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Red Wine Grapes - Part 2

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Part 2 of the Series

The Merlot grape is a close cousin to Cabernet Sauvignon in many respects. It is lower in tannins and makes wines that mature faster and are softer in texture. Merlot is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon in order to soften the blend. At its best, Merlot makes a wine that is dry, rich in flavor and smooth as it finishes in your throat. At its worst, Merlot makes wine that is dry but thin in taste and texture, and not very pleasant to consume. Most of what you will come across are likely to be of pretty good quality.

Merlot is able to mature in regions that are cooler than those required for Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot is more susceptible to fungus and mold diseases and therefore a bit harder to grow. Merlot varies widely in quality around the world depending on location and producer. This variety was first known for its success in the Saint Emilion and Pomerol areas of Bordeaux. Chateau Petrus is the stellar example of fine Merlot.

Pinot Noir is one of the most difficult grapes to grow and make into fine wine. It is also one of the very best when it is done properly. It has very specific requirements for its growing conditions. It needs warm days and cool nights. If Pinot Noir receives too little heat in the growing season, its wines are thin and pale. If the growing season is too warm, the wines have an overripe, cooked flavor.

Pinot Noir produces a small crop. It has low amounts of tannin and relatively high acid levels for a red grape. Pinot Noir found its fame in the Burgundy region of France where it is the primary grape used for red wines. It is also a major component in the production of most fine quality Champagne and California sparkling wines. The state of Oregon in the United States appears to be an upcoming growing area with the right conditions for Pinot Noir. Some promising wines are also starting to come out of New Zealand. It is known as Spatburgunder in Germany where the cooler climate produces wines that are crisper and lighter than elsewhere.

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Sangiovese is the primary grape used in Northern Italy in the region of Tuscany to make Chianti and also for Brunello di Montalcino. Sangiovese produces wines that are spicy, with good acid levels, smooth texture and medium body. In the right climates and with controlled yields, Sangiovese can be made into very structured and full bodied wines. It is usually blended with other grapes for best results and in northern Italy is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon in the 'Super Tuscan' blends.

Sangiovese is experiencing increased interest and plantings in California and elsewhere. Because of its ability to create smoother wines with acid levels that pair well with many foods, a great deal of experimentation is taking place with it as a blending agent with several red varieties.

Syrah/Shiraz this grape is known as Syrah in France and Shiraz in Australia. In the United States, it can appear under either name depending on the style of the winery. The grape is thought to be named for a city in Persia (Shiraz) where it probably originated. It produces full rich wines of intense color and flavor. In warmer climates like Australia, the grape produces wines that are sweeter and riper tasting. In cooler climates like the Rhone valley of France, it often has more pepper and spice aromas and flavors. Syrah usually becomes drinkable at an early age and most are produced for consumption within a year after release (2rd year from harvest). On the other hand, there are Syrah/Shiraz examples of very long lived wines such as Hermitage in France and Penfold's Grange in Australia.

Syrah/Shiraz was brought into southern France by a returning crusader, Guy De'Sterimberg. He became a hermit and developed a vineyard on a steep hill where he lived where he lived in the Rhone River Valley. It became known as the Hermitage. The use of Syrah spread in the Rhone River Valley of France and it is now very important to the best wines of that region. It is often blended with Grenache and is an essential grape in the production of Chateauneuf du Pape.

In Australia, Shiraz has found a real home. The Shiraz grape is the most widely planted red grape variety in Australia where it is sometimes blended with Cabernet Sauvignon or occasionally with Mourvedre.

Whether in France, Australia or elsewhere, this grape has shown it can create some fabulous wines in the right conditions. It is important to find the right site for planting and to restrict the growth of the vine and its crop to achieve the best results.

Zinfandel is a grape variety that has been important almost exclusively in California. The Zinfandel grape can make solid red wines with good fruit and structure. It was a popular variety with home winemakers during the American prohibition era because its thick skins allowed the grapes to ship without damage. It later (late 1970's and early 1980's) became popular for the wines produced from it with forward fruit flavors and spicy overtones. Zinfandel declined in popularity in the mid 1980's and became unprofitable to grow until "White Zinfandel" was introduced. White Zinfandel is a Zinfandel rose that is left slightly sweet with an acid balance.

Recent DNA tests indicate that Zinfandel is actually the same as the Primitivo grape found in Italy.


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