly built the reputation of Napa Valley. It’s grown globally, often blended with some or all of the other Bordeaux red grape varieties. The top versions have focus, purity, power and grace that no other red grape can equal.

In the Napa Valley, the prevailing style tilts toward superrich, heavily oaked Cabernets, sporting high-alcohol levels and meaty tannins. In Washington State, the best versions walk the line between precision and opulence.

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Elsewhere in the New World, outstanding Cabernets are made in Australia and Chile. They’re sappy and supple Down Under, while lightly herbal, spicy and briary in Chile.

A light herbal component is generally considered a true representation of the grape, as overripe Cabernet can turn fruity, jammy and without much complexity. It’s perfect for extensive aging in new oak, and it has the tannin, acid and alcohol levels to match even the most aggressive barrel flavors. Check the wine list at your favorite steakhouse. It’s loaded with Cabernet Sauvignons, because those rich tannins complement fatty beef like few other wines.

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Pomerol Vineyard
You’ll find exceptional Merlot in Pomerol, located on Bordeaux’s Right Bank. Image via Getty.

Merlot

It’s no secret that the reputation of Merlot was knocked sideways by, well, the movie Sideways. Damage to the grape’s reputation is due to the vast amounts of cheap, flavorless Merlot that flood the market.

For the best New World bottles that won’t break the bank, look first to Washington State and Long Island, New York. Supple, well-stuffed varietal bottlings abound that possess both the texture and acidity to age well. Napa Valley Merlots can be rich, ripe, broadly fruity and immediately delicious.

On the Right Bank of Bordeaux—in Pomerol and St-Émilion—Merlot attains superstar status. It’s often blended with Cabernet Franc in rare and expensive wines like Pétrus and Château Angélus. More commonly, Merlot is the second most important grape (behind Cabernet Sauvignon) in the majority of Medoc reds, which may also include small amounts of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and/or Malbec.

This thick-skinned grape ripens early, a boon to growers that fear fall rains. Merlot accounts for large amounts of reds from Italy, California, South America and Eastern Europe.

Merlot Recommendations 

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Pinot Noir Grapes
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Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is both cherished and cursed by winemakers around the world. It’s the prettiest, sexiest, most demanding and least predictable of all major red grapes. The template for the greatest Pinot Noirs is scattered among the many tiny communes of Burgundy, where the rarest bottles can sell for hundreds of dollars upon release. Along with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir is also a principal base component of many Champagnes and other sparkling wines.

Pinot Noir is almost always bottled as a pure, unblended varietal wine. It’s not unusual for a California or Oregon winery to offer up to a dozen single-vineyard, single-clone or single-block bottlings in any given vintage.

The grape is exceptionally site and vintage specific. Finished wines from warm climates may have decadent flavors. Cool sites and vintages result in more elegant, refined and ageworthy wines. Given such wide differences in style and terroir, Pinot Noirs are commonly light to medium-bodied, with tart red berry fruit and suggestions of dried herbs and earth.

You’ll find excellent New World examples from coastal California, Oregon’s Willamette Valley and Central Otago in New Zealand. At its best, Pinot has an ethereal delicacy, yet it can age for decades. It’s often described as “the iron fist in the velvet glove.”

Pinot Noir Recommendations

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Published on March 28, 2017
Topics: Wine Basics
About the Author
Paul Gregutt
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from Oregon and Canada.

Paul Gregutt is a Contributing Editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine, a founding member of the magazine’s Tasting Panel, and reviews the wines of Oregon and Canada. The author of the critically-acclaimed Washington Wines & Wineries—The Essential Guide, he consulted on the Pacific Northwest entries in current versions of The World Atlas of Wine and The Oxford Companion to Wine.

Email: paulgwine@me.com.



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