Know the grape variety, and you can understand the wine. There is some truth to this statement when so many wines are varietals. That is the term used when a wine is named after the dominant grape variety.
There are so called “noble” varieties, elevated to the grape variety peerage because of excellence over the years. I will try to give a brief guide of each and an explanation of where they can be found at their best.
The king of reds is still the all-conquering Cabernet Sauvignon. It produces wines that are full-bodied, tannic with a blackcurrant aroma, a hint of cigar box, cedar wood and a green bell-pepper character.
The finest region for the production of classic Cabernet Sauvignons is the Haut Medoc in France, north of the city of Bordeaux. Wines like Chateau Lafite Rothschild and Chateau Mouton Rothschild are usually made of three or potentially five grape varieties, but the Cabernet Sauvignon is always the dominant wine in the blend.
A second choice for the finest examples of Cabernet Sauvignons would be California’s Napa Valley. They are normally riper, richer, fuller and with higher alcohol than the leaner French versions.
In Israel, Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted grape variety. At the top end of the spectrum, Israel’s finest wines to date seem to be either Cabernet Sauvignons or Bordeaux- style blends based on Cabernet Sauvignon.
Merlot wines are softer, rounder and less tannic than their Cabernet cousins. The wines tend to be medium-bodied with an aroma of ripe plums and blackberries and a supple texture.
There is one place in the world where Merlot reaches heights that do not come near anywhere else. That is also in Bordeaux, but on the right bank of the Dordogne River, in the areas called St. Emilion and Pomerol. The fearsomely expensive Chateau Petrus is usually more than 90 percent Merlot.
Elsewhere in the world, Merlot may be at its most accessible in Chile, which produces juicy, fruity and good-value Merlots.
There are also some good Italian Merlots, particularly from the west coast of Tuscany, home of the Super Tuscans.
In Israel, Merlot is the third most planted grape variety. A few wineries have very good prestige Merlots, but the grape is most commonly found playing a supporting role in Bordeaux blends.
If Cabernet Sauvignon grows everywhere with success, Pinot Noir is the opposite. It is a grape variety that can give you the most sublime experience possible in a glass, but more often than not it disappoints because the grape is fickle and difficult to grow well.
The Pinot Noir is at its finest in the Burgundy region of France, particularly in the area known as the Cote d’Or. The wine will be comparatively light-bodied, without the deep color of Cabernet and Merlot. It will have aromas of raspberries, cherries and strawberries. And the greater red Burgundies will have earthy aromas of truffles, a gamey character and what is described as “forest floor.”
Other areas for the best Pinot Noirs outside Burgundy are Oregon in the United States and New Zealand.
In Israel, only a few wineries make a Pinot Noir. It is really a cool climate wine, and Israel is too hot and humid to make it well. Even so, for those wishing to taste the Israeli versions, they are not bad wines but will never be great ones.
Syrah is the great variety of the Northern Rhone in France. The same grape is known as Shiraz in Australia.
The Rhone Syrahs are full-bodied with aromas of blackberry, raspberry, black pepper, with hints of leather and even a smoked meat character.
The Australian Shiraz is often more aromatic, richer and spicier. It has become the red wine variety most associated with Australia.
In Israel, it is Shiraz that appears more often. Some wineries will name wines from the Australian clone Shiraz and from the French clone Syrah. Anyway, whatever the name, both Shiraz and Syrah are newcomers and have only come to Israel in the last 15 years. However, whereas Cabernet Sauvignon only really fulfills its potential here at high altitudes, Shiraz seems to grow well everywhere. There are some worldclass Israeli examples that have received international recognition. Some believe it will challenge King Cabernet in the future.
Chardonnay is the world’s favorite white grape. It grows well everywhere and almost anywhere. Put a bit of wood in the ground, and it will grow up as Chardonnay.
The full-bodied oaky style Chardonnay is made best in Burgundy. These wines are often fermented in oak and then aged on their lees. The result is a creamy, buttery, nutty wine with a touch of tropical fruit on the nose and exquisitely balanced acidity. Try a Corton Charlemagne, Puligny Montrachet or Meursault from a top producer, and you will never want to drink a blowsy, high-alcohol, overoaked Chardonnay again.
The other extreme is the unoaked style of Chardonnay, which is becoming more in vogue. Chablis is the finest expression of an unoaked Chardonnay. A good Chablis is light, crisp, steely and minerally with an appley aroma.
The best country for Chardonnay outside France is Australia. Its latest Chardonnays are more subtly oaked than in the past.
In Israel, the best white wine from a winery is, more often than not, a Chardonnay.
They range from the richer peaches and cream style to the new trend of lightly or unoaked versions that are more refreshing.
Sauvignon Blanc is medium-bodied white wine that is very aromatic, almost pungent. Its aromas include gooseberries, cut grass and tropical fruits. Legendary wine writer Jancis Robinson MW once termed the nose as “cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush” – one of the most quoted tasting notes of all time.
It is the cool climate of New Zealand, particularly Marlborough on the South Island, where they have mastered the art of cramming in more fruit to their Sauvignon Blancs than anywhere else on the planet. The other best Sauvignons come from the Loire Valley in central France.
Sancerre and Pouilly Fume are grassier, more minerally and more restrained than their New Zealand counterparts.
Sauvignon Blanc was the first quality dry white wine grape variety to be planted in Israel. However, it is only since the beginning of the 2000s that Israeli wineries have been able to make good Sauvignon Blancs, usually from high-altitude vineyards. These are excellent food wines and perfect for the climate.
In Europe, Riesling wines are labeled… Riesling. In America, they are known as White Riesling and in Australia Rhine Riesling.
In Israel, they are sometimes labeled Johannisberg Riesling. Whatever it is, this is the great noble Riesling and has nothing to do with the many other Rieslings such as Emerald Riesling, Laski Riesling or Welsch Riesling.
Riesling is one of the finest white wines in the world when produced in Germany, particularly from the cool-climate Mosel or Rhine regions. The wines will be light, with a delicate perfume of wild flowers and lime. Sweeter wines will have a hint of honeysuckle, and older ones will develop a slatey, petrol character. All will have a piercing balancing acidity.
The second-best place for Rieslings is Alsace. These Rieslings are fuller bodied, more oily in texture but also wonderful wines.
Riesling is a grape variety that thrives in cooler climates than Israel; however, there are one or two surprising good Rieslings from Israeli wineries.
These are the seven most noble grape varieties. They will have the same basic characteristics wherever they are grown.
Get to know these, and you will have a good idea of what to expect when you taste the wine.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications.