Don’t know your Syrah from your Shiraz? Befuddled by Merlot and Malbec? Fear not – our handy guide to the world’s top 20 wine grape varieties will make you sound like a convincing connoisseur in no time.
The Wine Grapes Varieties
- Cabernet Franc
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Muscat Ottonel
- Pinot Grigio / Pinot Gris
- Pinot Noir
- Sauvignon Blanc
- Shiraz / Syrah
One of the major black grape varieties worldwide, Cabernet Franc is principally grown for blending with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to produce Bordeaux. Lighter than Cabernet Sauvignon, it is a bright, pale red wine that adds a peppery perfume to more robust blends and notes of tobacco, raspberry, bell pepper, cassis, and violets.
A chance crossing between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc in 17th-century southwest France, Cabernet Sauvignon is now the world’s most widely planted wine grape variety. It produces wines with blackcurrant, green bell pepper notes, mint and cedar notes in cooler climates. Wine from moderate climates sees blackcurrant, black cherry and black olive notes, while the current flavours can become ‘jammy’ in hot climates.
A member of the Cabernet family, Chile produces the majority of Carménère wines available today. Considered part of the original six red grapes of Bordeaux, as the Chilean wine industry grows, more experimentation is being carried out on Carménère’s potential as a blending grape, especially with Cabernet Sauvignon.
A green-skinned grape variety used in the production of white wine, Chardonnay is an essential component of many sparkling wines worldwide, including Champagne.
The grape is very neutral, with its flavours influenced by oak and terroir (the landscape and geology in which it is grown). Cool climates produce a medium to light body with green plum, apple, and pear flavours. Warmer places create more citrus, peach, and melon tastes, while warm regions bring out fig and tropical fruit notes.
Gewürztraminer is an aromatic white wine grape variety with pink-to-red skin colour. It grows best in cooler climates, usually producing off-dry wines with a bouquet of lychees. It pairs well with cheese and fleshy, fatty wild game.
One of the most widely planted red wine grape varieties, Grenache thrives in Spain’s hot, dry conditions, Sardinia, the south of France, Australia, and California’s San Joaquin Valley. It produces wine with relatively high alcohol content and flavours of raspberry and strawberry with a subtle white pepper spice note.
Primarily a red wine grape variety grown in South West France, Malbec is increasingly known as an Argentine varietal wine and is grown around the world. It ripens mid-season and can bring deep colour, ample tannin, and a plum-like flavour to claret blends.
The name Merlot is thought to come from Merle, the French name for the blackbird. Made across the globe, there are two main styles of Merlot wine. The late-harvested ‘International style’ produces full-bodied, high-alcohol, inky purple wines with intense plum and blackberry fruit. Merlot’s traditional ‘Bordeaux style’ involves earlier harvesting to maintain acidity and produces more medium-bodied wines with moderate alcohol levels, red fruit flavours and a vegetal note.
A white wine grape variety commonly used in dessert wines from Austria, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Serbia, as well as dry wines from Alsace and Hungary. First cultivated in Alsace by the Loire grower Moreau-Robert in 1852, Muscat Ottonel is believed to be a cross of Chasselas with Muscat de Saumur.
An Italian red wine grape variety thought to derive its name from the Italian word nebbia, which means ‘fog’, Nebbiolo produces lightly-coloured red wines which can be highly tannic with scents of tar and roses. Mature wines develop aromas and flavours, including violets, tar, wild herbs, cherries, raspberries, truffles, tobacco and prunes. Nebbiolo wines require years of ageing to balance the tannins with other characteristics.
South Africa’s signature red wine grape variety, Pinotage, was bred there in 1925 as a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut (known as ‘Hermitage’ in South Africa at that time, hence the name). It typically produces deep red varietal wines with smoky, bramble and earthy flavours, sometimes with banana and tropical fruit notes. Pinotage is often blended into fortified and even red sparkling wine.
Pinot Grigio / Pinot Gris
Also called Grauburgunder, this white wine grape variety with a grey-blue fruit is thought to be a mutant clone of the Pinot Noir variety. Grown worldwide, the wine’s flavours range from ripe tropical fruit notes of melon and mango to some botrytis-influenced flavours (also known as ‘Noble Rot’, Botrytis is a fungus that dries out the grapes, thus concentrating the sugar and flavours.
Pinot Noir grapes are grown worldwide in cooler climates, particularly in the Burgundy region of France. Pinot Noir is also used to make the Italian wine Franciacorta, despite being challenging to cultivate and transform into wine. When young, wines made from pinot noir tend to have red fruit aromas of cherries, raspberries and strawberries. As the wine ages, pinot can develop more vegetal and ‘barnyard’ aromas that can contribute to its complexity.
A white grape variety originating from the Rhine region of Germany, Riesling is an aromatic grape variety displaying flowery aromas and high acidity. It makes dry, semi-sweet, sweet, and sparkling white wines that are usually varietally pure and seldom oaked.
Sauvignon Blanc is a green-skinned grape variety planted in many of the world’s wine regions, producing a crisp, dry, and refreshing white varietal wine. The grape is also a component of the famous dessert wines from Sauternes and Barsac. The flavour can range from aggressively grassy to sweetly tropical, depending on the climate. When slightly chilled, it pairs well with fish or cheese – mainly chèvre – and is also known as one of the few wines that go well with sushi.
Sémillon is a golden-skinned grape native to the Bordeaux region, used to make dry and sweet white wines, mainly in France and Australia. It is also vital to the production of sweet wines such as Sauternes. For the grapes to be used for sweet wine production, they must have been affected by Botrytis.
Shiraz / Syrah
Syrah, also known as Shiraz, is a dark-skinned grape variety grown worldwide, primarily to produce red wine. Moderate climates (such as the northern Rhone Valley and parts of Washington State) tend to make medium to full-bodied wines with medium-plus to high tannins and notes of blackberry, mint and black pepper. Syrah from hot climates such as Crete and the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale regions of Australia are more consistently full-bodied with softer tannin, jammier fruit and spice notes of liquorice, anise and earthy leather.
Tempranillo is an early ripening black grape variety that thrives in chalky vineyard soils such as those of Spain’s Ribera del Duero region. Its relatively neutral profile sees it often blended with other varieties such as Grenache and Carignan (known in Rioja as Mazuelo) or aged for extended periods in oak, where the wine quickly takes on the barrel’s flavour. In Portugal, where the grape is known as Tinto Roriz and Aragonez, it is blended with others to produce Port wine.
Like Chardonnay, this white wine grape variety can produce full-bodied wines with a lush, soft character. In contrast to Chardonnay, the Viognier varietal has more natural aromatics, including notes of peach, pears, violets and minerality.
Zinfandel (also known as Primitivo) is a variety of black-skinned wine grapes grown in over 10 per cent of California vineyards. The grapes typically produce a robust red wine, and in the United States, a semi-sweet rosé wine called White Zinfandel has six times as many sales as red wine. The taste of the red wine depends on the ripeness of the grapes: red berry fruit flavours predominate in wines from cooler areas, whereas blackberry, anise and pepper notes are more common in wines made in warmer areas and wines made from the earlier-ripening Primitivo clone.
The best wines from the best grapes
Here at Lyme Bay, we work hard to produce award-winning premium still and sparkling English wines. Our philosophy remains the same after more than 25 years: we source the best English grapes to make the best possible English wines.
Our passion for producing extraordinary wines made us one of a few English wineries that work with growers from all over the country to get the best fruit rather than relying on what is grown in our vineyards. We collaborate with premium vineyards nationwide, including ones in Essex, Dorset, Devon, Hampshire and Oxfordshire, to source the best Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Bacchus grapes, among others.
That way, we can access different wine grape varieties that grow better on different soils and in different microclimates across the country and use them to make exceptional, full-of-character still and sparkling English wines that suit every palate and occasion.
Take a look at our English still and sparkling wines.