Grapes are your wines' raw material. There are thousands and they all taste differently. Here's some of the main ones.
Riesling is possibly the most awesome white wine grape there is. Yes, there is massive bias in that sentence but we believe this to be totally justified.
Riesling is a grape that has been misjudged by many, including lots who have never tasted it. Riesling is often unfairly associated with horrendous cheap German plonk that used to be available in abundance in the supermarkets in the 80's and 90's but is thankfully harder to find these days.
Proper Riesling is wonderfully delicious with fabulous freshness, juicy fruit and lots of complexity and all this with (usually) lower alcohol levels. Riesling, like Pinot, can differ hugely depending on the region it hails from and the experience can vary from steely lemon to exotic fruit and even smelling of petrol.
Riesling originated from Germany and that's where its spiritual home is today; this aromatic white wine is the most widely planted varietal.
Riesling is very heavily influenced by its surroundings with its terroir and climate generating wines of very differing styles. Even within the regions below, winemaking styles and subtle changes in terroir can generate a very different style so worth checking in a little more detail on wine style before buying.
Germany: The cooler climate and German terroir leads to wines that are fresh with apple focussed fruit flavours, juicy sweetness and surprisingly low alcohol - often c 8%. Don’t confuse this sweetness with the teeth shredding sweet German wines of old; decent examples have all these wonderful flavours in perfect balance (assuming you pay more than £4.99 a bottle).
France: The Alsace region has been growing this varietal since the 15th century and are pretty damn good at it. While the climate is reasonably similar to their German neighbours, the soil and winemaking styles create a very different example; expect higher alcohol (more in line with other white wines) and more pear style flavours with slightly less sweetness.
Australia: The Clare Valley near Adelaide is the powerhouse of Australian Riesling. The climate here is significantly different to what the grapes experience in Europe and the wine reflects this; expect more lemon and lime style flavours matched with plenty of acidity. Don’t be surprised to find some petrol aromas which may be a shock (it’s due to the levels of heat endured by the grapes) but I promise this doesn’t mean the wine will taste like kerosene! The flavours will bear no real resemblance to the aromas.
New Zealand: In a recent NZ trip, we were particularly impressed with how wonderful the ‘non-standard’ Kiwi wines performed (i.e. wines excluding Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir). The New Zealand examples tended to be a little sweeter than the Aussie version, but less than its European counterparts, and very approachable. Flavours are often citrus / lime with a hint of honey and dangerously delicious.
Austria: Riesling is one of their favourite grapes and styles tend to be less sweet and a little richer with greater minerality and often a hint of white pepper.
Other Riesling producing regions include USA, South Africa and Italy.
Style – varies a lot depending on region and winemaking style but expect citrus, minerality, some sweetness and lower alcohol.
Grown – Germany, France, Australia, New Zealand, Austria.
Interesting fact – Riesling that has been grown in hot regions or has some age can often smell of kerosene which can be off-putting for some, though the wine does not taste like it smells!
5 WINES TO TRY
- Villa Maria Private Bin, New Zealand, £10
- Trimbach, France, £11
- Dr Loosen Grey Slate, Germany, £10
- Saint Claire Pioneer Block, NZ, £11
- Peter Lehmann, Australia, £8
IF YOU LIKE RIESLING, TRY:
- Pinot Gris; warm citrus flavours with hint of of sweetness and minerality.
- Gruner Veltliner: light, crisp with pear flavours and minerality.
As far as grape varieties go, Pinot Noir has that potential that frustrates wine growers more than any other. When done right, the flavours of a good pinot are sensual, bordering on erotic (ok, I admit, I love Pinot). But Pinot is a fussy little beggar and everything needs to be spot on otherwise the end result can be a flat sour disaster.
Because Pinot is hard work, good Pinot doesn't come cheap. The best Pinots from Burgundy in France can command silly prices in the tens of thousands but there are good examples on the market at mere mortal prices. That said, be suspicious of any Pinot sub £10; at that price it is likely that the wine maker has not been as fussy as necessary to make a good wine. For a decent Pinot, expect to pay £15-£30 but that can deliver a very, very good wine.
Pinot is very fussy about the climate it's asked to operate in. Too hot and it's too sweet and jammy, too cool and it's tart and lifeless. But, like Goldilocks, if you get it just right, it's worth tangling with a few bears to sample it.
Places that grow good Pinot:
Burgundy, France: Often hailed as the spiritual home of Pinot and producing some of the worlds most expensive examples. Style tends to be light - medium body with strawberry and vanilla notes. Quality varies but look to a producer such as Louis Latour (widely available) which is an excellent example with wines from £9.99.
New Zealand: Many know NZ for their wonderful white Sauvignon Blanc wines but their success with Pinot is a close second. In New Zealand Pinot is grown in both the North and South Islands and this variance in climate equates to quite different wines. For light fresh Pinot with a hint of cherry, look to Marlborough. Martinbourough wines are more serious (and expensive) with more savoury flavours so expect to pay £20+ for decent examples. For juicer black fruits, look for wines from Otago which will carry a similar price tag to the Martinborough Pinot.
Australia: Much of Australia is just too damn hot to produce balanced Pinot. The best sites are by the sea where there is some relief from the scorching Aussie sun. Flavours from mainland Oz tend to have cherry and plum flavours. Oz Pinot is produced in smaller quantities and therefore often harder to find. Tasmania, off the coast of Australia, is also starting to generate a name for its Pinot being much cooler than its big brother so can produce more elegant wines.
Chile: The Pacific costs of Chile provide the cool climate required to grow decent Pinot. Wines tend to be cherry and plum flavoured but with a bit more body than their French counterparts tasting riper with silky tannins and greater intensity overall.
USA: American is often better known for its bigger, richer, ball breaking wines such as its Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, but it does produce some outstanding Pinot. The bad news, is the best ones never make it here, and the ones that do, don't come cheap. Look for Pinot from Oregon and Russian River Valley and expect more raspberry and vanilla flavours.
Style – lighter red fruits, strawberry, cranberry, cherry.
Grown – Burgundy (France), US, New Zealand, Australia, Chile
Interesting fact – The movie Sideways caused a massive explosion in Pinot sales and decimated sales of Merlot
5 WINES TO TRY
- Louis Latour Valmoissine, Burgundy, £10
- Villa Maria Cellar Selection Pinot, Marlborough NZ, £14
- Escarpment, Martinborough, NZ, £22
- Secano Maiten Block 1, Chile, £13
- Pure South Pinot M&S, Tasmania, £14
IF YOU LIKE PINOT, TRY:
- Grenache; light but peppery with cherry and raisin flavours
- Gamay; cherry flavours but a little more sour
Chardonnay has had a rather bad rap in recent years. While it's been some time since the huge over-oaked buttery versions primarily from Australia were being poured in your local bars, there's is still a strong residual 'ABC' (anything but chardonnay) brigade.
This assessment is ridiculously harsh as Chardonnay actually has a diverse range of personalities from subtle, mineral wines to crisp juicy apple flavours to richer, creamier styles. Many of the ABC brigade are unaware of this variety and will often swear by bottles of Chablis; which is actually a French Chardonnay. Chardonnay is also a key component in the production of Champagne with Blanc de Blanc champagnes being 100% from Chardonnay grapes.
Chardonnay is one of the most widely grown grapes and therefore pops up in a lot of regions. Chardonnay as a grape is quite neutral and therefore is heavily influenced by terroir (the impact of the place where the wine is grown) and winemaking styles including how oak is used.
Places renowned for good Chardonnay:
Burgundy, France: Some of the most expensive Chardonnay comes from this part of France but there are some reasonably priced examples from Chablis and Pouilly-Fuisse regions. Styles tend to be elegant with greater focus on minerality.
California, USA: While Chardonnay is grown in several places across the US, California is the main centre of production. Styles from here are dependant on whether the wines come from warmer areas (such as inland Napa) where there are hints of tropical fruit, whereas cooler, coastal areas will be more akin to the French versions.
Australia: The over-oaked styles from the noughties have sullied Chardonnay for many, but thankfully times have changed. Australian Chardonnay is now much more subtle with flavour hints of peaches and nectarines.
New Zealand: The Kiwi's may be best known for their Sauvignon Blanc but they also make a damn fine Chardonnay. Until Savvy Blanc became fashionable, Chardonnay had been NZ's most widely planted grape. In recent years, it has been overtaken by other varietals but where Chardonnay is made, it's delicious; juicy and fruit driven often with a hint of vanilla.
Chile: This region produces excellent value wines across all varietals and their Chardonnay is no different. Cooler regions such as Casablanca and Limari deliver wines of gentle minerality and subtle acidity often with some tropical fruit flavours.
South Africa: The warmer climes tends to lead to a more flavourful wine with notes of peach, apricot and honeydew. Based on experience, to get decent Chardonnay you need to avoid the entry level wines.
Style – generally lighter but heavily influenced by region and winemaker, varying from subtle, crisp, mineral wines to richer stone fruit fruit flavours
Grown – widely grown with key regions including Burgundy (France), US, New Zealand, Australia, Chile
Interesting fact – c800 AD, the wife of Emperor Charlemagne got bored of her husband having red wine stains in his white beard and ordered that white Chardonnay grapes be planted in their Burgundy vineyard, which is now called Corton-Charlemagne.
5 WINES TO TRY
- Louis Latour Macon-Lugny, Burgundy, £10
- Giesen, Hawkes Bay, NZ, £11
- Montes Alpha, Casablanca, Chile, £13
- Saintsbury, Carneros, USA, £18
- Rustenberg, South Africa, £11
IF YOU LIKE CHARDONNAY, TRY:
- Chenin Blanc; if you like the slightly richer Chardonnay with a hint of sweet fruit, this is a good alternative.
- Sauvignon Blanc; if you like the fresh acidity and citrus Chardonnay wines, try going for a French Savvy Blanc (such as a Pouilly Fume).