Black Grape Varieties

Black Grape Varieties

CABERNET SAUVIGNON

Home: Bordeaux, France
Also found: All over the winegrowing world
Tasting terms: Blackcurrant, tobacco, green bell pepper (in cooler areas)


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Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most famous black grape varieties in the world. If Chardonnay is the queen, then Cabernet is its worthy king. Cabernet is a powerful grape with plenty of tannin, acidity and flavour. As tannin and acidity are two of the main components necessary for long ageing, Cabernet tends to age well. Its historical home is Bordeaux, and particularly the region’s Left Bank. Due to the international fame of Bordeaux wines, it was the natural choice for winemakers across the world to make their version of the “king of grapes”. It has small, blue-black berries with thick skins, and grows well in hot to moderate climates. The wines are usually aged in oak, resulting in aromas of cedar, tobacco spice and chocolate.

 

MERLOT

Home: Bordeaux, France
Also found: California, Italy and Chile
Tasting terms: Black and red plums


Merlot is another classic Bordeaux variety, but this time from the Right Bank where the regions of Pomerol and Saint-Émilion are located. It is softer and fuller than Cabernet and has lower levels of acidity and tannin. The fruit profile is no longer blackcurrant, but black and red plums, cherry and prune. The grapes are larger than the Cabernet and have a thinner skin and hence a lower level of tannin. The grape quickly loses its acidity in hotter climates and can become jammy and lack structure. Therefore, it is often blended with the firmer Cabernet variety. Merlot is also an important grape in some of the Super Tuscan wines from Italy and has had success in California. Much of Merlot’s success dipped after the movie Sideways came out in 2004. The film’s main character was famously critical of the grape and this, in turn, led to a decrease in consumption and production of Merlot in the USA. Oak is often used for ageing the wines, resulting in aromas of Christmas spices, cedar and tobacco.

 

PINOT NOIR

Home: Burgundy and Champagne, France
Also found: Chile, New Zealand, parts of Australia and USA
Tasting terms: Elegance, fragrance and subtlety. Strawberry, raspberry, truffles and vegetal nuances.


It may be every winemaker’s dream to make great Pinot Noir, and many wine lovers’ “desert island wine” is surely a top Burgundy, also from the Pinot Noir grape. No other grape, except perhaps Riesling, can express the elegance, finesse and depth that the best examples of Pinot Noir can. It is also a very tricky grape, both to grow and to vinify. Whereas Cabernet can grow in both hot and moderate climates, Pinot Noir is more sensitive to heat and grows best in cooler climates to retain freshness and elegance in the glass. Pinot Noir grapes have thin skins, fresh acidity and relatively soft, silky tannins. Oak is used during ageing and gives the wines complexity in the form of spice, leather and toast. With age, Pinot Noir develops subtle nuances of farmyard and earthy notes. The best examples of Pinot Noir can age for a long time, but most examples are made for early consumption. The wines from Burgundy are restrained, earthy and savoury, while those from the New World will be lusher, with denser, riper fruits and are often darker in colour.

 

SYRAH (SHIRAZ)

Home: Northern Rhône Valley, France
Also found: Australia, California, Chile, New Zealand
Tasting terms: Blackberry, black pepper, black olives and sweet spice


Although Syrah’s origins lie in Northern Rhône appellations like Côte-Rôtie, Cornas and Hermitage, more consumers are familiar with its Australian name, Shiraz. Examples from the Northern Rhône are medium in body with aromas of herbs, leather and black fruit, while Australian Shiraz is full-bodied, packed with rich, ripe blackberry fruit and spice, and is high in alcohol. Oak is often used for ageing, and the best examples can keep for a very long time.

SANGIOVESE

Home: Tuscany, Italy
Also found: Almost nowhere outside of Italy
Tasting terms: Sour cherry, prune, vegetal hints, high acidity and firm tannins


If there is one Italian grape to remember, it´s Sangiovese. It is grown extensively throughout the country, and particularly in Tuscany where it is the key component of Chianti and the sole variety of Brunello di Montalcino, Brunello being another name for the grape. The best examples can age for a long time due to the grape’s naturally high acidity. The sour cherry aromas are enriched using oak ageing, resulting in aromas of prune and toffee.

 

NEBBIOLO

Home: Piedmont, Italy
Also found: Almost nowhere outside of Italy
Tasting terms: Sour black cherry, prunes, tar, leather and floral hints, very tannic and with high acidity


This is a fantastic grape variety, capable of producing stunning wines in the regions of Barolo and Barbaresco in Piedmont. The grapes have very thick skins and therefore have plenty of tannins. Acidity is high, which allows for considerable ageing, and its colour changes to a brown or red garnet shade very early on in its development. The name “Nebbiolo” is derived from nebbia, a fog which hangs over the Piedmont vineyards during autumn. Although Barolo and Barbaresco are two of the greatest wine regions in the world, these wines are not very common in yachting. If you have an open-minded owner or charter guest who can see beyond Grand Cru Classé Bordeaux, Montrachet and Cristal, suggest a top quality Barolo and give them a pleasant surprise!

 

GRENACHE

Home: Spain and Southern France
Also found: Australia and California 
Tasting terms: Strawberry, white pepper, cloves and liquorice


Grenache may not be the world’s best-known grape variety, but it is one of the most widely planted. It is used as the base in most red wines made in the South of France and is a key variety for Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the Southern Rhône. Grenache is also responsible for many of the pale rosé wines in the Côte de Provence. In Rioja, Spain, it is frequently blended with Tempranillo. It is often high in alcohol, with moderate tannin and acidity. It is not considered to be a top-quality grape, but examples from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Priorat and Rioja are evidence that this variety can produce stunning wines as long as yields are kept low and the soil is right.

 

TEMPRANILLO

Home: Rioja and Ribera del Duero, Spain
Also found: All over Spain
Tasting terms: Warm strawberries, black tea, leather and vanilla


Tempranillo is Spain’s premier grape and is responsible for the country’s finest wines. It grows all over Spain under many different names. Traditionally, fine Tempranillo wines are aged extensively in oak, particularly in the Rioja region. Therefore, many of the characteristics often associated with Tempranillo result from the winemaking and maturation rather than the grape itself.

 

MALBEC

Home: Cahors and Bordeaux, France and Mendoza, Argentina
Also found: Argentina, Australia and Chile
Tasting terms: Blackberry, black cherry, violets, chocolate, raisins (in hot climates). Full-bodied with firm, dense tannins.


Though its historical home is the south-west of France, Malbec has over the past 20 years become recognised as the signature grape of Mendoza, Argentina. Here, it tends to produce deep, dark wines with great flavour intensity and richness. Oak is almost always used for maturation, giving a sweet spiciness to the wine.

 

ZINFANDEL

Home: California
Also found: Italy (under the name Primitivo)
Tasting terms: Blackberry, black and red cherry, chocolate, raisins (in hot climates). Full-bodied with medium and dense tannins; many wines have a touch of residual sugar.


Zinfandel is viewed as California’s signature grape. From the off-dry, blush wines known as White Zinfandel, to top quality full-bodied reds with excellent ageing potential, California Zinfandel is made in a wide range of styles. Zinfandel tends to ripen unevenly, so some grapes in the bunch will be raisins when harvested. This often results in the wine having a distinct raisin character and high alcohol.

 

GAMAY

Home: Beaujolais, France
Also found: Virtually nowhere else
Tasting terms: Light to medium in body, aromas of bright red fruit like cherry and raspberry, rather soft tannins and fresh acidity


The Gamay grape is quite large and has thin skin, and therefore the tannin will be soft. It can easily over-crop, so the best wines will come from the poor granite soils of the different cru villages of Beaujolais. Like Tempranillo, many of the flavours associated with this grape are not from the grape itself, but from a winemaking technique. In Beaujolais, carbonic maceration results in bright red fruit aromas, sometimes even in a candied fashion.

 

Cabernet Franc

Home: Bordeaux and parts of Loire
Also found: Argentina, Chile, Tuscany and to a lesser extent in other New World countries
Tasting terms: Fragrant dark brambly fruit, violet, leafy, graphite,
often medium bodied with fresh acidity


Cabernet Franc is wildly planted on the Right Bank in
Bordeaux and especially in Saint-Émilion. It also grows in
Médoc but to a lesser extent. Other French appellations
where this grape has a unique expression is Chinon and
Bourgueil in the Loire Valley. Here the climate is cooler and more fragrant and lighter styles are
produced compared with Bordeaux. Cabernet Franc is also becoming increasingly popular in
Argentina and Chile.

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