New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, USA and South America tend to have the name of the grape variety on the label. In Europe the labels are based on the defined region the wine comes from, and while these regions are restricted to being able to grow only specified grape varieties, unless you know the regions, it makes relating the wine to types you are familiar with a bit more difficult.
Here is a summary of the New Zealand and more well known European wine regions and the grape varieties associated with them. White wines have (w) and red wines (r). The colour of red wine grapes is in the skin, so by crushing the grape and separating the juice it is possible to make a white wine from the juice of a red grape.
This is the case in Champagne where 3 grape varieties are used; two red and one white to create white sparkling wine.
Principal grape varieties - Chardonnay, other aromatic varieties including Gewurztraminer
Often called the Chardonnay capital of New Zealand. Soils - Old river flats with fertile alluvial loams. Cooler then nearby Hawke's Bay and with higher rainfall, a climate that seems suited to chardonnay
Principal grape varieties - Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc
Second largest vineyard area in New Zealand and home of New Zealand's best known Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends, as well as Syrah. Soils - Mainly old alluvial plains with areas of relatively infertile sandy loams and the Gimblett Gravels which has very free draining stony soils. Warm day and night time temperatures with frequently the highest sunshine hours for NZ.
Principal grape varieties - Pinot noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc
Lots of small scale passionate winemakers in this region. Soils - River terraces, nice free draining stony soils, similar climate to Marlborough but warmer.
Principal grape varieties - Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc
The South Islands most northerly vineyard region. Soils - loams that certainly suit white wines and pinot noir Slightly cooler than Marlborough with higher rainfall
Principal grape varieties - Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris
Largest vineyard region in New Zealand, three principal regions are Wairau Valley, Awatere Valley and the Southern Valleys. If you separated the Wairau valley from the other areas, it would still be the largest vineyard area in NZ. Soils - River terraces which have a range of free draining stony soils and towards the valley side are areas of clay. Warm dry region with cool nights in autumn.
Principal grape varieties - Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc
Thirty minutes north of Christchurch, this is a wine region that totally accessible by a large city. Soils - From free draining chalky loams over gravels to Glasnevin clays. A cooler climate with hot days and chilled night and a long ripening Autumn.
Principal grape varieties - Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Chardonnay
Vineyards perched on the sides of mountains make this an extraordinary wine area to travel through. The world's most Southerly vineyards. Soils - in some vineyards it's almost "what soils", schist and silt soils with some vineyards growing on the tailing waste gravels from gold mining days. A short growing season that can have very high temperatures and often a long 'Indian summer'.
Champagne: wines made from Pinot Noir (w), Chardonnay(w) and Pinot Meunier(w).
Alsace: Wines made from Pinot Gris(w), Pinot Blanc(w), Riesling(w) and Gewurztraminer(w).
Loire Valley: Starting from the coast and following the river inland the grape varieties are Muscadet(w), Chenin Blanc(w), Cabernet Franc(r), Sauvignon Blanc (w) and Gamay(r).
Bordeaux: Sauvignon Blanc(w), Semillon(w), Cabernet Sauvignon(r), Merlot(r), Cabernet Franc(r)
Burgundy: Pinot Noir(r), Chardonnay(w)
Beaujolais: Chardonnay(w) Gamy(r)
Rhone Valley: Near the coast the red wine can contain numerous red grape varieties, the principle varieties are Grenache(r), Syrah(r), Mourvedre(r), Cinsaut(r), and as you move inland Syrah(r) and Viognier(w).
Italy produces a huge range of wines and styles from a range of grape varieties (estimated to be in excess of 2,000) that are to the most part unique to Italy. The most planted red grape is Sangiovese. In recent times we are seeing the introduction of more Italian varieties being planted in New Zealand, these include Arneis(w), Barbera(r), Dolcetto(r), Moscato(w), Montepulciano(r) Nebbiolo(r), Sangiovese(r), Trebbiano (r). Italy is also producing Pinot Grigio ( Pinot Gris) and growing Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
The principal grape varieties of Germany are Riesling(w) and Muller Thurgau(w) and Pinot Noir(r).
The best known Riesling wines are produced in the Rhine valley and the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer valleys. German riesling are defined by their residual sugar levels (sweetness) and while there are dry and off dry riesling the best have sweetness and range from Kabinett (dryer) through Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese to Trockenbeerenauslese (Sweet) which is only made in great years.
Spain like Italy has over 500 different grape varieties although most wine produced is from a comparatively meagre 20 varieties. Tempranillo(r) is the most widely planted grape in terms of the production of quality wine. The principle grape of Sherry is Palomino (w).
Regions, countries and varietals to watch
As we are being exposed to different grape varieties on store shelves, so too are we being shown different regions and even countries we were perhaps unaware of as wine producers. As well as different grape flavours, we are also seeing different wine making techniques that provide a range of styles and produce flavours that are both different and exciting.
One such example are the wines from Georgia, a country in the Caucasus region of Eurasia on the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe. Georgia was one of the earliest wine making regions, has been making wine for 8,000 years and has a large number of grape varieties relatively unknown outside of Georgia. Their most important red wine grape variety is Saperavi, producing deep red wines that are suitable for extended aging for up to 50 years and yet are very approachable when young. They are fermented in earthen amphorae called Kvebri, which restrict oxidation and produce wines that are often more fresh and fruity.
Portugal, long recognized for its fortified wines, is also producing red table wines using the old varieties like Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cao and Touriga Franc. These are fruity, bright and beautifully balanced wines. Traditionally wine grapes were only grown in a narrow band of latitude 30 to 50 North and 30 to 50 South. With developments in viticulture and new grape hybrids being created, that band of latitude is being pushed and extended, so we are now seeing countries like Mexico, Canada, Northern and Southern China and every State in the USA producing wine, as well as places like Thailand.
Here in New Zealand we are seeing the main grape growing regions being extended and expanded, as well as newer plantings in regions such as Waitaki Valley, Taumarunui and Ohau near Levin. We are also seeing the planting of varieties new to these shores, some of which are already becoming popular like Albarino, a medium bodied white wine originally from Spain and Portugal that’s great with seafood and often has a delightful salty note in the finish. Look out for varieties like Arneis (dry white medium bodied with notes of pear and apricot), Gruner Veltliner (dry white with citrus, white peach and herbs), Montepulciano, a red wine originally from Italy (dry red wine with blackberries and plums with a touch of dried herbs and firm tannins) and another Italian favorite from Tuscany, Sangiovese (dry red with red cherry and black plum characters along with a floral spice note).
There are lots of exciting plantings in the pipeline and grape varieties being either imported or grown here, so keep your eyes open for the new and exciting, and try them as they become available.