Each grape used to make good wine has its own flavor profile, but the more wines you taste, the easier it becomes to discern that these fruits fall into a handful of overlapping flavor “families.”
Most white wine grape varieties share a broad apple-pear flavor profile, such as Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc. However, a few stand out with unusually herbaceous and leafy aromas, like sauvignon blanc, or unusually floral, like moscato. Others, such as Riesling and Pinot Gris, may combine elements from several families as shown below, although the intensity of their flavor may depend on the degree of ripeness.
Red grapes are more difficult to categorize, as winemaking variables play a larger role besides ripeness.
Many of the most popular ones, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, have the smell and taste of darker black fruits, for example blackberries or blueberries. A smaller number that makes paler wines, like Pinot Noir and Sangiovese, taste like brighter red berries, like strawberry or cranberry. Others have an unusual concentration of additional flavors, such as black pepper and star anise, as with Syrah or Grenache, especially when fully ripe. It’s helpful to think of them as part of a distinct family of “spicy fruits” that may overlap with others.
The magic of biochemistry
In the wine trade, grape varieties are traditionally organized according to their region of origin or parentage, but taste similarities are more often due to biochemistry.
In white wine grapes, floral grapes tend to be high in aromatic esters and terpenes, while herbal grapes more often contain pyrazines.
In red wine grapes, the black fruit/red fruit distinction is often determined as much by the thickness of the grape skin as by specific aromatic compounds, while the spicy fruit character derives from a wide variety of aromatic molecules, including esters, aldehydes, terpenes and ketones. .
Marnie Old is one of the country’s leading wine educators. Formerly the director of wine studies at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, she is best known for her visually appealing books published by DK, such as Wine: A Tasting Course. Marnie is currently the director of vinlightenment for Boisset Collection.