Grape Varieties

There are scores of different grape types, yet only a fraction are used as the sole components of a given wine. Such wines, made either exclusively or mostly from one grape type, are called "varietals." Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot and Pinot Noir among the reds, and Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, of the whites, are responsible for most of them. Other grapes are usually used for blending with those stars of the vine, to soften them, add complexity or impart some other quality. Here are some of the most common grapes you'll encounter in the wines you consume.


A hearty red often used for blending, Barbera is grown almost exclusively in California and Italy.

Cabernet Sauvignon

The most prized grape used for making red wines. With small berries and low-yields, it starts out at a premium, and the resulting wines are richly flavored and colored. In California, it's quite often featured in wines devoid of other grape varieties. In France, it's used as the foundation of red wines from Bordeaux, though it's usually blended with other varieties.

Cabernet Franc

On its own, Cabernet Franc creates a light-bodied red wine, but it's seldom used exclusively. In France, it's often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, to soften the strong character of its more noteworthy cousin.


This grape comes from the part of France bordering Italy, and it creates a medium-bodied, fruity red wine. It has found several fans among Northern California winemakers.


The premier grape used in making white wines, its powerful flavor and character make it the one white wine type that lends itself to any degree of aging and exposure to oak storage. It's also the mainstay of most fine sparkling wines.

Chenin Blanc

A grape prone to creating light, young fruity, wines. It may be presented in wines that come across as almost-dry or only slightly sweet, or it may be blended with other white varieties to make a generic white--"Chablis"--or as a minority partner in a wine labeled as Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.

Fume Blanc

Another name for the white Sauvignon Blanc, contrived because so many people confused the latter with the red Cabernet Sauvignon.


The mainstay of the French Beaujolais, this grape lends itself to simple, light, red wines or roses. It's fruity flavor is its most dominant characteristic, and the grape found almost exclusively in France or California.


This white grape is used to create complex wines notable for their fruity and spicy flavors. Gewurztraminer is usually presented in wines that tend toward sweetness, and it's most common in Germany, Austria, Northern Italy, the Alsace, California and New Zealand.


Perhaps the most common red wine grape in the world, it's usually used for blending in red wines or for creating especially fruity roses.


A well-respected red grape, until recently it was usually blended with Cabernet Sauvignon in order to moderate the latter's sometimes overpowering features. In Bordeaux, it's often blended with Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Now, especially in California, it's being presented as a great variety in its own right, in wines labeled as "Merlot."


A family of grapes rather than merely a variety, they range in color from white to red to almost black. Muscat may have been the grape used by the ancient Greeks and Romans to make wine, and is now found throughout the world. The grapes are usually used for sweet wines with a heavy, grapey flavor.


A variety seldom found outside of Italy, Nebbiolo creates a dark, flavorful red wine with high acids, making it a natural for a heavy exposure to oak and long aging; it's most common in the wines known as Barolo and Barbaresco.

Pinot Noir

A top red grape that produces lighter wines than Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, it's the mainstay of French Burgundies. It's sometimes difficult to grow, however, and away from Burgundy the results are often spotty. At its best, Pinot Noir lends itself to a rich, complex, medium-bodied wine; quite often it's merely mediocre. It may be the most inconsistent of all red grapes, the flavors heavily dependent on where it's grown.


This native of Italy's Tuscany leads to a rich, soft, red wine. Several avant garde California vintners have been developing wines from this grape since the beginning of the '90s.

Sauvignon Blanc

The most well-respected white grape after Chardonnay, it's used to create dry wines with a slightly fruitier quality than typically found in the latter. Blended with Semillon, it becomes the sweet dessert wine, Sauterne.


A white grape sometimes used to make moderately sweet wines or for blending with Suavignon Blanc to make the very sweet Sauterne. Occasionally, it may be used to make a dry white, and it ages well. Generally, however, it is thought to be a an undistinguished grape that results in forgettable wines.


A red grape, at its best Syrah makes a rich-yet-soft wine that resembles a Cabernet that's been blended with something to moderate the latter's heavy taste. It's a component of the French Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and it's very popular in Australia, where it's called Shiraz.


This grape somewhat resembles Pinot Noir in character, and it's the basis of many of the best Spanish reds.


A white grape that creates a wine equivalent to Sauvignon Blanc, it's provenance is French, but it has become popular with California winemakers over the last several years.


This heavy-flavored red grape becomes a rich, full-bodied red wine that compares favorably with Cabernet Sauvignon. California claims the best of it, though the grape came to the New World from unknown beginnings in Europe during the 1850s. In an interesting twist, during the mid-1980s, California winemakers started making a sweet blush dessert wine from the grape, called White Zinfandel.