Varietal. Nice word, isn’t it? Basically, when a liquor store’s certified wine buff asks you which “varietal” you usually enjoy, he’s asking for nothing more than your favorite grape juice.
In fact, the French word “cépage” comes from the old word for foot-vineyard (cep), along with the -age suffix that indicates the derivative of a noun (like folio -> foliage, know’am’sayin?) All right, now that the etymology part is out of the way, let’s discuss the varietal’s impact on the taste of our favorite drink.
Okay. Now that we know what it is, let’s see what it changes, shall we? TDLR: it changes everything. Indeed, as wine is little but fermented grape juice additioned with a serious delish factor), the type of grape will have a huge influence on the finished product. The problem, of course, is that the winemaker, soil, and climate all have a say as well, which makes any categorization risky at best and misleading at worst. Nevertheless, here’s a very brief take on the 5 varietals you’ll see everywhere in shops and restaurants, and that you probably have already tasted a million times without knowing. You’re also already preeeeetty damned cool if you can memorize all 5!
1. Cabernet Sauvignon
This red grape called “Cab” by its afficionados and haters is of French origin and is best known for its power and structure. We often hear people say that it is “full-bodied” or “woody” despite the fact that any woodiness most likely has absolutely nothing to do with the grapes, but comes much later in the process. Both rich in tannin and acidity, Cabernet Sauvignon makes wines that can age a long time when they are well made. It is grown pretty much everywhere red wine is made, but its most famous examples are in Bordeaux and California.
The little brother of Cabernet Sauvignon, though many naysayers often call it “soft” or “too fruity.” Still, the best examples can achieve a structure and complexity that is certainly nothing to scoff at (hey Château Pétrus, how you doin’?). One could call it a little more “delicate” than Cab, though not by much. Often seen as pure expression or blended with Cab in Bordeaux, Italy as well as in the USA in general.
3. Pinot Noir
Like a ballet dancer, Pinot Noir’s best expressions give wines that leave contemplative due to their unmistakable elegance and refinement, while its less successful versions often give brittle, diluted and generally thin wines. Pinot Noir is also one of the Big 3 components of Champagne (I KNOW! A red grape in a white sparkling wine! *mindblown*). Pinot Noir absolutely excels in Burgundy as well as in other cold and rather wet climates, such as Oregon or New Zealand. If summer 2017 continues the way it started, we might even start making some pretty good Pinot in rainy Montreal…
As I said, Pinot Noir is, like ballet, sometimes delicately graceful. Other times, maybe not so much.
This one is more complicated since we can so much different stuff with it. Truly a “winemaker’s grap”, Chard’ generally gives rather bold whites that are rich in texture, and most people who say they “don’t like Chardonnay” often complain about its vanilla-butter-wood flavor profile – which really has nothing to do with the grape itself but mostly about the vinification style. Just to add to the confusion, go buy a bottle of Petit Chablis and another of Beringer Toasted Chardonnay from Napa… Hard to believe this is the same varietal, isn’t it? Well, it is! See, Chardonnays produced in Burgundy and other colderish climates generally make great wines with bright creamy flavors sustained by the kind of incisive zing reminiscent of a fine Harvey Specter quote.
5. Sauvignon Blanc
Again a super versatile white grape with which one can do pretty much what you want as a winemaker. In the Loire Valley and Bordeaux, this actually makes super elegant wines that pair just as well with seafood as Harry pairs with Sally. In New Zealand and in much of the New World, Sauvignon Blanc makes polarizingly intense, grassy wines with a definite ‘wild green” character (this exuberant lime, fresh-cut grass, eucalyptus, etc.)
Okay, now that you understand the general idea, you’re going to start to start to develop a hunch of what lies in a bottle just by reading the label! Like anything worthwhile however, this is only the (early) early beginning of the adventure, but there’s nothing wrong with that! Not bad for 650 words, right?