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Grape Varieties

Glossary terms

Cabernet Franc (red)

If Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are, respectively, Bordeaux's king and queen, Cabernet Francis its prince. Ripening earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, it's acts both as great blender with its special fragrance and at the same time as a form of insurance policy. On the cooler, clay soils of the Right Bank, it forms the backbone of many of the supple delicious, blackcurrant and red berry fruit St Emilions and Pomerols, most notably Cheval Blanc. Outside Bordeaux it's the major red grape of the Loire, where it's more herbaceous in style, as it tends to be in north-east Italy. The name used for it in the middle Loire is Breton. It's also grown in California, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand.

What does it taste like?

grassy and raspberryish
aroma of lead pencil shavings

CABERNET FRANC, the distant relative of CABERNET SAUVIGNON, can produce deliciously perfumed, supple, raspberry and blackcurrant-infused red wines in Bordeaux, while further north in the cooler regions of the Loire Valley and in north-eastern Italy, it produces a wine which tends to become more herbaceous in style. It is often described as having the aroma of pencil shavings.

Cabernet Sauvignon (red)

Famous, fabulous and fabled, Cabernet Sauvignon is responsible for many of the world's greatest wines and is, arguably, the grandest of all red wine varieties. This thick-skinned, late-ripening variety performs best in the warm, gravelly soils of the Medoc in Bordeaux, usually blended with lesser amounts of Merlot, Cabernet Francand petit verdot. Cabernet can be herbaceous when a little unripe with capsicum notes, becoming blackcurranty or cassis-like often with cedary, musky and spicy qualities. It's deep-coloured and its assertive tannins and affinity with oak allow the wines to improve in bottle over years if not decades. It is equally capable of producing affordable, everyday reds in regions like the south of France's pays d'Oc, and countries like Bulgaria and Chile as it is of producing wines with real finesse and class, the best of which come from Bordeaux and California and parts of Tuscany and Australia. Latterly, South Africa, New Zealand and Argentina are laying claim to some very good blends and varietals made from Cabernet Sauvignon.

How does it taste?

Capsicum and blackcurrant
A range of cedar, vanilla and coffee notes

CABERNET SAUVIGNON covers a wide spectrum of aromas and flavours. It tends towards herbaceousness when not fully ripe with capsicum and grassy undertones, but as it ripens it tends towards the flavour of blackcurrant and, when very concentrated, cassis. In California and Chilean cabernet, you can often spot mint or eucalyptus. Its affinity with oak lends secondary characters with a range of vanilla, cedar, sandalwood, tobacco, coffee, musk and spicy notes.

Canaiolo (red)

Grown widely throughout central Italy but best known as a minor blending partner to Sangiovese in Chianti, although no longer a compulsory ingredient.

Carignan (red)

The most widely planted grape variety in France, this workhorse red grape abounds as a bush vine in the vineyards of southern France, where it is mostly used as a blender in Languedoc's major appellations of Corbieres and Minervois. At low yields, and vinified by carbonic maceration, it is capable of producing good, if rustic, reds. In Catalonia in Spain, it is known as Cariñena, and in Rioja, as Mazuelo. As Carignano del Sulcis, it makes attractively herby wine in Sardinia and is widely planted in California and South America.

Carmenere (red)

Variety which died out in Bordeaux after phylloxera but has since been revived in Chile, where it is also known as Grande Vidure

Chardonnay (white)

Chardonnay is the most popular of all white grape varieties, albeit not the most widely planted variety in the world (a dubious honour belonging to Spain's Airen). Why so popular? As the grape of white burgundy it produces a variety of flavours and styles according to where it's grown and how it's made, from minerally, unoaked Chablis to the grand and complex, nutty dry whites of Meursault, Chassagne and Puligny Montrachet in the Cote de Beaune and the fleshpots of Pouilly Fuisse further south. Along with Pinot Noir, it is also the major grape variety in Champagne. Because of its versatility, it's spread like a bush fire throughout Europe and the New World, with brilliant, opulently and exotically flavoured whites in California, Australia and New Zealand. As winemakers lavish increasing attention on it, it does increasingly well in Chile and South Africa. As a non-aromatic variety, it has an affinity with oak, whether new or used, French or American, and while barrel-fermented Chardonnays tend to be the richest, most complex and long-lived dry whites, the trend to unoaked Chardonnay is catching on as a backlash to the hefty, overwooded styles. Despite talk of Chardonnay fatigue, its wonderful flavours, richness and versatility ensure that it is here to stay.

What does it taste like?

  • melon, grapefruit and pineapple
  • buttery and nutty

In Burgundy, CHARDONNAY ranges in quality from bland to intense and in style from oaked to unoaked and from the minerally, unoaked, lean, bone dry chablis style to the richer, classically hazelnutty intense dry whites of the Côte de Beaune. In the New World, CHARDONNAY varies from the melon, apple and grapefruit cool climate styles to more tropical fruit styles with flavours of peach, mango, lime and pineapple. As a non-aromatic variety, its affinity with oak brings both a textured, buttery roundness as well as smoky, toasty, clove and cinnamon-spice and nutty features

Chasselas (white)

Not well-regarded in Alsace but more esteemed in Savoie and in Switzerland, and also widely grown in central Europe.

Chenin Blanc (white)

The versatile Chenin Blanc's pretensions to classic grape status are mainly realised in the Loire Valley, where its floral aroma, apple and pear-like flavour and acidity contribute to long-lived dry styles and luscious sweet whites around Bonnezeaux, Quarts de Chaume, Vouvray and Layon, and, on occasions, full-flavoured sparkling wines. Considered more of a workhorse variety in the New World, it is South Africa's most widely planted grape variety (known as Steen), widely planted in California, Australia, Argentina and New Zealand, and occasionally produces quality dry whites when barrel-fermented.

What does it taste like?

Quince and apple
Sweet barley sugar and honey characters

CHENIN BLANC in its most classic form in the Loire Valley is full of floral and honeyed aromas and quince and apple-like flavours with good zippy acidity. When cool-fermented as in so many instances in South Africa, it can be quite peardroppy, becoming more peachy in fuller dry whites. With botrytis development in the grapes, it becomers rich in barley sugar and honeyed characters, particularly in tthe luscious sweet wines of the Loire Valley.

Cinsaut (red)

Southern Rhone variety, aka Cinsault, used in Chateauneuf-du-Pape and the Midi, also popular in South Africa and an ingredient in Lebanon's Chateau Musar.

Clairette (white)

Ancient Languedoc grape used in many of southern France's regions, but usually needing the acidity of grenache, picpoul or Ugni Blanc to bring it to life.

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