wine info

Red Grape Varieties

Grape Varieties:

Red Grapes

Bordeaux Blend

Not a grape variety, but this blend needs explanation. Red wine from Bordeaux (Claret) is usually a blend of two to five grape varieties

  • Following the historic mix of grape varieties in the region’s vineyards
  • Insurance against the failure of any one variety (e.g. Merlot to frost, Cabernet Sauvignon to September rains)
  • Advantage in that different grape varieties bring different positive qualities: Cabernet Sauvignon bring structure - tannins and acidity for longevity, colour and intense blackcurrant fruit; Merlot delivers higher sugar, charming fruit; Cabernet Franc has perfume; plus Petit Verdot for spice; and Malbec for red fruit

Typical blend proportions:

  • Left bank  e.g. Médoc, Graves

50-70% Cabernet Sauvignon; 25-50% Merlot; 0-25% Cabernet Franc; 0-5% Petit Verdot
N.B. Even on the left bank, Merlot can make up more than 50% of blend

  • Right bank  e.g. Pomerol, St. Emilio

50-90% Merlot; 10-35% Cabernet Franc; 0-20% Cabernet Sauvignon; 0-10% Malbec

Bordeaux blends have been replicated in the New World
Notably Meritage blends in California, plus South Africa and Chile

Cabernet Franc

Cabernet Francis a parent of Cabernet Sauvignon. A cross of it with Sauvignon Blanc resulted in Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet Franc tends to be softer and has less tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon, although the two can be difficult to distinguish. Many of the red wines of the Loire are primarily Cabernet Franc.


  • Bordeaux region.
  • Parent (with Sauvignon Blanc) of Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Was known as Bouchet in Bordeaux, or Breton in the Loire
  • Introduced to Loire by 18thC


  • Ripens early, so useful in cooler climates    
  • In comparison to Cabernet Sauvignon: more perfumed; less structured; can be more herbaceous/stalky - not that pleasant!; aromas of pencil shavings/lead pencil, also violets

Vinification / Maturation         

  • Vinification can vary. In the Loire can be made as charming, unoaked, fruity wine to be drunk the summer after the vintage; or more serious wine for ageing on the Bordeaux model.

Homelands within France      

  • The Libournais = right bank in Bordeaux: St. Emilion and Pomerol. Ripens well in slightly cooler zone. Blend ingredient: 15-25% left bank; 25-35% right bank. Summit: Cheval Blanc in St. Emilion (2/3 CF, 1/3 M)
  • The Loire: Anjou-Saumur along the Loire and Vienne rivers - AOCs of Chinon, Bourgeuil, and St. Nicolas de Bourgeuil

Also to be found in 

  • S.W. France
  • Odd pockets in California, South Africa, New Zealand - rarely made as 100% varietal

Cabernet Sauvignon    

The most prestigious red grape?


  • Bordeaux region, as a natural cross of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc (established 1997 by DNA analysis)
  • Was known as Vidure or Petit-Vidure
  • Spread throughout left bank of Bordeaux, supplanting white grapes


  • Fairly easy to grow: hardy, buds late, but also ripens late (so some danger of equinoctial storms)
  • Loose bunches of thick-skinned grapes (so good resistance to rain and disease)
  • Loves well-drained soils (e.g. gravels of Médoc, Rutherford bench, Coonawarra Terra rossa)
  • Low yielding
  • High proportion of skin and pip to pulp, hence deep colour and high tannin
  • Deep colour (deepest of all mainstream grapes)
  • Key fruit quality: blackcurrants
  • Melding of fruit and oak: cedary and cigar-box flavours with age               

Vinification / Maturation

  • Long macerations to extract colour and flavour
  • Long maturation in (often) new, small (225l.) French oak barrels


  • Bordeaux: the classic grape of the left bank, especially Graves and Médoc (doesn’t like the cooler, damper, clay soils of the right bank)
  • Summit: the five first growths: Latour, Lafite, Mouton Rothschild, Margaux (Médoc) & Haut-Brion (Graves)
  • Generally makes up 60-80% of left bank claret.
  • N.B. Contrast: in homeland of Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon is usually part of a blend. In New World often made as 100% CS

Also to be found in    

  • France (but not that widely planted): S.W. France, e.g. Bergerac; Provence and Languedoc (e.g. Vin de Pays & Mas de Daumas Gassac), Loire
  • Italy: North-east and Tuscany  - 100% Cabernets, e.g. Sassicaia - or part of a blend with Sangiovese
  • Bulgaria: Huge volume & poor quality, but potential?
  • USA: California, esp. Napa Valley & Sonoma Washington State
  • Australia: South Australia, esp. Coonawarra; Western Australia, esp. Margaret River; Victoria. Often blended with Shiraz
  • New Zealand: Around Auckland and Hawkes Bay, usually in Bordeaux style blend
  • South Africa: held back by poor, disease-ridden plant material until 1990s: now new Cabernet clones of promise, both blends and as a single varietal     
  • South America: very high quality examples from Chile; and Cabernet of more dubious varietal character from  Argentina     


Carignan is the grape which really distinguishes the red wines of the Languedoc and Roussillon from those of the southern Rhône (in the latter Grenache is ubiquitous and dominant, and Syrah and Mourvèdre are the preferred blending grapes).

It has been a much maligned grape. For example Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine thunders: "Carignan, late-ripening black grape variety which could fairly be called the bane of the European wine industry. ...distinguished only by its disadvantages". So what’s wrong with it?  Well, it can crop hugely, and produce vast quantities of acidic, tannic, rough red wine. As a result the French authorities used to pay for the up-rooting of Carignan: sadly, far too many old vines were pulled out.

But Carignan from old vines - at least 30 years old - pruned hard, and from hillside vineyards can produce splendid wine; deep coloured, tannic, spicy and with autumnal fruit which becomes meaty with age. It has a special affinity for schist, the foliated rock found all over the Languedoc and Roussillon.

Carignan was crossed to Cabernet Sauvignon to give Ruby Cabernet - a bastard grape if ever there was one.


The Carmenère grape was originally planted in the Médoc region of Bordeaux where it was used to produce a deep red wine occasionally used for blending purposes in the same manner as Petit Verdot. It has now found fame in Chile.

California has Zinfandel, South Africa Pinotage and Argentina Malbec…. and Carmenère really is approaching the status of the distinctive grape of Chile. This obscure Bordeaux variety was only identified in Chilean vineyards by a French ampelographer, Jean-Michel Boursiquot, in 1994. At first many producers feared that any attempt to relabel wines would confuse customers and prejudice their Merlot sales. Fortunately sense prevailed and they realised that they had to distinguish the Carmenère vines from the Merlot, as much as anything because they need different viticultural attention: Carmenère benefits from careful canopy management and ripens three weeks after Merlot. (It’s often picked in early May, the equivalent of November in the northern hemisphere). The official vineyard statistics make amusing reading: only 300 hectares of Carmenère were declared in 1997, but over 6,000 in 2003. This huge change does not reflect new plantings, just a reclassification of what was already there - and probably still an underestimate.
Now it is widely recognised that Carmenère is usually more successful than Merlot, especially in the hotter sites such as Colchagua. A large tasting of both varieties in Decanter magazine (June 2007) gave all the top three awards to Carmenère, and only two Merlots crept into the next six four star wines. Carmenère combines intense fruit with a touch of leafiness and an attractive smokey hint.


Gamay is Beaujolais! Lovely medium to light red wine, with fresh acidity for summer drinking with great potential for ageing in good vintages.

Also planted in: the Loire; odd new plantings in New World, e.g. New Zealand

Grenache / Garnacha 

Grenache grows well in hot, dry regions, though it can develop very high (15 degrees+) alcohol. As such it is grown principally in Southern France and Spain (as Garnacha). It is usually blended with other varieties in the Southern Rhône and Languedoc (Syrah, Mourvedre, Carignan, Cinsaut and others).

Its flavour usually encompasses the spectrum between raspberry and black cherry. It retains its acidity, even in hot condiutions, which gives it goos ageing potenatial. However, as a variety it is prone to oxydation, which makes ageing in barrels problematic.

Also found in: South America, Australia, and California's Central Valley.


Malbec is a red grape whose home is in south-west France, and specifically in the appellation of Cahors. There (known as Cot) it makes a strongly flavoured wine which is, all too often, tannic and rustic and needs several years ageing to show its best. Like Carmenère in Chile, it is much more successful in Argentina than in its homeland. Introduced in the mid 19th century, it is now the star red variety, and nine tenths of all Malbec grown in the country comes from around Mendoza.

What is Malbec like in a glass? Monty Waldin sums it up well in Wines of South America: ‘deep, purple-hued wines which taste of black cherry, damson, raspberry, mulberry and blackcurrant when young, with anise, violet and truffle flavours emerging with age’. If you want a wine with delicious brambly fruit, but with real stuffing, character and some ageing potential too, look no further. 



  • Bordeaux region. Known by 18thC
  • Now much more widely planted in Bordeaux than Cabernet Sauvignon


  • Productive - high yielding …but early budding, so vulnerable to frost (e.g. 1956)
  • In comparison to Cabernet Sauvignon: higher sugars and appealing fruitiness; lower tannins (so can be enjoyed sooner); lower acidity (ditto, but danger of being soft and flabby); slightly higher alcohol; fruit quality - plums?        

Vinification / Maturation      Similar to Cabernet Sauvignon. Also takes to oak

The Libournais  = right bank in Bordeaux, St. Emilion and Pomerol

  • Enjoys damper, clay soils
  • Usually around 2/3 of blend in right bank wines
  • Summit: Pomerols such as Pétrus and Le Pin

Also to be found in   

  • France: throughout Bordeaux satellites e.g. Cotes de Duras, Bergerac; Languedoc, as Vin de Pays
  • Italy: throughout north, esp. N.E. Can be dilute and dull
  • US:   California and Washington State
  • South Africa: often seem more as a  blending agent
  • New Zealand: some success in North Island


Mourvèdre is a great grape, though probably more widely used as an excellent blending agent, giving colour, backbone and and ageing ability to Rhône varieties right across the south of France from the southern Rhône to Roussillon. It's tricky to grow, needing a lot of sunshine to ripen successfully, and fussy about where it thrives. It's summit is unquestionably Bandol, an apellation on the coast in Provence, where Mourvèdre is grown on terraces.

Mourvèdre offers firm tannins, natural acidity and an anti-oxidant quality that helps ageing. Old bottles can exhibit a wonderful spectrum of nuances both in aromas and on the palate.
Also often bottled on its own in Spain (as Monastrell), and California. 

Pinot Noir  


  • Ancient vine, perhaps 2,000 years old

Distant origins in France - first documented mention in France in 1375


  • Finicky grape: notoriously difficult to grow (which is partly why it is hugely intriguing to New World winemakers)

Likes well-drained, preferably calcareous, soils

  • Problems: fruit setting and also rot (tightly packed bunches)
  • Early budder and ripener, so best in cool climates with long growing season. Often jammy or stewed in hotter climates
  • Importance of best Dijon clones, as opposed to some older plant material
  • Mutates very easily: many different clones (so can be pale or dark in colour), some very poor
  • Must be pruned to yield low, or doesn’t taste of anything
  • Fruit quality: when young, strawberries, raspberries and cherries; when mature, mushrooms, game, and "undergrowth" aromas and flavours

 Vinification / Maturation          

  • Traditional vinification in open-topped tanks; cement or big vats
  • Maturation in French oak (wherever made). In Burgundy the % of new oak varies from none to 100% depending on style of grower and stature of wie. In the New World a higher % of new oak is often used, sometimes smothering the grape



  • Specifically the Côte d’Or, from Dijon south for 50km, where it makes up over half the vineyards
  • but also Côte Chalonnaise

Also to be found in   

  • France:  near Burgundy heartland, e.g Irancy and the Central vineyards of Loire, Sancerre and Menetou-Salon (these can make very pretty wines in good summers; Alsace; Savoie and Jura
  • Germany: some highly successful Spatburgunder
  • N.E. Italy: some good Pinot Nero in Alto Adige, but usually over-cropped
  • Switzerland: the Valais
  • Slovenia: the Vipava valley

USA: California: where best in cooler valleys open to maritime influence e.g. Sonoma, Russian River Valley, Carneros (fog), Santa Maria Valley; and Oregon: wines of great style from boutique wineries

  • New Zealand: grown all over NZ but traditional success in Martinborough (S end of North Island) and Marlborough (N of South Island), followed by splendid (but sometimes over-ripe and over-alcoholic) wines from recent plantings in Central Otago in South Island.
  • Australia: usually too hot (and therefore jammy, unsubtle and fast-maturing) but some fine Pinots from cooler areas such as Adelaide Hills (S. Australia) and around Melbourne in Victoria.
  • Chile: most successful in cooler, Pacific Ocean influenced sites, e.g. Aconcagua Costa, Casablanca, San Antonio, Itata and the far south – Bio-Bio.


Pinotage: a living national treasure or "the only grape variety which is carcinogenic"?

Pinotage is the one original South African grape, developed by Abraham Perold in Stellenbosch in 1925 by crossing Pinot Noir and Cinsault, then known as Hermitage. It has the acidity of the former parent and the warm generosity of the latter. South Africans can’t make up their minds if Pinotage is a unique selling point for the country - in the same way Zinfandel is for California, or Malbec for Argentina - or a confusing obstacle to progress. The problem about Pinotage is that, as Robert Joseph wrote in Wine magazine in August 2001, this ‘mongrel grape…unless very skilfully handled, tastes of bubble gum and burned rubber’; and he isn’t wrong about the worst examples. By 1990 plantings had declined to less than 1% of the country’s vineyards, but there has been a considerable recovery in recent years, helped by a new understanding of how to realise its potential by improved viticulture, and also an increasing use of Pinotage as a blending ingredient. Now there is a move afoot to promote a ‘Cape Blend’ which must include at least 30% Pinotage.

Despite Adi Badenhorst’s opinion, quoted in the header above, and the gloomy pronouncement of another winemaker that ‘looking for a good Pinotage is like looking for Godot’, there is excellent Pinotage. One of its virtues is that it can be made in a variety of styles: from fresh and fruity to vibrant and spicy or even dark, intense and ageworthy.


Sangiovese is Chianti. fresh, perfumed fruit with a fine spice of acidity and clean refined palate - can age well.


  • Originally known in its wild form by the Etruscans in the area around what is now Florence as Sanguis Jovis, or ‘Blood of Jupiter’


  • Thin, inky low quality to long-lived, concentrated wines of great quality
  • Often, as in Chianti, blended with other varieties. Lacks rich pigmentation and is prone to early oxidation
  • An orange rim can be a Sangiovese giveaway
  • High acidity, farmyard taste and smell, moderate alcohol and very marked tannins
  • Slow and late ripening
  • Clonal selection is extremely important for this variety. Careful clonal selection from the Sangiovese Grosso is thought to produce the best wines

Vinification / Maturation    

  • Traditionally stored in large oak vats, which can dry out the wines
  • The recent use of small 225l Bordeaux style oak barrels has gone some way to reduce the excessive tartness of young Sangiovese                          
  • The blending of Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon has produced some sublime results (super Tuscans)


  • Central Italy, but recommended in 58 provinces in Italy

Also to be found in       

  • California, Australia and Argentina (where it was carried by Italian emigrants)

Shiraz / Syrah  

Powerful, black-fruited, often aged in oak, syrah/Shiraz comes in varying styles but at the top (such as Hermitage) can be spectacular and very long-lived. There is no question that Syrah is now the most fashionable red grape for new plantings in many New World countries, especially South Africa and Chile.


  • Unknown. Linked by name only to capital of ancient Persia
  • May even be indigenous French variety 


  • Deep colour, second only to Cabernet Sauvignon in intensity
  • Medium to full bodied
  • Great ageing potential for top examples  

Vinification /  Maturation       

  • Can be vinified and matured very differently to make different styles i.e. all stainless steel for fresh and fruity
  • Or (classic wines of northern Rhône) Open fermenting tanks and maturation in old foudres and 600l. demi-muids
  • Or (Australia) Use of US rather than French oak for maturation
  • Or (US) maturation in small new oak barrels    


A. The Northern Rhône

  • Vineyards either side of the river along a 40 mile stretch south of Lyon, from Vienne in the north to near Valence
  • Appellations from north to south: Côte Rôtie; St. Joseph; Hermitage; Crozes-Hermitage; Cornas
  • Tiny appellations, steep slopes, low yields + worldwide demand = high price!
  • Permitted to blend with white varieties: Côte Rôtie: up to 15% Viognier; Hermitage: up to 15% Marsanne & Roussann

B. Australia

  • Homeland as Syrah/Shiraz was introduced in 1832 by James Busby and is now the most widely planted red grape
  • Some ancient vineyards, e.g Henschke Hill of Grace planted in 1860s
  • Until the spread of Cabernet Sauvignon source of all top Oz wine, notably Penfold’s Grange Hermitage, first made in 1955
  • Wide range of styles, largely dependent on climate: hot, Hunter Valley; mid, Barossa; cool, S. Victoria
  • Key point of differences to France: usually sweeter and higher alcohol; and maturation in US not French oak 

Also to be found in   

  • Southern Rhône, there usually blended with Grenache
  • Provence/Languedoc/Roussillon, ditto and/or Mourvèdre, Carignan and others
  • Italy, esp. Tuscany
  • Tiny quantities in Switzerland, Germany and Spain
  • US: California, esp. cooler regions such as Santa Maria Valley; and Washington State - great promise
  • South Africa: currently the most fashionable grape, making up 25% of new plantings 
  • Chile, ditto, highly fashionable, and fine results coming out of cooler regions such as Limari and San Antonio
  • New Zealand, both Hawkes Bay and now beginning in Central Otago
  • Argentina, notably San Juan  


Tempranillo is Spanish red wine, with Rioja being its showroom.


  • Tempranillo vines were (possibly) originally brought to Spain, as variants of Pinot Noir (Burgundy) or Cabernet Franc (Bordeaux) from monasteries in Northern France by pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. 


  • Ability to withstand low temperatures.
  • Thick skinned, producing wines of deep colour, with an ability to age without losing colour.   
  • Ripens early in late September but needs 450mm rainfall per year and prefers Atlantic rather than Mediterranean influence.
  • Low in acidity, so can produce somewhat characterless wines, hence blended with Garnacha & Graciano to make Rioja.
  • Relatively low (for the heat of Spain) in alcohol.
  • Traditionally trained, ‘en goblet’
  • Prefers deep soil of calcareous or sandy clay, and performs better on slopes 

Vinification / Maturation   

  • Fermentation usually in stainless steel vats and large oak vats.
  • In Rioja barrel maturation takes place, by law, in small Bordeaux style 225l. barrels; oak ageing is an essential element of all styles of Rioja.
  • Some reds occasionally need acidification.
  • Sometimes aged for too long in barrel too reductively


Spain: Rioja, Penedes, Ribera del Duero,Valdepenas, Costers del Segre

Also to be found in  

Portugal, especially Alentejo & Douro, where it is known as Tinta Roriz; Argentina - taken by Spanish emigrants - Australia and California


Zinfandel needs warm temperatures such as the hotter zones of California and southern Italy. High alcohol, baked raspberry fruit, powerfully scented and with considerable ageing ability for best examples

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