California

Grape Types

Ripening earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc acts both as great blender with its special herb infused red berry fragrance, and at the same time as a form of insurance policy.

On the cooler, clay soils of the Right Bank it adds backbone to many of the Merlot-dominated St Emilions and Pomerols. There are a small number of outstanding Cabernet Franc-based blends on the right bank, the most sought after being Cheval Blanc, Ausone, Le Dôme, Angelus and Vieux Château Certan. Outside of Bordeaux it's the major red grape of the Loire valley, where huge strides in quality have been made over the last decade by producers such as Yannick Amirault, Domaine de la Butte, Charles Joguet and Château de Hureau. Here it is mainly produced as a 100% single varietal wine, highly expressive, pungently scented, vital and silky.
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 Médoc in Bordeaux, usually blended with lesser amounts of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Cabernet Sauvignon is often packed full of cedar, herb and blackcurrant notes. Leaning towards musk, pencil lead and cigar-box in its home region of Bordeaux. Its deep-colour, assertive tannins and affinity with oak allow the wines to improve in bottle over many 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, Napa Valley, Tuscany and parts of Australia, particularly Margaret River. Latterly, South Africa, New Zealand and Argentina are laying claim to some very good blends and varietals made from Cabernet Sauvignon.
Chardonnay is one of the most widely-grown and versatile of all white grape varieties. As a relatively neutral grape, it offers a near transparent map of winemaking style, climate and terroir. It is the ideal grape variety for Burgundy, where it serves to mirror the complex nuances of the myriad of terroirs found in this hallowed land. Chardonnay produces a variety of wines from the minerally and unoaked styles found in Chablis, the fatter nuttier examples in Meursault, to the tropical fruit-driven versions found in the New World. It is also the major grape variety in Champagne, where it produces lively floral wines, namely in the Côte de Blancs. It can be found throughout Europe and the New World thanks to its versatility. As a non-aromatic variety, it has an affinity with oak, whether new or used, French or American.
Now little used in Bordeaux or the rest of France outside of Cahors, Malbec has found its 'home' in Argentina. Typically riper than Malbec from France, the wines from Argentina have developed a strong commercial appeal being accessible yet with a defined varietal character of black fruit, coffee and chocolate. The best Malbec has good ageing potential and is typically paired with red meats. Obra Prima Reserva from Familia Cassone, is an excellent example of Argentinean Malbec, offering complexity and richness from 100 year old vines, at a price that affirms Argentina's position as delivering excellent value for money in wine.
The supple, alluring plummy characteristics of Merlot have made it hugely popular the world over. It is often blended with the more structured Cabernet Sauvignon, though on its own there are some very serious, long-lived examples in Pomerol and Saint Emilion, where it is planted on both cool clay and hotter gravely soils. It is grown more extensively throughout France and the rest of the world to produce soft, approachable, uncomplicated wines, namely in the Languedoc, Chile, California, Italy and Australia.
One of the five permitted varieties in red Bordeaux, Petit Verdot is late ripening and thick skinned, it is not widely planted but is now being used increasingly, albeit in minute quantities, in Bordeaux and in Bordeaux blends across the 'New World'.
Pinot Noir is the classic grape of red burgundy, whose greatest wines are concentrated in the east and south-east-facing clay/limestone hills of Burgundy's Côte d'Or. A notoriously temperamental variety, Pinot Noir has proved difficult to grow in certain climates and soils and will not tolerate over-cropping. The best examples have wonderfully expressive aromas and thrillingly pure bitter sweet red forest fruit and cherry flavours, developing truffle and game overtones with age. Outside of Burgundy, Pinot Noir has had great success in New Zealand, California’s Carneros, Oregon and the more marginal, cooler districts in Australia. Along with Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir is also one of the major components of Champagne.
Most recognised as a Californian varietal, Zinfandel is actually of Croatian origin and has been found to be the same as Italy's Primativo. Initially dominating Californian wine production in the late 19th Century, being a high yielding varietal, Zinfandel was largely grubbed up and replaced by Cabernet in the mid to late 20th Century. The commercial popularity of the off-dry rosé White Zinfandel has rejuvenated the plantings and though the varietal can sometimes be high in alcohol, there are some excellent examples available, including the excellent Heitz Cellars.