What to Expect from Major Red Grape Varieties

Today we will continue our exploration of the characteristics you can expect from each of the major wine grape varieties. We will focus on wine grapes with red skins today.

It’s important to note that red grapes don’t necessarily make red wine. So-called white grape varieties, which are actually greenish in color, can only make white wine. But red grapes can be used to make either type.

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When the juice is pressed out of the fruit, it can be fermented into white wine regardless of the grape variety used. However, if the grapes have red skins, AND the skins are left in contact with the juice as it ferments, then the red color will be dissolved into the wine, along with various other chemicals, such as tannins, that lend additional body, aroma, and flavor to the final product. The longer the skins are left in the juice before being skimmed off, the darker the color will be.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Red wine in Bordeaux is made with a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. In some parts of the region, the Cabernet Sauvignon is the principal grape in the blend. Because of its reputation in more than a few of the most famous wines produced in France, this variety has garnered the same popularity in America that chardonnay has for white wines. This is surprising since by itself, Cabernet Sauvignon produces wines that are high in acidity and tannins. So, they are excellent paired with a fatty steak, but are somewhat harsh and heavy to drink on their own.

For people who don’t like red wine, bottles made only from this grape may seem to be everything that they don’t like about red wine: harsh, astringent, sour, very dry, and strongly flavored. Again, pairing these wines with fatty foods, or making a blended wine with Merlot, brings out an intense black currant aroma and flavor in the wine that is enjoyable.

Because of the warmer climate, Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the Texas High Plains tends to be sweeter which can balance out some of the less desirable qualities in the fruit. And there is even some grown in the Texas Hill Country, too. There are two excellent options for exploring the world of Texas Cabernet Sauvignon. The first is Texas Hills Vineyard. They make two different versions: one with grapes they grow in their own vineyards in Johnson City, called an “estate” wine. The other is made from fruit purchased from the Newsom Vineyards, one of the oldest and largest growers in the High Plains.

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The other option is Inwood Estates Winery. They manage their vines to produce very small yields, which concentrates the aroma- and- flavor-carrying compounds, called polyphenols, into smaller quantities of berries. The resulting wine has more of the blackcurrant characteristics for which the variety is known.

Merlot

In Bordeaux, Merlot is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon to produce a smoother, mellower wine. In some parts of the region, Merlot can account for up to ninety-five percent of the blend.

By itself, Merlot almost always produces a wine that’s softer, smoother, fruitier, and more accessible than Cabernet alone. But it lacks the structure, body, and meat-pairing characteristics. Nonetheless, Merlot has taken over a lot of Cabernet’s popularity after its boom in the 1980s. That is, until 2004, when the film Sideways took direct aim at Merlot’s perceived over-popularity, and sales plummeted.

There aren’t too many Texas producers that make a single-variety Merlot. The best example can be found at Becker Vineyards. Some notable Merlot blends are sold by Llano Estacado and Kuhlman Cellars.


Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is the grape used in the fabulous red wines of Burgundy. In 2004, when the film Sideways was denigrating Merlot, it was promoting Pinot Noir. As mentioned in the film, it is a difficult grape to grow, requiring a long, cool growing season. Without those conditions, it can actually produce a fairly poor wine. But in the right circumstances, it makes some of the lightest, smoothest, most-drinkable red wines. The fruits produce aromas of flowers, herbs, red berries or cherries, and a silky texture.

As you might imagine, growing Pinot Noir in Texas is particularly difficult. There are a few vines growing in the High Plains, and you can find some of that wine at Messina Hof Winery. However, one of the best places in America to grow Pinot Noir is Oregon, and you’ll be able to taste some Oregon Pinot Noir wines sold at local winery Signor Vineyards, which just opened in the last year.

Cabernet Franc

Cabernet Franc is an ancient variety from the Loire Valley of France. When it was cross-bred with Sauvignon Blanc, the popular Cabernet Sauvignon was created. While there are Cabernet Franc-based wines produced in the Loire Valley, it is more commonly blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in Bordeaux wines. It adds acidity, and some minerality, but doesn’t have a particularly distinctive flavor of its own.

When made into a single-varietal wine, Cabernet Franc can exhibit some qualities of strawberries or green olives. This variety isn’t commonly grown in Texas, but it can be done successfully. You may find Cabernet Franc wines at Texas Hills Vineyard and Messina Hof Winery.

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Sangiovese

As a grape variety, Sangiovese (san-jeeo-VAY-see) was relatively obscure until recently, because it is blended with others to produce the Chianti wines of Tuscany. But as American consumers became savvier with regards to grape types, Sangiovese was discovered. By itself, it has floral and herbal aromas, and flavors of sour cherry.

Because it comes from the warmer Italian climate, Sangiovese does particularly well in Texas, and is one of the more common grapes grown here. Instead of trying to reproduce the Chianti style of wine, Texas vintners have been making a single-variety Sangiovese wine that could be considered a great Texas substitute for Pinot Noir.

One of the best local Sangiovese wines comes from Texas Hills Vineyard. Other award-winners in 2018 came from William Chris Vineyards, Signor Vineyards, Hilmy Cellars, Llano Estacado, and Messina Hof Winery.

Tempranillo

This grape is native to northern Spain, a climate similar to Texas’s. It is the principle variety used to make the famous wines of Rioja, along with other regions of Spain. Although it adds a structure of acidity and tannin to those wines, it doesn’t have very strong flavors of its own, tending towards berries or plum. In Rioja, it is blended with other grapes to add fruitier, sweeter, and brighter flavor notes. Another alternative to bring out the potential in this grape is to barrel-age the wine.

Because Tempranillo matures earlier than other grape varieties (tempranillo means “little early one”), it has become a darling of the Texas vineyard industry. Harvesting it four to six weeks earlier means that late-summer heat waves or hail storms won’t affect the crop. And the Texas climate and soil suit the vines quite well.

You’ll find excellent examples of Tempranillo wines at almost any quality Hill Country winery. Some good starting places are: William Chris Vineyard, Hye Meadow Winery, Inwood Estates Winery, Pedernales Cellars, 4.0 Cellars, and Lewis Wines.

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Syrah

Syrah is one of the three classic grape varieties used to produce the red wines of the Rhône Valley of southern France. The other two are Grenache and Mourvèdre. Like Viognier and Rousanne from the same region, all of these grapes grow very well in the Texas warmth.

By itself, Syrah produces a very dark, purple-colored wine with sturdy tannins and acidity. It ages quite well. The French wineries blend it with the Grenache and Mourvèdre to give it more balance and smoothness. Texas vintners do the same thing, and call the final product GSM. You’re more likely to find a Texas GSM than a single-variety Syrah. In fact, you may find a GSM at almost every winery you visit. But the two best may be at Pedernales Cellars and Messina Hof Winery.

Grenache

The second of the GSM grapes adds smoothness and plenty of sweet plum flavors to the mix. By itself, Grenache wines can oxidize quickly, which means they’re best drunk young. There is a good single-variety Grenache wine available at Ron Yates Wines.

Mourvèdre

Mourvèdre (moor-VEDr) adds tannin and alcohol to the GSM blend. By itself, at its best, Mourvèdre can produce wines similar to a Merlot. If not crafted properly, though, it can have characteristics that some people describe as “gamey” or earthy.

This grape is difficult to grow in many regions, but does quite well in both the Rhône River Valley of France, and in the Texas Hill Country. The grape growers at William Chris Vineyards have pioneered growing Mourvèdre as a response to the particulars of the Texas growing conditions, and they have become known for producing excellent and well-balanced wines from this grape. Some vintners have balanced the harsher qualities of the grape by producing a rosé wine from it. You can find an example of this at 4.0 Cellars.

There are a number of other, lesser-known red grape varieties that are becoming more and more popular amongst Texas grape-growers, for their ability to produce high-quality fruit in Texas’s challenging environment. These include: Alicante Bouchet, Barbera, Carignan, Cinsaut, Malbec, and Tannat. All of these options are relatively new to American wines. When you find one, be sure to ask your wine ambassador about them, and what typical aromas and flavors they produce, so you can add them to your life list of experiences.

Happy exploring!