Editor's note: On Fridays Deb Harkness of Good Wine Under $20 joins us to talk some Serious Grape. Take it away, Deb!
As an inveterate grape-hopper, I love finding new grape varieties to tempt my palate and keep me from falling into wine ruts. The stranger and more off-beat the grape, the happier I am. I love discovering grapes like the Eastern European Rkatsiteli or delving deeper into Albariño.
There is a price to pay for this eclecticism, however: you can forget to drink the six grapes that provide the backbone for wine production throughout the world. These six "noble grapes"--Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir--have been cultivated all over the world and been made into distinguished, even legendary wines.
Here's a primer on the Noble Grapes and some recommendations for affordable bottles on the market now that will help you to reconnect with these traditional grape varieties.
A versatile white grape that is easily influenced by soil, climate, and oak treatment, Chardonnay is one of the most widely-planted grapes in the world. With 34 clonal variations, and several hybrid species such as Seyval Blanc to its credit, Chardonnay continues to dominate the white wine market despite grumblings from some who will drink "anything but Chardonnay." If you want to experience the range of tastes possible with Chardonnay grapes, compare the 2008 Kim Crawford Chardonnay Unoaked from New Zealand with its aromas and flavors of cream, apple, and lemon with the 2007 The Crusher Wilson Vineyard Chardonnay made in Clarksburg by Don Sebastiani & Sons.The buttery apple aromas of The Crusher are followed by apple, citrus, and mild, toasted oak flavors.
With roots that go back to Germany's Rhine region, Riesling is a recently trendy, but much older grape. Lower in alcohol than most white, usually unoaked, and made in styles that range from sweet beerenauslese dessert wines to dry bottlings, there is a Riesling for everybody. And Rieslings are particularly good partners for spicy Asian cuisine, where the tannins in other wines can compete and clash with their aromatic spices. Many of the most distinguished bottlings can have a whiff of gasoline in their aromas. Don't panic if you smell it--connoisseurs seek this aroma out, and it lends an interesting complexity to the wine. Try the 2007 McWilliam's Riesling Hanwood Estate from Australia, which has faint petrol aromas along with citrus, floral, and apple flavors. Another affordable wine with a classic Riesling profile is the 2007 Mandolin Riesling from Monterey with honey, pear, petrol, and apple aromas and flavors. Both of these wines are dry, even if they give off a sweet vibe; both are nice with sushi, Szechuan cuisine, or spicy chicken wings.
Traditionally associated with France's Bordeaux region, distinctive Sauvignon Blancs are made all over the world, especially in the Southern hemisphere. Like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc can come in either unoaked or oaked styles. Without oak, Sauvignon Blancs are zesty and refreshing. With oak, the juice from these grapes becomes richly complex and mouthfilling. Try the 2008 Drylands Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand if you want to experience all the zestiness this grape has to offer. It has citrus, gooseberry, and flowers in the aromas and flavors--and wait for the nice blood-orange note in the aftertaste. Slightly richer flavors are evident in the ( 2008 Blackstone Winery Sauvignon Blanc Winemaker Select) from California, although this wine is also unoaked. Aromas and flavors of of white grapefruit,hay, and some lemon pith are followed by a juicy aftertaste that makes it a perfect pairing for seafood or salads.
In spite of its traditional image, Cabernet Sauvignon is actually a relatively new grape variety. Created in the 17th century from a cross between the red grape Cabernet Franc and the white grape Sauvignon Blanc, the grape quickly became a viticultural favorite because its thick skins make it resistant to both rot and frost. Those thick skins also provide tannins--the tongue-puckering notes that lend structure and age-worthiness to a wine. Some of the world's most expensive bottlings are made with this grape, but it comes in more affordable versions, too. Try a California classic, the 2006 Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley if you want an affordable way to find out what the fuss is all about with Napa Cabs. It has distinctive cherry, green pepper, herbal, and currant aromas and flavors. Cabernet Sauvignons mellow over time, so don't be surprised if you find this wine a bit rough at present. If you want to try an older wine without waiting, look for a bottle from the 2003 vintage. You can still find these in the stores, and one I had recently was the 2003 Chateau Souverain Cabernet Sauvignon from the Alexander Valley. Strong bell pepper and cassis aromas lead to flavors of plum, cassis, and oak with a cinnamon-spice aftertaste.
Astonishingly popular in the 1990s, and now much-maligned, Merlot is Cabernet Sauvignon's more curvaceous, approachable cousin. It is the third most popular grape in cultivation, with early-ripening fruit that is somewhat susceptible to rot because of its thinner skins. Of course, the thinner skins make for lush, fruity wines. Try the 2006 Falesco Pesano from Italy's Umbria region. with its herbal, cherry, and roasted coffee aromas and flavors, or a Merlot from Washington State like the 2007 Substance Merlot, with its notes of cherry, berry, tobacco, spice, and licorice.
The red that bumped Merlot off its pedestal, Pinot Noir is known for its finicky growing habits and its astronomical prices. Traditionally associated with France's Burgundy region, Pinot Noir has well-established enclaves in California's Russian River Valley and in the Santa Barbara area, as well as in Oregon. It's also widely grown in New Zealand, where the wines can represent exceptional value--such as the 2006 Catalina Sounds Pinot Noir , a lovely wine with lacy, crushed raspberry and earthy mineral aromas and flavors. Another affordable Pinot Noir from closer to home is the 2007 Wild Horse Pinot Noir from the Central Coast of California. It's aromatic, with a silky texture and flavors of raspberry, cherry, and chalk accompanied by allspice and clove notes.
Full disclosure: I purchased the Chateau Souverain Cabernet, the Catalina Sounds Pinot Noir, and both of the Merlots. The other wines were samples.