Have you ever wondered why some Chardonnays taste so different? Or why certain Pinot Noirs are fruity and others are earthy? In the following paragraphs we’ll explore the variety inside varietals. There are many different factors that give each wine its unique flavor. Don’t worry if your palate isn’t super refined. If you think a bottle of 2007 Châteauneuf du Pape just tastes like wine, that’s totally fine! The more wine you try, the more your taste buds will develop. Soon you’ll be able to detect the defining characteristics that makes wine so similar yet so vastly different.
What Is A Varietal?
Simply put, a varietal is the type of grape from which a wine is made. In American wines, the varietal is usually listed on the label. Some examples of varietals are Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. In other countries like Italy and France, the region is named on the label as opposed to the varietal. Think Bordeaux or Chianti. You might compare varietals to a family. They have the same name and traits, but like siblings, they are all different.
Nurture & Nature
If various bottles of wine come from the same grape, what makes them so different? Well, there are two major factors at play here. One being nature’s side of things which is commonly referred to as terrior in the wine world. Terrior is a French word used to describe the complete natural environment in which the wine is made. the location of the vineyard, the soil the grape is grown in and the climate all fall under this term.
The other side is nurture which comes from the winemaker. Everything from planting to harvesting is decided by the winemaker as well as the chemistry involved throughout the distillation process. A winemaker will taste the grapes periodically and decide when to pick depending on the sugar content, ripeness, acidity, etcetera. He will also determine what vessel the wine will be aged in and for how long. For example, introducing wood to a Chardonnay causes the wine to undergo malolactic fermentation (a second fermentation used to soften the wine and reduce the acidity) which gives the wine an oaky and buttery taste. If a Chardonnay is fermented in stainless steel vats, it will have a more crisp and clean flavor.
Climate and Soil
In other words, using Chardonnay again, which is universally known for its powerful, fruity and characteristic unripe apple aromas, will taste different in every region of the world. This is due to the climate and soil. Areas that have cold climates produce fine, steely, acidic Chardonnays with notes of green fruit. Chardonnay from moderate climates present notes of citrus and peach. Warmer climates show stronger tropical fruits, less acidity and higher alcohol content. The soil has a big impact on the flavor as well. Imagine a coastal vineyard where there’s salinity in the air and the soil is a sandy base. You can guess that the fruit grown in this region would taste very different than the same plant grown in clay soil.
Going a bit deeper, the amount of rain, the temperature and even the season all play a roll in the finished product. If you take a wine from the same vineyard, the same varietal but a different vintage (the year the grapes were harvested) and taste them side by side, you’ll notice a difference. Crazy right? That’s because, generally speaking, if there’s a lot of rain, the grapes will take on more water which dilutes the flavor and throws off the sugar/acid balance. If temperatures are too cold for too long, the grapes won’t fully ripen. Without all the sugar and sweetness of a fully ripe grape, the wine will taste tart and sour. These are all unpredictable factors that fall under nature.
If that’s not enough to manage, winemakers are responsible for the things they do have control over. The chemistry. Sugar plus yeast equals alcohol. Sounds simple right? Once the grapes go through harvest, the winemaker prepares the grapes for fermentation by destemming and crushing. Pressing and fermentation follow. Yeast is added to the pressed juice to begin the fermentation process. Everything must be exact. Too much or too little oxygen exposure can spoil a wine. The temperature must be controlled throughout. Once the wine is fermented, it is usually aged in oak barrels, or stainless steel or concrete vats. If the wine is aged in oak, it will undergo a second malolactic fermentation as we discussed above. The wine then goes through the racking process which removes the clear wine from the sediment. Next, is filtration which further removes any remaining particles, before bottling, corking and labeling.
In conclusion, the two major contributing factors in the flavor of wine are the controlled and the uncontrolled. Winemakers have no control over the terrior, nature, land and climate. However they do have control over the fermentation process.
Variety within Varietals
There’s one more thing worth mentioning and that’s the fact that most wines labeled as a single varietal are actually not. A wine must contain 75% of the grape that is designated.
Now that we’ve talked in short about the process, let’s take a look at five varietals and see how they compare when grown in different regions.
We’ll start with Chardonnay since it is the most widely consumed wine on the planet. The grape thrives in the cooler regions of California and France. Both regions produce grapes that have heavy apple and tropical fruit flavors and both seem to improve with some oak aging, but the vessels used, the temperature inside the vessel and the amount of char will vary. Californian Chardonnays tend to be more fruity and oaky whereas White Burgundies (French Chardonnay) are more reserved and less toasty with delicate fruit and strong minerality.
Just like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir grows best in the same cool regions of France and California. Pinot Noir is known for its light body with ripe cherry, herbal and cola notes but you can expect Californian Pinots to be on the fruitier side with a higher alcohol content. Those of Burgundy are elegant, delicate and more minerally. Oregon is also known for their Pinot Noir production. Wines from this region tend to be a little lighter in color and delicate in structure than their California cousins. Their flavor leans earthy and herbal. Though Pinot Noir produces extremely light bodied wine, remember that only 75% has to be Pinot Noir to be labeled as such. That’s why you might find a California Pinot that looks full and rich. It’s probably blended with a full bodied grape like Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon.
Marlborough is known for their Sauvingnon Blanc production. The region is bathed in sun with cool sea breezes resulting in wines with excellent acidity. Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs are known for their pungent grassy aromas. They also have a touch more body than their counter-parts from Loire Valley. French Sauvignon blanc is crisp, light bodied and bone-dry. Both are rarely aged in oak.
Cabernet Sauvignon from France is called Bordeaux after the region. Bordeaux wines are balanced, refined and less fruity than California Cabs. Both have distinct berry flavors of black cherry and cassis and are moderately high in tannins. French Cabernet tends to be a tough lighter with earthy undertones whereas California Cabernets are bigger and juicier.
Known as Shiraz in Australia and Syrah in France, this grape is known for dark fruit, tobacco and black pepper notes. In France with a cooler climate the grape displays dark plum with savory, herbal and spice notes. However in the warmer climates of Australia, Shiraz is more fruit forward with blackberry, blueberry and dark cherry notes.
There you have it. Next time you try another Pinot Noir that looks and tastes completely different from the last, know you’re not crazy! It’s just the vast variety inside the varietal!