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California Wine Varietals

White Wine Varieties

Chardonnay [shar-dn-AY] is the most popular premium white wine varietal produced in California. Chardonnay is high in extract (the parts of the grape used in making the wine), versatile, can be grown in a variety of conditions and can take on a variety of characteristics. Chardonnay is often described as buttery, nutty, creamy or toasty and can take on flavors that include apple, pear, tropical fruits, butterscotch, honey or lemon. Because of the high acids when picked early, it is a very popular grape in the production of sparkling wines. Chardonnay goes particularly well with seafood (particularly swordfish and lobster), pasta with cream sauces and seafood salads.

Chenin Blanc [SHEN-in BLAHNK] is a common, highly acidic wine that is used both as a dominant variety and for blending. Chenin Blanc wines exhibit delicate floral aromas and flavors of melon. Although sometimes produced in a dry style, most Chenin Blanc wines are semi-sweet to semi-dry in style. These wines go well with light cheeses on a summer afternoon and can pair well with light appetizers, salads, delicate fish and chicken.

Fume Blanc - See Sauvignon Blanc

Gewurtztraminer [geh-VEHRTZ-trah-mee-ner] is a white wine grape that produces highly fragrant wines known for their crisp, spicy characteristics (Gewurz is the German word for "spice") with aromas of rose petals, peaches, nutmeg, allspice and sometimes tropical fruit. These wines generally take on a peach-colored or gold hue and are most often sold in brown-colored, slender Rhine bottles. Gewurtztraminer wines are available in various levels of sweetness, from dry to medium-sweet and late-harvest and should be consumed while young. The spicy flavors make this an ideal wine for spicy foods such as Asian cuisine or curried dishes.

Marsanne [mahr-SAN] is a dominant Rhone varietal (along with Rousanne and Viognier) that is usually blended with Rousanne. Marsanne wines tend to be light and fruity with a perfume fragrance. Most wines identified as "White Hermitage" are made with Marsanne.

Muscat Canelli [MUHS-kat ka-NEH-lee] is a flowery dessert wine with concentrated aromas and flavors of peaches and apricots. These wines are produced in a variety of styles from light and dry to very sweet and are also produced as sparkling wines. Muscat Canelli is great with fresh fruits and desserts&emdash;try it served over a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Pinot Blanc [PEE-noh-BLAHNK], a white relative of the Pinot Noir grape. They produce fruity, dry wines similar to Chardonnay but less flavorful and complex. Because of the clean, brisk and almost neutral flavors of the wines, it is well-suited as a component of better sparkling wines.

Riesling [REES-ling], also known as Johannisberg Riesling, is generally considered to be one of the great wine grapes of the world. Riesling wines are considered complex, yet delicate, and can be vinified from dry to very sweet. These light, fruity wines often exhibit apricot and peach flavors and a flowery bouquet. This is the perfect wine for a light picnic or sipping on a summer afternoon, and goes well with chicken, pork, fish, salads and most lighter foods.

Rousanne [roo-SAHN] is one of three grapes (along with Viognier and Marsanne) associated with France's Rhone region. They produce wines that are delicate with perfume aromas and is most often blended in small amounts with the other two Rhone whites.

Sauvignon Blanc [SOH-vin-yohn BLAHNK], also known as Fume Blanc, is California's second most popular white wine grape. The wine is crisp with grassy, green pepper and herbal flavors and should generally be consumed while young. Wines marketed as Fume Blanc are often oakier in style. Sauvignon Blanc pairs well with chicken, fish, shellfish, soups, pasta with red sauces, sushi and light salads.

Semillon [seh-mee-YOHN] by itself turns out wines of average quality and neutral flavor, but is often found blended with Sauvignon Blanc to produce excellent, complex wines. Semillon tends to soften the grassy taste of Sauvignon Blanc while the Sauvignon Blanc offers the desired acidity and aromas to the blend. Semillon is also found blended with Chardonnay in wines that exhibit a somewhat "toasty" character.

Viognier [vee-oh-NYAY], a somewhat rare white-wine grape due to its low yield, is enjoying an increasing popularity in California. Viognier is a dry, intensely-flavored, aromatic wine that exhibits somewhat floral qualities and aromas of apricots, peaches, melons and pears. Serve with chicken, veal, roast, turkey and pasta with cream sauces.

Red Wine Varieties

Barbera [bar-BEH-rah] is mostly used as a blending wine because of it's high acidity and high productivity. A premium Barbera wine may exhibit currant flavors and notes of smoke. It is the major component of the Central Valley's jug wines.

Cabernet Franc [ka-behr-NAY FRAHNK] has traditionally been used as a blending wine with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, however is now produced as the dominant variety by many wineries. Like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc often exhibits flavors of black cherry, currant and berries but is less acidic and lighter bodied. This is a good wine to be served with grilled meats, steaks and aged yellow cheeses.

Cabernet Sauvignon [ka-behr-NAY soh-vihn-YOHN] is, without argument, the most heralded and popular of California's red-wine grapes. The intense flavor, complexity, and longevity (making this an ideal collector's wine) attribute to the wine's popularity. Cabernet Sauvignon's flavors are often described as black cherry, black currant and blackberry and often exhibit nuances of bell pepper, oak, cedar and mint. Although more California wines are made with 100% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, it is also commonly blended in Bordeaux-style wines. Cabernet is well suited with heavy, robust foods where the wine won't overpower the flavors, such as grilled meats, game meats and also aged cheeses. The classic pairing is with steaks and prime rib but this wine is rich enough to serve with chocolate desserts.

Carignane [kah-ree-NYAHN] is the most widely grown grape in France, and was once in California, but is rarely produced as a varietal in California. It is a high-yield grape that produces more red wine than any other grape variety and is most often used in blending. It produces wines that are high in tannins and alcohol, with fruity and spicy flavors.

Grenache [gruh-NAHSH] is one of the world's most cultivated red grapes. Grenache wines tend to be sweet, fruity and low in tannins, although it is rarely produced as a varietal.

Merlot [mer-LOH] was historically used as a grape to be blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc for Bordeaux-style wines. Since the 1970's it has become increasingly popular as a varietal wine. Merlot (actually Merlot Noir) grapes have higher sugar levels and lower tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon, thus a slightly higher alcohol content and lesser longevity. Premium Merlot wines are medium to dark red and have the fruity flavors of cherry, currant, black pepper, licorice, black olives, and nuances of vanilla. This is a good wine with rich and slightly sweet foods such as duck, pork, lamb, chicken and beef, and pasta with meat sauce.

Mourvedre [moor-HEH-druh] is a Rhone varietal red wine grape that produces hard, tannic wines with spicy and peppery characteristics. Much of what is grown in California is used in Rhone red blends.

Nebbiolo [neh-b'YOH-loh] is considered as one of the great Italian varietals producing rich, full-bodied, "chewy" wines, high in alcohol and tannins. The aromas and flavors of these wines suggest chocolate, licorice, raspberry and violets. Nebbiolo is not widely grown in California.

Petite Sirah [peh-TEET sih-RAH] grapes are actually not related to the Syrah variety. These robust wines exhibit deep color, are peppery and tannic, and generally age well. Because of these properties, they are often used for blending.

Petit Verdot [puh-TEE vehr-DOH] is a high-quality red wine grape from the Bourdeaux region of France. Petit Verdot produces full-bodied, deep colored wines with peppery characteristics and tend to be high in tannins and alcohol. It is mostly used to add color, flavor and tannins to Bordeaux blends.

Pinot Noir [PEE-noh-NWAHR] is the red grape of France's Burgundy region that is known for vast variations in both taste and quality. When young, Pinot Noir wines exhibit flavors of cherries, strawberries, raspberries and plums and aromas of rose petals. When aged, these wines gain complexity and exhibit characteristics of chocolate, prunes, figs and smoky flavors. Pinot Noir is also used extensively in the production of sparkling wines. This wine is a good complement to lamb, pork and poultry dishes.

Sangiovese [san-joh-VAY-zeh] originated in Italy's Tuscany region and is the major grape found in Chianti wines. The wines are generally high in acids and tannins and low in fruit flavors and often exhibit an earthy quality.

Syrah [sih-RAH], is the red grape varietal from France's Rhone region. Once considered a blending grape because of it's complexity, Syrah been increasingly planted in California over the past several years and is now widely produced as a premium varietal. Syrah wines are deep colored, spicy and tannic with aromas and flavors of plums, currants, black pepper and berries. The wine tends to be drier, spicier and less fruity than Zinfandel. The deep flavors of Syrah make it an ideal accompanyment to beef, game meats and even hamburgers.

Tempranillo [tem-prah-NEE-yoh] is a Spanish varietal that often produces wines with characteristics of strawberry, tobacco and spice, and because of it's low acid, is most often used for blending.

Zinfandel [ZIHN-fuhn-dehl] grapes were initially brought to California in the 1850's and, although rare outside the U.S., is now California's most extensively planted red-wine grape. This is a very versatile grape and is vinified in many styles. In it's red form, a premium Zinfandel often exhibits intense berry and peppery flavors, is rich in tannins, and may rival Cabernet Sauvignon in depth and complexity. In its "white" form, White Zinfandel is light and fruity with a light to medium "blush" color and is also used as a base for sparkling wines. Also gaining popularity are the Late Harvest and Port-style Zinfandels. Red Zinfandel is a perfect wine for hearty, spicy foods such as grilled red meats, ribs, pizza, and foods with rich tomato sauces.

Non-Varietal and Blended Wines

Blush WIne is an American generic term given to wines that are light pink to light apricot in color. The wines are generally produced from red grapes in which the skins are removed from the juice soon after pressing. Longer skin contact will produce a darker color and more tannins.

Bordeaux Blend [bohr-DOH] is a term used for wines blended from two or more of the traditional Bordeaux grape varieties. The most common red Bordeaux varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petite Verdot and Malbec. White Bordeaux varieties include Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle. Meritage wines typically contain less than 75% but may not contain more than 90% of a single variety.

Chablis [sha-BLEE] is actually not a varietal at all- it is a growing region in France. In the U.S. the term Chablis refers to ordinary white table wines blended from various grape varieties. These generic wines are usually light and sweet to semi-sweet.

Late Harvest wines are made from grapes (commonly Riesling) that are picked toward the end of the harvest when the very ripe grapes have a high sugar content. Because of the high sugar content (Brix) they usually make very sweet, highly alcoholic wines. Late Harvest Rieslings, which are usually sweet and fruity with intense flavors of honey, peaches and apricots, are most often used as dessert wines.

Meritage [MEHR-ih-tihj] is a trademarked name used to designate wines made with traditional Bordeaux grape varieties. Vintners may use this term only if they are members of the Meritage Association, otherwise wines are sometimes simply referred to as Bordeaux blends. The most common red Bordeaux varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petite Verdot and Malbec. White Bordeaux varieties include Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle. Meritage wines typically contain less than 75% but may not contain more than 90% of a single variety.

White Zinfandel is not a varietal in any means- it is made from the (red) Zinfandel grape and gets it's pale pink (blush) color by quickly removing the skins from the juice after the grapes are pressed. White Zinfandels are usually somewhat sweet but may be produced in a semi-dry style. These wines often exhibit flavors of strawberries, raspberries and cherries and may have a floral bouquet. Because of it's popularity among novice wine drinkers, many people believe the Zinfandel grape is white. Editor's note: shame on all those waiters that have served me "White Zinfandel" when I ordered "Zinfandel."

Fortified Wines

Port is a sweet wine that is fortified with a neutral grape alcohol that is added part way through fermentation. The added alcohol stops fermentation while the wine is still sweet and increases the alcohol level to 18 to 20 percent. Vintage Ports are generally the best, as they are made from a single vintage and can age for up to 50 years years. Tawny Ports are made from grapes from different years and can be aged in wood for as long as 40 years. Ruby Ports, which are generally made from lower quality batches of wine which are aged for about two years, is the least expensive. Ports can be made of several varietal wines including Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. Because of the sweetness and high alcohol content, Ports are usually served after a meal.

Sherry is a fortified wine that is made in several styles and can take of various characteristics. Sherries are often deep gold to brown in color and are highly aromatic with flavors described as nutty or raisiny. Sherries are most often served before or after dinner, with the dry sherries served chilled and the sweet sherries served at room temperature.

Next in this series: Choosing Wine 

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