Choosing wine in a shop or on a restaurant wine list can seem daunting. With such an enormous selection, where do you start? What do you look for? We’ve put together an easy guide to choosing some of the most common wine grapes to give you a little inspiration…
The ‘go-to’ white wine for many around the world and a pretty standard household name. Sauvignon Blanc’s biggest success in recent years has undeniably been in New Zealand. Its heartland, however, is the Loire Valley in Northern France. Sancerre, at the very eastern end of the Loire, stands firmly on the pedestal of Sauvignon Blanc. The Kiwi stuff, although made from the same grape,shows a very different style.
Thanks to the cooler climate, Loire Sauvignon Blanc is crisp and very dry with overriding notes of lime and a flinty, stoney character. In warmer years, it can be a bit fruitier with white peach and apricot aromas coming through. Emphasis, however, is certainly on crisp and vibrant acidity. Kiwi Sauvignon is explosive and fruity compared to its French cousin : the wine jumps out of the glass with lots of mango, passion fruit and peach flavours.
Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé at the upper end of the price bracket, or wines more simply labelled Loire Sauvignon Blanc for a cheaper wine in a similar crisp, ultra dry style. Menetou-Salon, next-door to Sancerre on the map, offers good value wine very similar to Sancerre.
Marlborough is the go-to region for fruity New Zealand Sauvignon, but how about trying the lesser known regions? Canterbury and Central Otago produce crisper styles with more emphasis on that citrus and flinty flavour.
This grape unfortunately still gets bad press, even though it’s the most widely planted white grape variety and the main ingredient in some of our favourite wines. Champagne anyone? It’s without a doubt the most versatile white grape: cool climate? hot climate? oak? fizz? Chardonnay can do it all.
One big reason to love Chardonnay: Crémant. Now gaining popularity in the UK as an alternative to Prosecco (are people finally getting bored of this fruity fizz that has dominated the sparkling aisles for the last decade?!), Crémant is made in the same way as Champagne. To get the bubbles it goes through a second fermentation in the bottle which gives off the CO2 fizz. The bubbles are finer and more delicate than those in Prosecco, it has both the fruitiness of easy-drinking fizz combined with the nutty complexity you’d find in Champagne. What’s not to like?!
‘Blanc de Blancs’ – usually 100% Chardonnay blends that are elegant, vibrant and can even be kept in the cellar for a year or two
‘Blanc de Noirs’ – made from 100% black grape varieties and usually richer and fuller-bodied
As a general rule, the more expensive the wines of the region, the more expensive the Crémant. Eg. Burgundy Crémant is quite pricey, whereas Jura and Alsace Crémants tend to be better value.
Riesling is capable of producing world class wines with enormous complexity, from bone dry to lusciously sweet. Fizz too. But, like Chardonnay, it too suffers a hangover from the 80s and 90s; a lot of people still associate Riesling with the sweet and nondescript white splosh their elderly relatives drank. But rest assured, it’s a thing of the past.
Although it is quite a fussy grape and needs specific climatic conditions to thrive, the variety of styles Riesling can produce is enormous. Its heartland is still Alsace, in eastern France and Germany, but Riesling now thrives in other countries, Australia being a leading example. It can have a wide spectrum of flavours from fresh citrus and sharp green apple, to ripe apricot and honey, to wax, petrol and wet slate depending on the origin, style and age of the wine.
Dry German Rieslings tend to be fresh and citrussy with lots of acidity, freshly cut grass and blossom aromas. Sweet styles still have vibrant acidity, but are combined with delicious apricot jam and honey flavours. With age, Rieslings develop wax and even petrol aromas – sounds bizarre, but this gives the wine an intensely complex character, one that is unique to Riesling. One of the reasons to love it!
‘Trocken’ means dry and will usually be on the bottle label on German and Alsace wines if the wine is dry. This is a safe bet if you don’t want to be caught out with a sweet wine.
New World (ie. non European) Rieslings usually tell you what to expect on the bottle and whether they are dry or sweet. Australian Rieslings from Clare Valley and Eden Valley are the benchmark for New World styles: slightly riper but still bone dry with apricot, peach and honey flavours. Wonderfully zesty and mouth watering wines.
Pinot Noir is one of those grapes that divides the world. It’s a bit of a ‘marmite’ grape – people tend to love it or hate it. . It is light-bodied, usually pale in colour and can be fiendishly expensive. On the other hand, it is charming, enticing and the best examples are some of the most complex wines in the world.
Burgundy, the heartland of Pinot Noir, is pricing itself further out of the market so Pinot lovers are turning elsewhere to get their fix. And nowadays, there are plenty of options available. It’s quite a particular grape, most at home in cooler climates as it can lose the elegant and delicate flavours it is known for if over-ripe. However, in the right hands, and as winemaking globally has improved, good examples of Pinot have emerged elsewhere and they’re giving Burgundians a run for their money.
Languedoc-Roussillon Pinot Noir. With fewer regulations surrounding wine production, this is a forward-thinking region known for excellent value wines in France. Lots of easy labelling too- simply look for ‘Pinot Noir’ on the label without having to decipher tricky French labels and enjoy the ripe, juicy fruit flavours with the tell-tale Pinot elegance.
New World favourites in the Burgundian style: Central Otago Pinot Noir, New Zealand and Oregon Pinot Noir, U.S.A
Syrah is capable of producing a wide range of wine styles and is found both by itself or in blends. It certainly needs some sunshine to ripen its thick skins so you tend to find it in warm climates; its spiritual home is the Rhône Valley in France. In this region alone it is capable of producing such variety in flavour profile: in the cooler North it shows cassis, black pepper, olive and bacon fat whereas in the South it shows more dried fruit, prune, blueberry and sweet spice and has a rounder, fuller-bodied texture. Australia and California are good sources of warm climate Syrah with dark black fruit and jam flavours.
If you’re after elegant, refined and peppery Syrah – look for Northern Rhône: Saint-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage or Cornas. For the very best of the best: Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage. Washington in the U.S produces some cool climate, peppery Syrah too.
If you’re after full-bodied, rich and powerful Syrah – look for Barossa Valley or McLaren Vale Australian Shiraz (what the Aussies call Syrah).
Bordeaux, arguably the most famous wine region in the world, has built its success on the ability to blend grape varieties to bring out the best of each one. Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot are the staple grapes of the region and this combination has been so successful there that it has been copied all around the world.
Different climates have different effects on the blend: cooler climates such as Bordeaux give tart red and black fruit flavour and retain high acidity and high tannins. Warmer climates, such as California, Australia and Tuscany produce rounder wines with riper tannins and tones of ripe black fruit, chocolate and allspice. One thing that unites all Bordeaux blends is their affinity with oak. The flavour compounds in these varieties as well as their structure and tannin mean they hold up to heavy oak usage. Indeed, most need a significant time in oak barrels to soften.
Prices in Bordeaux are ever-rising for the classic châteaux and top-rated appellations. For value, look for what we call the ‘satellite’ regions: Lalande-de-Pomerol, Fronsac, Côtes de Bordeaux – these will be on the bottle label and offer good value red Bordeaux.
Bordeaux blends from Tuscany. You get the excellence of the Bordeaux grapes combined with the excellence of the Tuscan climate. The result is smooth and silky claret coated in southern sunshine and Italian spice. Win-win.
Written by Phoebe Roth, one of our fantastic booze consultants. For any wine-related queries, you can reach her at email@example.com.