Wine Academy

Red Wine Grapes and Their Personalities

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Wine Academy Table of Contents


We use the terms “black grapes” and “red grapes” interchangeably. In either case, these grapes produce what is commonly termed “red” wine. Red grapes vary immensely as to the climates they prefer, the acidity they bring to the table, and their levels of tannins (the compounds in grape skins, seeds and stems that bring astringency, a drying sensation felt in the mouth). Like people, wine grapes seem to have different personalities. We take the liberty of giving them these human attributes.

a. Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet is relatively young, only appearing in its native Bordeaux region of France in the 17th century. The grape is a cross between the red Cabernet Franc and the White Sauvignon Blanc. It replaced Malbec as the most popular red grape in Bordeaux in the 18th century.

    • Buds and ripens later than most varieties.
    • Tough, thick-skinned, very small berries
    • Ratio of seeds and skins to pulp is very high
    • High level of tannins are extracted from skins and seeds during the maceration process

    • Classic Cabernet – full-bodied wines with high tannins and acidity, with great aging potential
    • Typical flavor profile:
    • Black currant (cassis)
    • Green bell pepper
    • the result of chemical compounds called pyrazines, in grapes that have not been allowed to fully ripen
    • Eucalyptus
    • Tobacco

In Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon is usually blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

  • Cabernet Sauvignon provides structure, tannins and acids, dark-fruit flavors of blackcurrant and bell pepper.
  • Merlot is the juicer, "fatter" variety; has less structure, but good palate weight and fruit flavors.
  • Cabernet's robust structure is fattened out with Merlot's juicy fruit – a marriage with excellent long-term potential when assembled with care.

California Cabernet Sauvignon

  • Began to be produced in Napa and Sonoma in the 19th century
  • Buena Vista winery in Carneros grew Cabernet Sauvignon grapes as early as 1857
  • 1976 “Judgment of Paris” – Stags Leap Napa Cabernet beat out Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion in a blind taste test, with similar results in another test 30 years later

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon

  • Grapes picked not only on the basis of their sugar level (physiological ripeness), but also on tannin ripeness (phenolic ripeness)
  • Ripe tannins result in wines that can be uncorked and enjoyed at much younger ages and that do not need to be blended
  • New American oak was overused for aging for many years in Napa, but the trend now is to age in less aggressive French oak, often used.

Australian Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet is the number two red grape in Australia after Shiraz, with which it is often blended. It is produced all over Australia, but one distinctive region is Coonawarra in the state of South Australia, known for its “terra rossa,” red earth soils.


Italian Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon has been produced in Tuscany for over 250 years and is an important grape in “Super Tuscan” wines like Sassicaia.

Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon

  • Maipo Valley is a leading region
  • Cool Pacific breezes, warm days, cool nights
  • Red fruit, green pepper, menthol, eucalyptus
  • Does well in Bordeaux style blends

b. Merlot

We call Merlot the “Team Player” because it is such a good blending partner with other red wines, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon.

Merlot’s home area is the Right Bank of the Bordeaux region of France.

  • Merlot originally meant “young blackbird”– the grape has blue/black skin
  • Cool climate Merlot has flavors of plum, berries and tobacco
  • Warmer climate Merlot may have flavors of chocolate and fruitcake

Traditional Style of Merlot

  • Early harvest maintains acidity
  • Medium-bodied wines
  • Moderate alcohol levels
  • Fresh, red fruit flavors and leafy vegetal notes.

International Style of Merlot

  • Late harvest for deeper flavors
  • Inky, purple colored wines
  • Full body, high alcohol
  • Lush, velvety tannins
  • Intense, plum and blackberry fruit.

Worldwide Merlot Production

  • France, Italy, Switzerland, Romania, Croatia, Montenegro, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Turkey, Australia, South Africa, Canada, Argentina The Ups and Downs of Merlot

The Ups and Downs of Merlot

Merlot sales skyrocketed in 1991 when a feature on the television show “60 Minutes” linked red wine consumption to heart health. This was based on the so-called “French Paradox,” the belief that the wine-consuming French have lower levels of heart problems even though they eat fatty foods.

  • Moderate consumption of red wine protects against cancer and heart issues by increasing HDL cholesterol and reducing LDL cholesterol
  • Red wines have high levels of antioxidants
  • the darker the wine, the higher the antioxidant content
  • Red wines are also sources of resveratrol, linked to longevity and cancer prevention

Why Merlot?

  • Merlot has lower tannins and less acidity than Cabernet Sauvignon and so is considered smoother and “easier to drink”
  • Merlot is less expensive than Pinot Noir
  • Merlot is easy to pronounce
  • Merlot is easy to pair with a wide range of foods

Merlot Quality Declined

  • California Merlot acreage grew from a few thousand acres in 1985 to over 50,000 by the end of the century
  • Much Merlot was planted in unsuitable climates, usually too warm for the variety
  • Following the American rule that a wine labeled with a varietal needs to only have 75% of that grape, much wine labeled Merlot was plumped up with unsuitable blending grapes, which could be anything.

A reaction against Merlot set in. In the 2004 film Sideways, the wine-obsessed main character Miles exclaims, “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I’m not drinking any ____ Merlot!”

But Merlot didn’t sink that low…

  • The Merlot market declined, but stabilized a few years after Sideways
  • Higher-end Merlots are now holding their own
  • Example – some of the quality Merlots coming out of Washington State
  • Lower-end Merlots suffered (deservedly) from a reputation problem
c. Pinot Noir

We call Pinot Noir “The Spinster” because it should never be married with other red grapes. Blending compromises the delicate aromas, flavors, and mouthfeel of the grape.

Pinot Noir is over 1000 years older than Cabernet Sauvignon. During the middle ages, the church produced the best wine in France. Monks spent centuries developing Pinot Noir growing and winemaking techniques. Pinot Noir was favored for the sacraments, which helped its overall reputation.

Philip the Bold, powerful Duke of Burgundy, established Pinot Noir as Burgundy’s preferred red grape in 1395 and gave the grape its present name based on its resemblance to a black pine cone.

 Pinot Noir

  • Difficult to cultivate and transform into wine
  • Doesn’t like hot, harsh windy climates
  • Genetically unstable – over 100 clones
  • Highly susceptible to vine diseases
  • Thin skins, make the wine…
    lightly colored
    medium bodied
    low in tannins
  • Unpredictable aging
  • Cherry, strawberry, raspberry, spice, earth flavors
  • Medium-bodied wine, with high acidity
  • Low to moderate tannins
  • Age-worthy, because of acidity and minerality
  • Transparent – really shows the character of a place. In Burgundy, varies from row to row
  • New World Pinots tend to have more fruit and less earthiness

Pinot Noir is nicknamed the “heartbreak” grape, because it is thin-skinned and susceptible to all sorts of disasters in the vineyards… and very difficult to ripen.

Pinot Noir requires low yields and is subject to numerous illness that can be brought on by wind, cold or hot weather, fungus or rot, due to its thin skin. The grape does best in cool, dry climates with well drained, stony, or chalky soils.

Distinctive Pinot Noir Regions


Pinot Noir – Important Grape in Champagne

  • The red grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, along with the white grape Chardonnay, are used to produce base wines for Champagne
  • Crushing the grapes without allowing skin contact assures a very lightly colored wine
  • Blanc de Noir (“white from black”) Champagnes are made from Pinot Noir only
  • Blanc de Blanc is produced from Chardonnay

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

  • Pinot Noir is one of the parent grapes of Chardonnay
  • Both are characteristic grapes of Burgundy, where each is almost always produced as a single varietal wine
  • Pinot Noir and Chardonnay prefer similar cool-climate growing regions, on a worldwide basis
  • The term “Burgundian varieties” refers to both

The Other Pinots

  • Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio), Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meunier (used in Champagne) are probably not separate grape varieties
  • They are color mutations of Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir In Other Languages

  • Italy: Pinot Nero
  • Germany: Spätburgunder (late Burgundy)
  • Austria: Blauburgunder (blue Burgundy)
  • Hungary: Nagyburgund (great Burgundy)

Effect on Pinot Noir of the Film Sideways

  • Sideways promoted Pinot Noir
  • Pinot Noir demand skyrocketed
  • Finicky Pinot Noir is even harder to grow more of than Merlot, and quality suffered greatly
  • Unlike Merlot, Pinot Noir is best as an unblended single varietal wine
    ---- Delicate aromas and flavors easily overwhelmed
    ---- But it was plumped up with other varieties
  • The result was a lot of mediocre Pinot on the market, especially at lower price points
d. Syrah

We call Syrah the “Gentleman” because it has natural elegance and strength, without being pushy.

The traditional home of Syrah is the northern Rhône region of France where the most prominent appellations are Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage.

  • Syrah is a small, dark skinned berry
    small bunches
    high acidity and tannins (less than Cabernet)
  • Ripens best in dry climates and soils that allow for deep root penetration
  • Lost ground and foreign attention in the first half of the twentieth century
  • Strong resurgence since 1970

Syrah Around the World

Moderate climates (northern Rhône Valley, Central Coast California)

  • medium to full-bodied wines
  • medium-plus to high levels of tannins
  • flavors of blackberry, mint and black pepper

Warm Climates (The Shiraz of the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale of South Australia)

  • full-bodied with softer tannins
  • jammier fruit and spice notes of licorice, anise and earthy leather.

Shiraz is Australia’s flagship grape. It is often blended with Grenache and Mourvèdre to create distinctive GSM wines.

e. Grenache: The Poor Relation

We call Grenache the “Poor Relation” because it is so often needs to be blended with other wines

  • Mediterranean grape, one of the most widely planted worldwide
  • Garnacha in Spain, Cannonau in Sardinia
  • Ripens late, likes hot climates
  • Spicy, berry-flavored and soft on the palate
  • Relatively high alcohol
  • May lack acid, tannins, color – frequently blended with Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Tempranillo
  • France – lead grape in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône, Provence, Laguedoc-Roussillon
  • Spain – Garnacha – Major role in Rioja and Priorat, Aragon, Navarra
  • California – Central Coast and Mendocino in Rhône style blends
  • Australia - varietal Grenache and GSM blends

Demand for single varietal Grenache and Garnacha is growing with the trend toward medium bodied wines.

f. Mourvèdre: The Sophisticate

We call Mourvèdre the “Sophisticate” because of the elegance it adds to blends.

  • Small, thick-skin berries
  • Tannic wines high in alcohol
  • Major grape of Bandol in Provence
  • Southern France and South Australia – adds flesh to GSM blends
  • Widely used to create rosé
  • Monastrell in Spain, Mataro in Australia

Mourvèdre does well in hot climates and should benefit from global warming

g. GSM Blends: A Distinctive Threesome

Grenache – Syrah/Shiraz – Mourvèdre

  • Grenache is the lightest of the three grapes, with pale red juice with soft berry scents and a bit of spiciness. It contributes alcohol, warmth and fruitiness.
  • Shiraz is full-bodied, with fleshy flavors of black fruits and pepper. It adds color, backbone and tannins.
  • Mourvèdre adds elegance, structure and acidity to the blend, flavors of sweet plums, roasted game and tobacco.

GSM Around the World

  • Châteauneuf-du-Pape from the southern Rhône is often similar to GSM, with a few additional blending partners.
  • Australia, especially the South Australia appellations of McLaren Vale and Barossa Valley.
  • Central Coast California.
  • Washington State
  • Priorat in northeastern Spain (Catalunia)
h. Tempranillo: The Spanish Gentleman

Spain’s noble grape Tempranillo is indigenous to Spain and dates back to before the time of Christ. It has been grown on the Iberian Peninsula since the Phoenicians settled it in 1100 B.C.

  • thick skin
  • ripens early, hence the name (temprano means early in Spanish)
  • likes chalk
  • likes altitude (daytime heat, cool nights)
  • relatively neutral – blends well with other varieties (Garnacha, Graciano, Cabernet, Merlot) and takes on much character from aging in oak
  • varietal Tempranillo – plum and strawberry, tobacco, vanilla, leather and herb
  • medium plus tannins, medium minus acidity
  • Portugal, Mexico, New Zealand, California, Washington, South Africa, Texas, Australia, Argentina, Portugal, Uruguay, Turkey, Canada, and Arizona

Tempranillo is the lead grape in Spain’s most famous wine, Rioja. There it is blended with Garnacha (which adds body and alcohol), Mazuelo (for flavors), and Graciano (for additional aromas).

Tempranillo goes by more than a dozen different names around the world, depending on where it is cultivated: Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero, Tinta de Toro in Toro, Ull de Llebre in Catalonia, Cencibel in La Mancha and Tinto Roriz in Portugal.

Spanish Tempranillo (and Rioja) Aging Grades

  • Vin Joven – usually unaged – drink young
  • Crianza – two year aging, at least 6 months in oak – usually aggressive American oak
  • Reserva – three year aging, at least one year in oak
  • Gran Reserva – five year aging, at least two years in oak
i. Sangiovese: The Italian Prince

Sangiovese is Italy’s most planted grape.

  • Best in Tuscany
  • sour red cherries, earthy aromas, tea leaf notes
  • medium-plus tannins, high acidity
  • Bulk, cheap wines elsewhere in Italy
  • Plantings in California, Australia, Argentina

Sangiovese derives its name from the Latin sanguis Jovis, "the blood of Jove".

Sangiovese is known for its many genetic mutations, leading to a wide variety of wine types throughout Italy.

Two basic styles of Sangiovese:

  • Fruit forward – red fruit like strawberries and cherries, tomato, spices like cinnamon and clove, less tannic, bright acidity.
  • Rustic – dark chocolate and smoke with herbal notes like oregano and thyme, dried flowers, tomato, gripping tannins, highly acidic

Sangiovese Percentages

  • Brunello di Montalcino – 100%
  • Rosso di Montalcino – 85%
  • Vino Nobile di Montepulciano – 70%
  • Morellino di Scansano – 85%
  • Chianti – 80% (most are 100%)
  • Chianti Classico – 80% (most are 100%)
j. Nebbiolo: Italian Tradition

The Nebbiolo grape is native to Piemonte in Northwest Italy.

  • Barolo and Barbaresco are the most prominent Nebbiolo appellations. They are 100% Nebbiolo from individual villages south of Alba, and they cost a lot of money because they need to be aged for many years before they become drinkable.
  • Lightly colored red wines, highly tannic when young, often see long aging, which turns them brick orange at the rim of the glass, high acidity
  • With age, Nebbiolo takes on aromas and flavors of violets, tar, wild herbs, cherries, raspberries, roses, truffles, tobacco, and prunes
  • Nebbiolo doesn’t travel well – Early efforts to plant it in California were eclipsed by Cabernet Sauvignon
  • The Langhe Nebbiolo DOC encompasses both the Barolo and Barbaresco areas, and allows up to 15% blending of local varieties like Barbera and Dolcetto, making a less expensive, earlier drinking wine
  • Ghemme DOCG – min. 75% Nebbiolo
  • Gattinara DOCG – 90% Nebbiolo
  • Other Nebbiolo appellations in Piemonte include Carema, Fara, Boca, Sizzano, Roero, and Nebbiolo d’Alba

k. Barbera: Italian Conviviality

  • Third most planted grape in Italy. Used to be second, before the 1985 methanol scandal which killed at least 30 people and blinded many more
  • Medium-bodied, fruity wines
  • Deep color, high acidity, low tannins
  • Native to Piemonte region of north Italy, but grown all over Italy
  • Plantings in Australia, South Africa, California, Argentina, Mexico, Texas
  • Top international potential if well treated

l. Gamay: It’s Beaujolais

  • Gamay-based wines are typically light bodied and fruity.
  • Black currant, raspberry, violet, banana, earth.
  • The sole grape of Beaujolais.
  • A close cousin to Pinot Noir.
  • Likes granite and limestone soils.
  • Oak aging, if at all, is lightly done.
  • Tannins all over the place – wide variety
  • On the increase around the world in cool climate growing regions
  • Loire Valley in France
  • Patches in the Mâconnais, southern Burgundy
  • Switzerland
  • Canada – Niagara Peninsula
  • New Zealand
  • Australia
  • Oregon
  • Quality Beaujolais compares favorably to its close cousin, Pinot Noir, but guess what…It costs less money
m. Malbec: The Tango Partner

Malbec is one of the Bordeaux blending grapes

  • Also called Côt and Auxerrois
  • Small grape with dark berries and thin skins
  • Needs more sun and heat than either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot to ripen
  • Never truly succeeded in Bordeaux because of its susceptibility to disease and rot, so only small amounts were planted for blends
  • Grown mainly in outlying areas of Bordeaux such as Bourg, Blaye and Entre-Deux-Mers

Southwest France

  • The basis for the “Black Wine” of Cahors in the valley of the Lot River. Grows best in the arid limestone plateau of Cahors
  • Cahors wine must be 70% Malbec with possible addition of Tannat and Merlot. Tends to be basic and Rustic
  • A resurgence of Malbec in Cahors is occurring due to the success of Argentine Malbec
  • Cahors winemakers work with the Argentines to promote “World Malbec Day,” April 17th
  • Malbec from Cahors is leathery and savory, with flavors of tart currant and black plum, black pepper and spice with high acidity, firm tannins, and a pleasant bitterness


  • Malbec was brought to Argentina in 1868
  • Thrived in the dry high altitude climate of Mendoza
  • Rapidly became Argentina’s number one wine grape
  • In the 21st century, made its name as an affordable alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah
  • Malbec from Argentina is generally fruity, velvety, and high in alcohol, with flavors of pomegranate, blackberry, black cherry and plum. Oak aging can bring flavors of chocolate, cocoa and sweet tobacco
  • Big production with a wide variety of quality levels and oak aging practices
  • Brings a lot of the flavor and boldness of Cabernet and Syrah with much lower tannins
  • A very accessible food friendly red wine, a gateway red wine for white wine drinkers
  • And…yes…easy to pronounce
n. Cabernet Franc: The Companion

  • Cabernet Franc is one of the Bordeaux blending grapes
  • It is a partner of Merlot in right bank Bordeaux blends – Pomerol and St. Emilion
  • Parent of Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Lighter in color than Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Aromas of tobacco, raspberry, bell pepper, cassis, violet – similar to Cabernet Sauvignon
  • It is made into a single varietal wine in the central Loire valley regions of Chinon and Bourgeuil

American single varietal Cabernet Franc

  • California
  • Missouri
  • Michigan
  • Long Island
  • Finger Lakes
  • Washington State
  • Virginia (becoming the state’s signature red grape)

Cabernet Franc – Cold Hardiness

  • Washington State, New York State (Long Island and the Finger Lakes), Michigan, and Virginia have done well with Cabernet Franc
  • The wood of the Cabernet Franc vine has a better ability to withstand winter freezes common in these areas than do Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon
  • A good example of using the appropriate grape for the growing environment
o. Carménère – The Immigrant

  • A little-used Bordeaux blending grape
  • Introduced to Chile in 1850s and has become Chilean signature grape as varietal
  • Late-ripening, does well with Chilean Central Valley’s long growing season
  • Deep red wines, aromas of red berry, spice, smoky, chocolate, soft tannins
  • Best consumed young
  • When not fully ripened, herbaceous, with aromas and flavors of green bell pepper (result of pyrazines)
  • Ripeness brings out cherry notes and spice with leather and tobacco, smoke and cocoa, a savory wine that goes well with “umami” foods
  • Aging in wood tends to add a mushroom-like earthiness
p. Zinfandel: The Wanderer

The roads that brought Zinfandel to becoming California’s “own” wine grape were long and convoluted, which is why we call Zin the “wanderer.”

Zin has been on a long road and several times has almost disappeared

  • Zinfandel is a black grape. There is no white Zinfandel grape.
  • White Zinfandel wine is made from the same black Zinfandel grape that makes red Zinfandel.
  • Most grape juice is actually clear. You make a lightly colored (pink) wine by giving the clear juice some brief contact with the grape skins.
  • We know now that California’s Zinfandel is the genetic equivalent of the Croatian Dalmatian grape Crljenak Kaštelanski, as well as the Primitivo variety found in Italian Puglia across the Adriatic Sea from Dalmatia.
  • Researchers have only recently determined the genetic connection. The search for it is popularly called the “Zinquest.”

So how did Zin get to California? It starts with a Napoleon.

In the late 1700’s, Napoleon conquers northern Italy, leading to the end of the 1100 year old Venetian Empire. In 1797, Austria takes over Venetian Dalmatia from the Republic of Venice

Cuttings of Crljenak Kaštelanski grape are brought to Schönbrunn Imperial Austrian horticultural collection in Vienna.

In 1829, Colonel George Gibbs, imports cuttings of the grape from Schönbrunn across the Atlantic to his property in Ravenswood, Queens. At the time, Ravenswood was entirely rural, although now it is in the middle of New York City.

Colonel Gibbs brings cuttings to Boston in 1830. The grape thrives in Boston greenhouses, but does not do well outdoors in the northeastern climate. Outdoor cultivation of the native Concord grape takes the focus and Zin is forgotten. Zinfandel almost disappears. What saves it? The California Gold Rush.

Boston nurserymen brought Zinfandel to California during the Gold Rush years. Zinfandel took well to the growing conditions in Napa, Sonoma, Lodi and the Sierra Foothills. It soon became California’s most planted grape, meeting the demand of the growing population brought on by the Gold Rush.

The Italian Connection.

  • Italian immigrant winemakers adopted Zinfandel as their own in the late 19th century.
  • During Prohibition, many other wineries ripped out their vines and planted other profitable, predictable crops.
  • Because of their deep culture of wine, many Italian families kept their vineyards going.
  • Many of their old vines survive today.

Another threat makes Zinfandel almost disappear. Prohibition.

  • Many Zinfandel vines were abandoned with Prohibition.
  • After repeal, the concentration was on cheap, sweet, low quality wines, which often used “borrowed” European place names.
  • The California fine wine business did not truly recover until the 1970s, and then it concentrated on French grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
  • But tough Zinfandel vines survived unattended in areas where it was not worthwhile to dig them up and plant replacement crops.
  • We still could have lost Zinfandel in the 1970s as winemakers discovered that good grape-producing land in areas such as the Sierra Foothills was considerably cheaper than Sonoma and Napa.
  • Zinfandel vines might have been replaced by Cabernet Sauvignon, which became California’s number one red grape.

White Zinfandel comes to the rescue

  • The first Sutter Home White Zinfandel in 1972 was a standard dry slightly pink wine.
  • In 1975 an accidental “stuck fermentation” resulted in a pink, sugary wine.
  • The wine became immensely popular.
  • Today, white Zinfandel outsells red Zinfandel six to one, accounting for 10% of all the wine sold in the United States, by volume.
  • Demand for white Zinfandel spurred winemakers to pay more attention to traditional red Zinfandel, especially the wine made from old vines.
  • Red Zinfandel has once again taken its rightful place as one of California’s great red wines. Zinfandel is now second only to Cabernet Sauvignon among California red grape production.

Europe Jumps on the Bandwagon

  • In Croatia, Crljenak Kaštelanski was down to twenty-two vines just a few years ago, but has risen to 200,000 vines today.
  • In Puglia, Primitivo was better known and has only increased since the Zinfandel connection was made.
  • With the popularity of quality red Zinfandel, Croatian and Italian winemakers have begun to label their wines “Zinfandel,” but the wine just isn’t the same after nearly two centuries of genetic separation.
  • The difference is not just genetics.
  • Californians let Zinfandel ripen to high sugar levels, bringing high alcohol, low acid and riper, gentler tannins, for a smooth fruity wine.
  • The Italians pick the grapes earlier, at lower sugar levels, bringing lower alcohol, higher acidity and more expressive tannins, an entirely different wine style.