LAST WEEK I discussed the personality traits of the major white vinifera grape varieties. This week presents eight of the principal red vinifera varieties that are used to produce virtually all of the world's finest red wines. Learning the names of these grapes and the styles of wine each produces can greatly facilitate the understanding of the wine consumer.
This grape has been planted in numerous areas of the world with considerable success. It is the basic red wine grape for the chateau-bottled wines of the Medoc and Graves regions of Bordeaux, where it is usually blended with merlot and cabernet franc. It has done extremely well in California, where it is the most expensive red wine grape. The grape produces wine with generally high tannin, which can benefit the aging process of the wine. It is usually aged in oak barrels for one year to sometimes as long as four years. Cabernet sauvignon is a darkly colored wine with a bouquet suggestive of black currants and spicy, herbaceous scents. At its best, cabernet sauvignon provides a wine with power and concentration, but with a sense of balance. Great bottles of this wine may live as long as 40 to 60 years, although most cabernets are drunk within five to eight years.
Thrift: 1979 Fetzer ($6.49); 1978 Beau Tour ($5.99)
Splurge: 1978 La Tour ($49.95), 1976 Robert Mondavi Reserve ($35)
Merlot is primarily used as a grape for blending with cabernet sauvignon to provide softness and dimension. However, merlot can stand on its own. It is the primary grape for the wines of Pomerol and is used in various proportions in St. Emilon. Merlot is planted in California as well as northern Italy, where it usually produces soft, early maturing, fruity wines. Merlot's lushness and fleshy personality is best exhibited in French pomerols and has performed to mixed reviews to California and Italy. Merlot rarely has as much tannin and acidity as cabernet sauvignon, so it is always more palatable at an earlier age.
Thrift: 1979 Sokol Blosser ($8.49)
Splurge: 1979 Petrus ($55)
This fickle grape has failed miserably in California despite ambitious efforts from many wineries. In France, pinot noir is the frequently maligned grape responsible for French red burgundy. While French burgundies are often poorly made and grossly overpriced, pinot noir can produce a majestic wine with an extremely intense bouquet of ripe fruit and smoky, earthy aromas when handled properly as it is by a few of Burgundy's most conscientous growers. In general, pinot noir offers poor value to the consumer.
Thrift: 1976 Faively Mercurey ($9.49)
Splurge: 1976 Lignier Morely St. Denis ($25)
Planted exclusively in California, zinfandel has been linked in origin to the primitivo grape of southern Italy. Zinfandel is made in diverse styles, from late-harvest port-like wines to light, zesty, beaujolais-type wines. The best zinfandels are made in a style that lies somewhat in between the aforementioned types. When properly handled, zinfandel produces a full-bodied briary wine with spicy fruit and plenty of alcohol, fruit and body. It can take a few years of cellaring, but is best consumed within five or six years of the vintage. Zinfandel can represent an especially good value, given its reliable quality.
Thrift: 1979 Fetzer ($3.99)
Splurge: 1979 Ridge Shenandoah ($8.99); 1979 Edmeades Dupratt ($8.99)
The great red wine grape of Piedmont, Italy, this hearty variety produces Italy's finest red wines -- barolo, barbaresco and gattinara. It has been successfully grown only in Italy, although there are experimental plantings in California. It produces a very robust, tannic, intense wine with considerable body and alcohol. It is not a wine for beginners, and usually is most appreciated by wine enthusiasts who have considerable tasting experience. The smell of a nebbiolo is suggestive of truffles, damp earth and, occasionally, violets. It is a long-lived powerful wine.
Thrift: 1979 Nebbiolo D'Alba Vietti ($6.49)
Splurge: 1978 Gaja Barbaresco ($16.50), 1964 Conterno Barolo ($32.95)
This is the beaujolais grape, and it produces a non-serious, straightforward, fruity wine which is ideal for casual quaffing. Unfortunately, it has been heavily promoted and commercialized, and rarely offers value when it sells above $6 a bottle. Gamay is planted in California, where it has done well. It is a wine to drink, not a wine to think about, and it should be consumed within three years of the vintage.
Thrift: 1980 Fetzer ($5.99 for 1.5 liters)
Splurge: 1979 Georges Duboeuf Chiroubles ($7.99)
France's least-known and most-underrated red wine grape, the syrah produces the gloriously rich wines of the northern Rhone Valley -- hermitage, cornas and co te rotie. Syrah is also one of the important grapes used in the blend for chateauneuf du pape. It has had modest success in California, where it is usually bottled under the name of petite sirah. Australia also has had a great deal of luck with syrah; there it is called shiraz. The wine produced from syrah is very deeply colored with intense black-currant and exotic fruit aromas and viscous, tannic flavors. When vinified in the traditional manner, it is a wine that can age and improve for 10 or more years.
Thrift: 1979 Seppelt Shiraz ($5.49)
Splurge: 1979 Hermitage-Jaboulet ($20)
One of the major red wine grapes, grenache is usually misunderstood by consumers as the bland grape responsible for many of the innocuous rose' wines of California, France and Spain. While it is used to produce rose' wines, it reaches its real heights as the primary grape for chateauneuf du pape and gigondas. In warm climates, the red wine produced from grenache is heavy, perfumed, spicy and quite full bodied, as well as densely colored. Most wines made from grenache are best consumed within six to seven years of the vintage.
Thrift: 1978 Chateauneuf du Pape-Beaurenard ($8.99)
Splurge: 1978 Chateauneuf du Pape-Rayas ($24)