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A Breakdown of Wine Varieties

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A Breakdown of Wine Varieties
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With more than 10,000 different wine grape varieties in the world today, the process of selecting which wine to pair with your meal can be challenging. The options are seemingly endless, and span across many regions, flavor profiles, naming conventions, and price points.

Let’s untangle the nebulous web of wine and take a look at what makes each grape variety unique.

Variety vs. Varietal

Before we take a deep dive into the various wine grape varieties, it’s important to clarify two of the most common words used when describing wine: variety and varietal. These two words are often used interchangeably, but they have distinct definitions.

Variety refers to the kind of grape that’s used in the wine (i.e. Chardonnay grapes). Varietal, on the other hand, refers to a wine that is largely or entirely made from a single grape variety (i.e. Chardonnay wine).

Varietal labels are more common with New World wines (i.e. Pinot Noir), as Old World wines are most often labeled with their production region (i.e. Burgundy). To learn more about New World wines versus Old World wines, please see our article Wine Grapes at a Glance.

Demystifying Wine Labels

While thousands of wine grape varieties are grown worldwide, there is a much shorter list of commonly found wines within the United States. To help you decipher often-cryptic wine labels, here are twelve wine grape varieties you’re likely to see within the U.S., separated by white and red:

Red Wine Grape Varieties

Pinot Noir

Pinot noir grapes are one of the most sought-after varieties globally. Originally from the Burgundy region in France, these blue-violet grapes are difficult to grow and make some of the world's most remarkable wines given their delicate and complex flavor.

Pinot noir varietals are almost always dry, meaning that most of the sugar from the grape juice was converted to alcohol in the fermentation process. Pinot noir grapes ripen earlier than most other varieties and their taste can change considerably depending on the region. Since they prefer a cooler climate, farmers in Northern California and the Willamette Valley in Oregon produce some of the top pinot noir grapes in the U.S. Their flavors are reminiscent of strawberry, cranberry, and mushrooms.

Due to the fact that pinot noir grapes are notoriously complex, requiring advanced skills to produce pinot noir, this varietal is typically more expensive than other red varietals; an Oregon pinot noir can set a buyer back $30-$40.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon is the world’s most popular red wine grape and favored by winegrowers worldwide due to its adaptability to various climates and soils. While Cabernet Sauvignon has its roots in the Bordeaux region in France, it enjoys wide popularity in the American market, particularly among Napa Valley growers.

This is a full-bodied wine with higher-than-average levels of tannins and alcohol, and a flavor profile that changes depending on its region of origin. While French Cabernet Sauvignon varietals are known for flavor notes of currant, anise, tobacco, and graphite, Californian varietals feature notes of mint and blackberry.

Due to the Cabernet Sauvignon grape’s flexibility and adaptability, buyers can find excellent bottles at almost any price point, from under $10 to close to $1,000.

Cabernet Franc

While perhaps most well-known as the “parent” grape to both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes, Cabernet Franc’s unique flavor profile is deserving of acclaim in its own right. While most Cabernet Franc grapes are grown in France, they are rising in popularity in other wine-making countries, with substantial acreage in Italy and the United States.

Cabernet Franc can be grown in a variety of growing climates, with each region producing markedly different flavors. In the warm growing regions of California, Cabernet Franc varietals exhibit stronger fruit flavors, while cooler regions deliver notes of pepper and crushed gravel.

The Sierra Foothills growing region offers a particularly strong fruit-forward Cabernet Franc varietal with budget-friendly price points of around $20 per bottle. In other prime European growing regions, typical bottles are more expensive at around $70 per bottle.

Petite Sirah

Petite Sirah grapes are small, intensely-flavored red grapes. While almost exclusively grown in California, Petite Sirah wine is highly prized worldwide for its deep, opaque color and bold fruit flavors. The grape’s high skin-to-fruit ratio produces a jammy-flavor with high acidity and tannins.

A handful of California microclimates are particularly well-suited for Petite Sirah production, from the warm and dry Central Valley, to the famed Napa Valley and Sonoma County, to the Sierra Foothills, where cool nights allow for prolonged ripening. For generations, these grapes were solely used to create wine blends; in recent decades, the Petite Sirah varietal has grown in popularity thanks to its bold, memorable flavors.

While the average price of a Petite Sirah bottle ranges from $18-$25, the Lodi growing region in California’s Central Valley produces superb varietals for as low as $10 per bottle.

Syrah

Syrah grapes, also known as Shiraz in Australia, originally hail from France; however, they have gained popularity and a cult-like following around the New World over the last several decades. Today, Syrah grapes are commonly found in Australia, California, Oregon, and Washington.

These grapes lend to some of the darkest colored and fullest-bodied wines in the world, high in tannins and alcohol content. Their wines are known to deliver a strong berry and chocolate flavor at first sip, with an aftertaste of pepper.

Syrah varietals produced in cooler climates like Sonoma County are known to exhibit more perfume-like flavors, while southern California growing regions like Santa Barbara County produce softer, fruitier notes.

High quality bottles of Syrah typically cost around $50, but with price points available across the spectrum.

Merlot

Merlot grapes, made famous among American audiences in the Napa Valley, have played a central role in European wine production for centuries. With flavors of cherry, chocolate and vanilla, Merlot is considered “softer” than many other red varieties and is often used in red wine blends.

In the 1990s, Merlot was often looked down upon as an overly-sweet, boring wine (a reputational problem made worse by the famous wine movie, Sideways), but West Coast producers have made excellent strides in recent years to produce stronger, and more complex Merlots. In particular, Washington State’s Columbia Valley is producing more acidic, interesting Merlot varietals that would silence the nay-sayers of the 1990s.

The average cost of a Washington or California Merlot is around $10 per bottle.  

Zinfandel

Zinfandel is a dark-skinned grape that imparts strong fruit flavors and high alcohol content to wine. While most Zinfandel grapes are used to produce red wine, they can also be used to produce White Zinfandel, a popular rosé. Additionally, while Zinfandel originally hails from Croatia, the United States now grows 70% of the world’s Zinfandel grapes.

Zinfandel varietals exhibit fruity, and often smoky, flavors, with a notably high alcohol content of over 15%, and it grows especially well in warm, sunny climates like California’s Central Valley.

Zinfandel is an economical choice for wine-buyers, with an average price per bottle of $10.

White Wine Grape Varieties

Chardonnay

Chardonnay grapes are a success story. They are an old variety, originally hailing from the Burgundy region of France and one of the three grape varieties used to make Champagne. Chardonnay’s success continued into the New World, with grapes that are mercurial, meaning they contain a wide range of aromas and tastes that are highly influenced by climate and soils.

The Chardonnay grape is considered a “winemaker’s grape,” because it is also heavily impacted by the production method (i.e. whether the grape was aged in oak or steel barrels). Non-oaked chardonnays are often described as crisp, with flavors of apple and starfruit. Oaked chardonnay is buttery, with strong vanilla notes.

Chardonnay is one of the most widely-planted grapes in the world and is highly adaptable to a wide variety of climates. While France is the leading producer, the United States is close behind.

High-quality Chardonnays typically run between $10-$40 per bottle.

Pinot Grigio

Pinot Grigio, also known as Pinot Gris, is a gray-purple grape that is typically light-bodied and acidic. Originally grown in the Burgundy region of France, Pinot Grigio grapes are well-adapted to cooler climates, and they produce a zesty wine with notes of lemon, raw almonds, and crushed gravel.

Pinot Grigio’s higher-than-average alcohol content lends to a fuller, silky body. In the United States, Pinot Grigio is popular among Oregon growers due to the state’s cool climate.

A typical bottle of Pinot Grigio is approximately $15-$20.

Chenin Blanc

Chenin Blanc grapes have a long history; though they have been grown in France for over 1,000 years, there are now more Chenin Blanc grapes grown in California than in France. However, in the U.S. Chenin Blanc is rarely grown as a varietal given the grape’s popularity in blending.

Chenin Blanc on its own is highly acidic, making it an excellent choice for dessert wines, with notes of quince, chamomile, and honey. It is also versatile; Chenin Blanc grows well in a variety of soils and climates, and it can be made into a variety of styles from dry to dessert to sparkling.

A high quality bottle of Chenin Blanc will likely cost around $25.

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc is a green-skinned grape that originated in the Burgundy region of France—often characterized as “pungent,” wines from Sauvignon Blanc are dry, acidic, and pack an aromatic punch.

Like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc grapes are highly versatile in terms of growing climates, and can be aged in oak barrels to modify flavor and aroma. Today, Sauvignon Blanc grapes enjoy worldwide popularity, especially for U.S. consumers. Within the United States, California is home to the vast majority of Sauvignon Blanc vines, but Oregon’s Willamette Valley is quickly bringing new, well-crafted Sauvignon Blanc varietals to market.

This varietal is an economic choice for many drinkers, with the average cost of a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc around $10.

Riesling

Riesling wines are often found in cooler, northern climates. These small, compact grapes lend themselves well to sweet wine production, yet the flavor is highly dependent on the region in which it is grown.

Riesling wines are high in acidity and low in alcohol content, with notes of beeswax, lime, and jasmine. The Riesling grape originated in Germany but has since gained popularity in the New World, particularly in New Zealand and the United States. New York, Michigan, Washington, California, and Oregon are all well-suited for growing Riesling grapes.

The average price for a bottle of American Riesling is around $19.

French Colombard

Rarely grown as a varietal in the United States, French Colombard grapes, with its origins in southwest France, are popular with California winemakers specifically for blending with other white wines.

French Colombard grapes have a fairly neutral taste, with light notes of melon and apple, making them favorable for table wine, and they are grown extensively in California’s Central Valley. In fact, today there are more French Colombard grapes grown in California than in all of France.

Growth in the Global Wine Industry

Though the wine market is fragmented by region, grape variety, and production methods, the industry is experiencing robust growth; the global wine market is projected to grow at a CAGR of 6.2% from 2021 to 2028. This growth is driven by the rising adoption of wine among all age groups, shifting consumer preferences toward innovative varieties, and a shift in traditional sales channels as e-commerce takes center stage.

By investing in U.S. vineyards through FarmTogether, investors have the opportunity to dip into the rich history of global wine production while also reaping the benefits of a high-value crop with rising demand.

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Disclaimer: FarmTogether is not a registered broker-dealer, investment adviser or investment manager. FarmTogether does not provide tax, legal or investment advice. This material has been prepared for informational and educational purposes only. You should consult your own tax, legal and investment advisors before engaging in any transaction.

Sara Spaventa
Director, Growth and Marketing
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