Did you know your wine could be nobility?
The term “Noble Grapes” refers to international varieties of grapes that have distinguished themselves from hundreds of other varieties with their reputation for making high-quality wines.
If you’ve ever tasted wine that your neighbor/uncle/co-worker made in their basement with random grapes growing in their backyard, you already know that not all grapes make equally good wine. In short, wines made from Noble Grape varieties are generally considered to be good drinking and are often used as benchmarks for emerging varieties.
Mostly originating in France, the first varieties identified as Noble Grapes include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. As production methods improved and new hybrid varietals were introduced, this list has expanded to include as many as 18 international varieties.
For now, let’s take a look at the original seven, which make up the foundation of global wine production. Understanding the basic characteristics of these grapes, and the conditions in which they will thrive, will give us a better sense of the range of flavors, aromas, and styles that can be found in the wines we drink today.
Among the Noble whites, Chardonnay is one of the most well-known varieties on the market and perhaps, also one of the most misunderstood. What makes Chardonnay so attractive to winemakers is its versatility. It can be grown in a range of climates from cool to hot, resulting in flavors and aromas that vary greatly.
Grown in a cool climate like the Chablis region in France, the Chardonnay grape will exhibit green apple, green pear, and citrus fruit characteristics, as well as a mineral or steely character. In a hot climate like Napa Valley, more tropical fruit characteristics, such as peach, banana, or pineapple might be prevalent.
In addition to its versatility, Chardonnay is also impressionable. As a non-aromatic variety – meaning the grape itself doesn’t exhibit any strong individual aromas – many of the flavors associated with Chardonnay wines come from winemaking techniques instead of the grape itself. This includes oak ageing, which can impart flavors of vanilla, toast, and coconut, but can also overpower the fruit’s delicate aromas.
As a wine, Chardonnay tends to be full-bodied and fruit-forward. Premium Chardonnay ages well and develops a honey, nutty, and savory complexity.
Notable growing regions for Chardonnay: France, Australia, New Zealand, California, Chile, Argentina, and South Africa.
Sauvignon Blanc is another well-known white Noble variety. An aromatic grape, Sauvignon Blanc conveys strong aromas of green fruit and citrus, such as apples, pears, and grapefruit, as well as some vegetal characteristics, like green bell pepper, asparagus, or elderflower. To showcase its refreshing, crisp, and fruity style, Sauvignon Blanc is usually grown in cooler climates.
In warmer climates, this grape will lose some of the complex, pungent aroma that it’s known for. Sauvignon Blanc tends to be medium-bodied, high-acidity, and generally unoaked. These wines are usually enjoyed young, while their fresh and fruity character is at its peak.
Notable growing regions for Sauvignon Blanc: France, California, Italy, Spain, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, and Australia.
Our German Noble of the group is Riesling, another aromatic white with a pronounced fruity and floral character. Like Chardonnay, Riesling is versatile, expressing the nuances of the climate and vineyard where it is grown. Wines made from this variety can also be produced in a range of styles, from dry to sweet, and from light to full-bodied. When grown in cooler climates, Riesling exhibits green apple and green grape flavors, floral notes, and hints of lemon or lime.
In moderate climates, more stone fruit notes can emerge, such as white peach. When Riesling grapes are allowed to over-ripen, which develops more sugar in the grape, more pronounced stone fruit and tropical fruit notes can develop, including peach, apricot, pineapple, and mango. Riesling is generally aged unoaked, developing flavors of honey and toast aromas.
Notable growing regions for Riesling: Germany, Austria, France, Australia, and New Zealand.
In addition to being one of the most recognized varieties, the Noble red Cabernet Sauvignon is also the most widely planted grape in the world. This variety produces wines that are deeply colored and high in tannin and acidity, with strong flavors of black cherry, black currant, bell pepper, and mint. Cabernet Sauvignon needs a moderate to hot climate to ripen.
If the climate is too cool, the under-ripe grapes will become harsh and astringent, developing unpleasant herbaceous flavors. Grapes grown in hot climates will produce fuller-bodied wines with softer tannins, more black fruit flavors, and less herbaceous characteristics. Premium Cabernet Sauvignon is aged in oak, which softens the tannins and adds flavors of coffee, smoke, and vanilla. It is common for Cabernet Sauvignon to be blended with Merlot, which adds softness and body to make a more drinkable wine.
Notable growing regions for Cabernet Sauvignon: France, Australia, New Zealand, California, Washington, Chile, Argentina, and South Africa.
Merlot is often regarded as a softer and more approachable counterpart to Cabernet Sauvignon. Grown in moderate to hot climates, Merlot tends to exhibit blackberry, black plum, and black cherry flavors. In cooler climates, strawberry, red berry, or plum flavors can emerge, along with herbal notes of mint.
When aged in oak, flavors of vanilla and coffee emerge. To give more structure to Merlot’s softer characteristics, Cabernet Sauvignon is often blended to add tannin, acidity, and more aromatic fruit.
Notable growing regions for Merlot: France, Australia, New Zealand, California, Washington, Chile, Argentina, and South Africa.
The Goldilocks of the Nobles is Pinot Noir, which needs a climate that is “just right” to ripen properly. This grape’s thin skins prefer moderate to cool climates that bring out strawberry, raspberry, and cherry flavors, as well as aromas of mushrooms, wet leaves, and game with age. In hot climates, Pinot Noir will lose its delicate flavors. In climates that are too cold, the grapes will not ripen, resulting in excessively vegetal characteristics, such as cabbage.
The Pinot Noir variety produces very drinkable wines that are light on tannins, fruity in character, and suitable to drink youthful or aged. Premium Pinot Noirs are aged in oak, imparting toast and vanilla notes, although these flavors can overpower the variety’s delicate flavors.
Notable growing regions for Pinot Noir: France, Germany, New Zealand, California, Oregon, Chile, and South Africa.
Finally, we introduce Syrah, also called Shiraz outside of France. This variety is similar to Cabernet Sauvignon, in that it tends to produce intensely colored and flavored wines, with medium-high tannins. Syrah/Shiraz does well in moderate to hot climates, resulting in full-bodied wines with flavors of black cherry, black pepper, clove, liquorice, and herbaceous notes of mint. When grown in more moderate climates, the herbaceous characteristics may become more pronounced.
Oak ageing is common for Syrah/Shiraz, imparting toast, smoke, vanilla, and coconut flavors. Often Syrah/Shiraz is blended with Grenache, one of the most widely planted red wine grape varieties, which lends more color, tannin, and acidity to the wine, as well as softer red berry flavors to balance Syrah’s black fruit characteristics.
Notable growing regions for Syrah: France, Australia, South Africa, and Chile.
As noted above, the list of Noble Grapes has expanded over the years, as the production, popularity, and reliability of other local and international varieties has increased.
Next time in Wine Knows, we’ll explore the other members of the extended Noble family.