Describing grape varieties: red grapes

Right, just a bit of fun this week. If there’s one good way of trying to guess what the wine in a random bottle will taste like, it’s by knowing which grape variety (or varieties) it was made from. Sometimes, most commonly in New World countries, it states it on the label. With many of the famous names from the Old World, it will just have the name of the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) such as Chianti, Chablis or Rioja. These take a bit of decoding, but by law these PDOs always have to use the same grape variety (or blend of certain varieties). A quick search on the web will tell you what they are likely to contain.

All grapes have their own flavour profiles, which are more or less constant no matter where they are grown. Cabernet Sauvignon has a strong character, and will almost always be easily identifiable as such by the way it smells and tastes. Some grapes, like Pinot Gris, are more malleable and less obvious, with much of the character of the finished wine depending on where they are grown and what practices are used in the vineyard and the winery.

For the most commonly encountered grapes, I’ve written a few flavours or aromas that you might commonly find in the wines made from these grapes. But since not everyone can conjure the smell and flavour of damsons or pencil shavings just from the word alone, I’ve also tried a second way of expressing their character – through comparing them to a famous person.

If you can think of any others, or if you agree or disagree, leave your thoughts  in the box below. Next week – white grapes!


Cabernet Sauvignon     

Cassis, blackcurrant, pencil shavings, tobacco, green pepper.

Strong, handsome and unmistakable. Not always the most subtle, but very popular, especially in America. Improves with age like few others. Cabernet Sauvignon is George Clooney, Robert De Niro, or The Fonz.



Plum, prunes, blackberry.

Plump, fleshy and fruity. A crowd pleaser, but sometimes lets himself go a bit. Better in a team rather than by himself. When he is good he is very very good; but can also give a pretty forgettable performance when not challenged to give of his best. Merlot is Jack Nicholson, Jack Black and Danny DeVito.


Pinot Noir  

Strawberry, raspberry, dark cherry, mushroom, farmyard aromas.

Intellectual, mysterious, arty. Undeniably brilliant but can be wilfully awkward and contrary. Pinot Noir is Vincent Cassell, Kaiser Soze, and Bob Dylan.


Cabernet Franc   

Blackcurrant, blackcurrant bush, pencil lead, raspberry.

Hardly great in stature, and is a bit of an acquired taste. Flashes of genius, sometimes fails to make the grade. Cabernet Franc is Woody Allen, Jean-Paul Sartre.



Cherry, strawberry, raspberry, banana.

Sometimes a little lightweight, Gamay is also capable of greatness and beauty. Quintessentially pretty, but not without depth. Often underrated. Gamay is Audrey Tatou or Lucy Liu.



Blackberry, violets.

All too often know for his big, butch qualities, Malbec can also, in the right hands, give a measured performance. Once acquainted, you know what to expect from Malbec, so are rarely disappointed – but rarely surprised. Malbec is Sylvester Stallone, Ricky Martin, Morgan Freeman.



Bramble, damsons, prunes, compost.

Big and burly, a gentle giant. Characterful and amiable, but prone to clumsiness, as he doesn’t know his own strength. Mourvèdre is Gerard Depardieu, Martin Johnson, Joaquin Phoenix in full beard.



Strawberry, mocha, dried herbs, plums.

Hardly the most butch of grape varieties, but has a vital supporting role in many of the greatest of wines. Can also do great things in its own right. Grenache is Philip Seymour Hoffman and Nigel Slater.



Black fruits, black pepper, bacon.

Genetically the same variety, but very different in character. Syrah is lean, intense and brooding. It is Christian Bale. Shiraz is a bigger, bolder version; still impressive in stature and capable of a great performance, but without the nuance. It is Russell Crowe.



Roses, tar, cherries, liquorice, star anise.

Brooding, aristocratic and austere, but charismatic and captivating. Nebbiolo is Batman, Anthony Bourdain and Sherlock Holmes.



Cherry, violets, almonds.

Tall, lean and prone to being a little serious. Giorgio Locatelli, John McEnroe and José Mourinho.



Roses, leather, red and black fruits, tea.

No nonsense, firm, steadfast. Tempranillo is Zoro and Steve McQueen.


Touriga Nacional

Blackberry, floral.

Attractive and flamboyant, Touriga Nacional is the perfect match of beauty and brains. It is Maggie Gyllenhaal or Johnny Depp.



Strawberry, blackberry, nail varnish, damsons, sweet spices.

Either you love him or you hate him, Pinotage is a bit of an oddity, but with strong character if not charm. Shaun Ryder, Lembit Opik or Lemmy.



Blackberry, blackcurrant, tomato stalk, red pepper.

Big and burly, a bit rough round the edges and rarely intellectual but easy-going enough. Ronnie Wood or Shrek.



Liquorice, raisins, spice, ripe red berries, dark chocolate.

Big and strong with an American accent. Powerful but smooth with it. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Evander Holyfield, Barry White. If it tries to do rosé, you end up with Kindergarten Cop instead of The Terminator.


As for Carignan, I did him in detail a while ago here: Carignan the Barbarian. If you’d like to add any, just use the comments box below. We’ll do white grapes next week…