Recently we explored why some grapes are considered “noble” varieties, having distinguished themselves from other grapes with a reputation for making high-quality wines. While the first seven grapes we discussed – Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Syrah – have formed the foundation of modern winemaking as we know it, the others in the grape family weren’t going to let these seven reap all the fame and glory.
As cultivation and production techniques improved over time, other varietals began to attract attention and win over their own legions of fans. This has extended the Noble Grape lineage to include 11 other varietals. Perhaps we can credit a little healthy sibling rivalry for bringing these grapes to our attention, and broadening our palates.
As with the first seven, these grapes have their own unique range of flavors, aromas, and styles that will make your wine drinking experience more interesting and enjoyable.
Pinot Grigio is one of the most well-known varietals of the extended Noble Grape family, due to its easy-drinking nature. Although this varietal has dual citizenship with both Italy and France, where it’s known as Pinot Gris, Pinot Grigio primarily owes its renown and popularity to its Italian heritage. Italian-produced versions of Pinot Grigio are light-bodied and crisp, with stone fruit (peach, nectarine), lemon, and floral characteristics.
When produced in France (primarily in Alsace), the wines are more full-bodied, spicier, and richer in texture. Oregon and parts of New Zealand also produce this varietal in the Pinot Gris style. Usually dry, these wines can also be made with some residual sugar. Pinot Grigio is perfect served for summer and is meant to be enjoyed young.
Notable growing regions for Pinot Grigio: Oregon, California, Italy, Germany, France, Australia, New Zealand, and Austria.
Also light-bodied and quaffable, Chenin Blanc’s claim to fame is its versatility. This varietal’s high acidity allows it to be made into wines ranging from lusciously sweet to crisp and dry. Originating in the Loire Valley of France, Chenin Blanc at first tended to be off-dry, or on the sweeter side, then evolving into drier versions popularized by producers in South Africa.
Chenin Blanc tends to showcase citrus (lemon, grapefruit), green fruit (apple, pear), and some herbaceous and floral characteristics. Off-dry styles are suitable for ageing, developing notes of baked spices and honey, especially when aged in oak.
Notable growing regions for Chenin Blanc: France, South Africa, Argentina, California, Washington, and Australia.
Gewürztraminer boasts a flavor profile that’s almost as complicated as its name. Another native to Alsace, France, this varietal produces intensely perfumed and full-bodied wines in dry, off-dry, and medium-sweet styles.
Characteristics include floral (rose, orange blossom), topical, and stone fruit (peach, lychee, grape) notes, as well as zesty spices such as ginger. Most Gewürztraminers are consumed young, while their fruit characteristics are still fresh, but premium wines can develop honey and nut aromas with age.
Notable growing regions for Gewurztraminer: France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Italy, California, Oregon, and Washington.
Those with a sweet tooth may already be familiar with Moscato, which also goes by the name Muscat. One of the oldest cultivated grapes, this varietal is grown all over the world, known for its sweet citrus (orange, lime), stone fruit (peach, nectarine), and floral (honeysuckle, orange blossom) characteristics.
Moscato d’Asti is a popular Italian sparkling wine produced with Moscato, well-liked for its fruity, sweet character and low alcohol. In southern France and Spain, Moscato is more often found as a dessert wine often aged in oak, where it develops a tawny color and deep floral flavors.
Notable growing regions for Moscato: Everywhere! France, Italy, Spain, Australia, California, and Brazil are just a few of the many regions where you can find Moscato.
Native to the Bordeaux region of France, Semillion is a varietal often found blended with Sauvignon Blanc to make dry wines. On its own, Semillon has delicate citrus (lemon) flavors that can be made into dry or sweet wines.
Sauternes is one of the most well-known dessert wines produced from the Semillion grape, developing complex toast, honey, and nut characteristics with age. Semillion is also widely planted in Australia, often as a single varietal wine.
Notable growing regions for Semillion: France, Australia, South Africa, Argentina, Washington, California, and Chile.
Viognier is another French varietal that produces full-bodied, aromatic wines with delicate fruit (peach, pear, apricot) and floral (violet) characteristics, as well as some spicy notes. In France, Viognier is sometimes blended with Grenache, which gives this red wine a smooth texture and adds a hint of exotic fruit.
Notable growing regions for Viognier: France, Chile, Argentina, Australia, and California.
Sangiovese is the grape behind one of Italy’s most famous wines, Chianti. Many people will recognize Chianti from the ubiquitous straw-wrapped bottles called “fiascos” that were once found in Italian restaurants. Sangiovese produces medium- to full-bodied wines, with high levels of tannins, and red fruit (red cherries) and herbal (tea leaf) characteristics.
While many of these wines are easy drinking, more complex red plum and earth notes emerge when aged in oak.
Notable growing regions for Sangiovese: Italy, California, Washington.
Nebbiolo, from Italy’s northern Piedmont region, is the varietal used to produce two other famous Italian wines: Barolo and Barbaresco. This varietal produces full-bodied wines, with high tannins, alcohol, and acidity that are meant to age. If consumed too young, these wines will taste harsh and acidic. Red fruit flavors dominate, along with floral and earthy characteristics that develop into mushroom and tobacco with oak ageing. Definitely worth the wait!
Notable growing regions for Nebbiolo: Italy, California, Washington.
Venturing into the Spanish branch of the Noble Grape family, Tempranillo produces full- to medium-bodied reds with medium tannins, and fresh red fruit characteristics, such as strawberry and cherry. Tempranillo is often blended with Grenache (see below), which add alcohol, spicy notes, and color.
Though grown throughout Spain, the Rioja style of production, which includes traditional oak ageing, is the most well-known. As these wines age, flavors of coconut and vanilla emerge, as well as more savory characteristics, such as leather and mushrooms.
Notable growing regions for Tempranillo: Spain, Portugal.
Although its ancestral home is originally in Bordeaux, France, Malbec is now the most important varietal in Argentina. The Malbec grape produces full-bodied wines, with medium to high tannins, and characteristics of dark fruit (blackberry, black plum) and spices (cloves, black pepper). These wines are suitable for oak ageing but also can be enjoyed young.
Notable growing regions for Malbec: Argentina, France, Chile, South Africa
Grenache, known as Garnacha in Spain, are large, thin-skinned grapes that have high levels of sugar and low acidity. This varietal produces full-bodied wines with red fruit (strawberry, raspberry) and spice (white pepper, licorice) characteristics. Grenache loves oak ageing, which allows the spicy notes to evolve into toffee and leather.
In southern France and Spain, Grenache is made into dry and medium sweet rosé wines, exhibiting bright red fruit (strawberry) flavors. Grenache is also found blended with Syrah, toning down any harshness by bringing more fresh fruit, spice, alcohol, and lower the tannins.
Notable growing regions for Grenache: France, Spain, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Chile, California, Washington.
If there are grapes on this list you aren’t familiar with, give them a try and see how they compare to varietals you drink more regularly. And the next time you have a party, consider inviting the entire noble family to the party.