What Do ‘Noble Grapes’ Mean in Wine?

Noble grapes wine illustration
Illustration by Alyssa Nassner

In the wine world, the term “noble grapes” has come to represent six well-known international varieties. However, there’s a fair amount of controversy around the term, as there is no legal definition for what a “noble grape” is, and many think it’s outdated.

Here, we take a look at what this term means and the controversies that surround it.

The Great Noble Grape Debate

Aldesheim vineyard noble grapes wine
Bryan Creek Vineyard / Photo courtesy Adelsheim Vineyard

The six noble grape varieties include: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. But, not everybody thinks of them as being so noble.

According to Gina Hennen, winemaker at Adelsheim Vineyard in Newberg, Oregon, these varieties gained their royal title in part because they have a “heightened ability to express how and where they were grown.” Plus, they’ve been planted across the globe, she says, and have formed the “cornerstone” of winemaking over the last few centuries. 

Hennen works with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but she doesn’t use the term “noble grapes” to describe them. She doesn’t think it’s useful to elevate a small set of wines based on variety. 

“In my mind, true provenance is a question of where the grapes are grown, how the wine is made and whose hands were involved in that process,” she says.

Patrick Carteyron, vigneron and proprietor of Château Penin, near the Bordeaux village of Génissac, agrees. He says noble grapes have the potential to produce great wines under the right circumstances, but the choices made by growers and winemakers are key, as are factors like soil and climate.

“It is not enough to choose a noble grape variety to make a noble wine,” says Carteyron.

Additionally, Stacy Briscoe, Wine Enthusiast print senior editor and California wine reviewer, echoes this sentiment. “Why not  Syrah, Grenache or Mourvèdre, Nebbiolo, Carmenère, Chenin Blanc or—heck—why not some hybrid? I think the thing to remember is that any grape has the potential for quality, or if preferred, ‘nobility’—if grown in the right place and produced with the care and attention deserved.”

Chateau Penin Sauvignon Blanc noble grape wine
Sauvignon Blanc (left) is considered one of the noble grapes in wine; Chateau Penin’s Patrick Carteyron (right) / Photos by Muriel Meynard

The Old World Connection

The term of noble grapes goes back centuries, likely tied to the Old World production of wine. “I think it’s a term often used for some of the most globally recognized, globally planted grapes with Old World roots known to produce quality wines, often with premier price points,” says Briscoe.

While it’s certainly true that many other varieties also have the capacity of noble grapes, for a time the title flourished with authoritative voices in wine, particularly in the British wine market prior to World War I. Today, these varieties continue to be planted successfully around the world, gaining global name recognition. And so, the air of elevation persists.

While most of the noble grapes are associated with French origins, Riesling finds some of its highest expressions in German vineyards. Ursula Müller, winemaker at Weingut Schneider Müller in the Schwabsburg district of the Rheinhessen region, says that the term “noble” is fitting to Riesling, given its staying power. Still, it isn’t a word she uses very often.

“We are now making wine in the ninth generation, and Riesling has been the most important grape variety for the winery since the beginning,” says Müller. “Riesling is for us simply the most exciting grape variety. It has been for the last 100-plus years, and hopefully will be in the next 100 years.”

This story was updated on 02/28/2023. 

Published on February 15, 2022
Topics: Wine Terms