Although wine can be made from any species of grape, many of the “wild” grapes found throughout the world, including the 7+ species native to North America, don’t produce a particularly enjoyable beverage. Wine as we have come to know it is made from the “wine grape,” Vitis vinifera, which is native to the Old World. Over the last 8000 years, growers have domesticated between 5000 & 10,000 cultivated varieties of wine grapes.
Each variety was developed either because it exhibits desirable qualities and characteristics in the fruits, which are then reflected in the wine; or to take advantage of particular growing conditions to which other varieties are not well suited.
As wine becomes more and more popular around the world, along with the possibility of importing wines made pretty much anywhere, consumers have become more knowledgeable about the varieties of grapes used to make the wine.
In Europe, wines are usually identified by region, e.g., Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Chianti, Rioja, etc. Each of these regions has specific traditions (and now, regulations), that determine which grape varieties can or can’t be used. For example, a red wine from Bordeaux can only be made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. A sparkling wine from Champagne can not include anything other than Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or Pinot Meunier.
However, American wines are most often identified by the varieties of grape found in the bottle. Certainly, some regions are better suited to certain varieties than others. But purchasing an “Alexander Valley” wine from California, for instance, doesn’t tell you what went into the wine.
Each classic grape variety has certain common characteristics and tendencies. When you learn what to expect from each, you can begin to become a better-educated consumer of wine.
Chardonnay is the grape used to make white wine in Burgundy, including the famous wines from Chablis. In the 1980s, California producers had enormous success with this grape, and it became a little too popular. Chardonnay wine was over-produced during that decade because of its fame, and as a result, consumers were exposed to a substantial quantity of poorly made examples. That doesn’t mean that it should be avoided, however. But some judgement is required before diving into any old California chardonnay.
The chardonnay grape has a good proportion of malic acid. This is the acid found in apples. And, if you have an unaged chardonnay wine made in stainless steel tanks, you will find that the wine exhibits a great deal of green apple aroma. This is the most characteristic quality of chardonnay. However, the grape holds up well to aging in oak barrels as well. If this is done, a process known as malo-lactic fermentation occurs. During this transformation, bacteria convert the malic acid into lactic acid, the acid found in milk. This gives the wine much less fruity character, and more of the mouth-feel of butter.
Some people prefer the big, buttery, oaky chardonnays produced in the warmer climates of California. But chardonnays grown in cooler climates, and not aged before being bottled, will have a light, refreshing, apple-fruity, acidic nature. This is how Chablis wine is made.
Most Texas producers of Chardonnay wines favor the latter option. This is simply an aesthetic choice, since the big bold California Chardonnays of the past have fallen out of favor with the general public.
Chardonnay grapes, however, are difficult to grow in Texas. You will find very little, if any, growing in the Hill Country. Some of the oldest grape growers in the state have enough experience to keep these vines alive reliably in the High Plains and North Texas, but you never know when a hail storm or late-spring freeze will destroy all of that hard work.
You can find an excellent example of Texas Chardonnay at Inwood Estates Winery. The location is in Dallas, but they have a popular tasting room on US Highway 290 between Fredericksburg and Stonewall.
Sauvignon Blanc is the grape used in white wine from Bordeaux and the Loire Valley. It is particularly popular in summer wines, because it’s light, refreshing, and acidic. It can also be temperamental, and if winemakers aren’t careful, these wines can have aromas that are too grassy, or even with hints of ammonia. But when done right, sauvignon blanc wines have cool, refreshing aromas of just-ripe green fruit like gooseberry or green plums.
The best Sauvignon Blanc comes from cool climates, and so is not produced very successfully in Texas. There is some grown in the High Plains, and is made into wine by Spicewood Vineyards, Fall Creek Vineyards, and Kuhlman Cellars.
Riesling is another cool-climate grape that originates from the Mosel and Rhine river valleys in Germany. Not only are German Rieslings famous, but they are also the wines that brought success and attention to the Finger Lakes wine region of New York.
There is a misconception that wines made from Riesling are predominantly sweet. Like any grape variety, winemakers can choose to make sweet or dry wines from the same grapes. And there are plenty of dry riesling wines out there. What makes Riesling popular for making sweet wines, though, is that it has enough acidity to balance out the sweetness, and sweet rieslings are not heavy or syrupy. The aromas of these wines are typically both floral and very fruity.
Alexander Vineyards near Fredericksburg makes true German Riesling wine from grapes grown in the Mosel valley, in a dry to off-dry style.
This grape variety derives from an ancient north Italian variety called Traminer. Gewürz (geh-VERTZ) is German for “spicy.” Ge-VERTZ-tra-MEENER is the grape most associated with Alsace, between Germany and France. These wines have a hint of cinnamon spice, but are most known for a fruity flavor similar to lychee nuts.
This grape is not grown extensively in America, and certainly not in Texas. The best example of a Texas wine from Gewürztraminer can be found at Messina Hof Winery.
Chenin Blanc was made famous by the semi-sweet to sweet wines made in the Loire Valley of France. Like the other white grape varieties, this is a cool-climate grape. The wines are usually characterized by light body and delicate flavors of melon or honey, with a hint of nuttiness.
It’s not usual to find Chenin Blanc in Texas, but surprisingly, there is a plot of it that’s been growing for twenty years in the Texas Hill Country. Texas Hills Vineyard in Johnson City has taken advantage of a north-facing slope of the Pedernales River where cool air drains at night, to grow some Chenin Blanc along with Pinot Grigio. They make three different wines from these two cool-weather white grapes. You won’t find too many other Texas examples.
There are three “Pinot” varieties of wine grape. The word “pinot” comes from the French word for pine. There are Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio, and Pinot Blanc (black, gray, and white, respectively). The Pinot Grigio is a darker variety than Pinot Blanc, and has a heavier, more complex character. The wines are just as light and delightful as Chenin Blanc wines, but with more of the nutty aromas and flavors.
This is one of the most-grown grapes in Italy. There are some wines made from just Trebbiano there, but mostly it is added to wines like Chianti to add fruitiness. Because the climate in the Texas High Plains is so similar to that of parts of Italy, it has become a popular white grape in Texas. One of the most famous and award-winning Trebbiano wines produced here is from Duchman Family Winery in Driftwood. They describe the wine’s fruitiness as having tropical or citrusy notes, along with pleasant acidity.
There are so many versions of this grape, that it’s practically its own grape family. You’ll see varieties such as Muscat Canelli, Muscat of Alexandria, and Orange Moscato. This is the grape used to make Asti, the sweet, sparkling wine of northern Italy. While this grape certainly can be made into a dry wine, it’s most famous for making sweet dessert wines. As with other Italian grapes, it grows well in the Texas High Plains. You’ll find muscat-type wines at Texas Hills Vineyards, Pedernales Cellars, and Messina Hof Winery. But the Texas winery that’s based its success on Muscat wines is Sister Creek Vineyards in Sisterdale.
This is a grape from Spain and Portugal that is made into light, refreshing, often slightly-effervescent wines. Albariño grows just as well in Texas as it does in Spain, as both areas have similar climates. These wines are perfect for a hot Texas summer, and can be found at a wide variety of Texas Hill Country wineries. Some of the best examples are at 4.0 Cellars and Lewis Wines.
This is a grape grown in the Rhône river valley of southern France. This region of France, along with Italy and Spain, is the region in Europe that has the most similar climate to Texas. Therefore, most grapes grown here are from these grape-growing areas. Marsanne produces medium-bodied wines with medium fruitiness. Along with Viognier, this has become an increasingly-popular grape for making Texas white wines. Some of the best examples can be found at Kuhlman Cellars, Wedding Oak Winery, and 4.0 Cellars.
Viognier is another Rhône Valley grape from France. It is more complex, and produces fuller-bodied wines than Marsanne. Because of its versatility and growing success in Texas, you could consider it the Texas equivalent of Chardonnay. Almost any quality Texas Hill Country winery is going to make a good Viognier, and it might be a fun challenge to try to taste and compare all of them. But good places to start would be Hye Meadow Winery, Pedernales Cellars, Wedding Oak Winery, and 4.0 Cellars.
And that’s just the white grapes! Stay tuned for more information on the major varieties of red wine grapes.