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The Vine

Black Grapes

  • Cabernet Sauvignon gives wines of a very different character than those made from Pinot Noir. This is because of the structure of the grape. Cabernet is a grape with smaller berries and a much thicker skin than Pinot. Since the color and tannin are found in the skin, wines made from Cabernet are deeply colored and have comparatively firmer tannins. The grapes are also less susceptible to rot.

    These wines usually have fairly crisp acidity, generous alcohol and full body. The fruit character has elements of blackcurrant, cedar, and violets. As it ages, it shows cedar, smoke, cigar box, tobacco and wet stones. The best wines show a deep color and very ripe fruit, while lesser wines have a washed-out look and a green bell pepper aroma.

    Extraction of color and tannins are fairly easy with Cabernet. Here the challenge is to ensure equilibrium in the wine, and avoid harsh tannins that can obscure the fruit, hence a gentle extraction is usually the preferred approach. Cabernet is often aged in oak because this helps to soften astringent tannins and blended with Merlot and other grapes to soften the natural austerity of the grape.

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  • Merlot is a common grape for blending with Cabernet that has only risen to prominence as a lead player in its own right in the last fifteen years or so. It buds and ripens more quickly and easily than Cabernet and has a thinner skin. This means that the wines are forward and fruit driven, with higher alcohol, but less tannin and acid to balance the fruit. The acidity drops precipitously at the end of the ripening cycle. The grape can also be prone to rot, although the bunches are fairly loose.

    The Bordeaux of the right bank (St. Emilion, Pomerol and surrounding communities) are much more reliant on Merlot than on Cabernet. The Merlot here is firm and structured because it is grown in cool, moist clay soils. This cool environment emphasizes the structure of Merlot, while gravel soils can make the Merlot soft and lacking in depth. Merlot is joined in right bank wines by Cabernet Franc, which is also well adapted to the region because it ripens sooner than Cabernet Sauvignon yet gives some of the same aromatic character.

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  • Within v. vinifera, there is a great diversity of varieties. One of the most interesting is Pinot Noir, which produces some of the most seductive and enchanting wines in the world. The grape is inconsistent, however, and the wines can vary from rich and full bodied, well-oaked styles to thin, sour pink wine. The main fruit aromas include cherry, raspberry, strawberry and plum jam. As the wine matures, it can show baked red fruits, violets, game, rotten vegetables and truffles.

    The quality of Pinot Noir is determined in large part by its physical structure. It is a variety that produces compact bunches, which can lead to rot in humid conditions. This is the reason that vintage variation is so important. Pinot also buds early and ripens early, and because of this the climate of the growing region is important, since acidity can drop and cooked flavors develop before complexity develops in warmer regions.

    Cooler regions have their own risks and since Pinot buds early, it can be susceptible to frost. Finally, Pinot has a thin skin, which means that the resulting wine will normally have soft tannin, light color and be susceptible to rot. Many critics complain that Pinot styles are overemphasizing extraction. Oz Clarke speaks of the “Cabernisation of Pinot” in his Encyclopedia of Grapes. In some regions, Pinot can be chaptalized to excessive alcohol, while in others, late picking can result in heavy, awkward wines with little charm.

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  • Cabernet Franc is an enigmatic grape; it is not very well regarded, yet composes 60% of the blend in many years at Château Cheval Blanc, one of the finest crus of the Right Bank of Bordeaux. It shows perfumed aromas of currants and violets and smoky red fruits with a characteristic “lead pencil” note. It can be green and unripe in poor years, with high acidity and moderate tannins. With Merlot, its most important terroir is the right bank of Bordeaux. Here, oak is traditionally used for maturation, but elsewhere it is less common, such as in the Loire Valley. Chinon and Bourgeuil are the most well-regarded appellations in this regions. Cabernet Franc is also grown in the Southwest of France as well as in Friuli.

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  • Syrah is widely regarded as one of the noblest grape varieties. Like Cabernet, the berries are small and the skin is thick. This produces deeply colored, tannic and full-bodied wines. Although Syrah from the Rhone and Shiraz from Australia are essentially the same grape, there is some clonal variation. The “grosse” clone is not true Syrah, it is actually Mondeuse. This variety is more vigorous and productive and correspondingly less interesting. The clone known as ”petite” is true Syrah, and this is the type planted in Australia. This is where confusion creeps in, however, because the grape called Petite Syrah in California is actually the Durif grape.

    On the nose, wines from warmer climates show aromas of savory roasted meats, bacon fat, tar and pepper. In cooler climates, it is much more common to show pure red and black berry fruit aroma, still with a peppery edge. Syrah takes a while to open up in bottle, and frequently is aged in oak. High yields can produce a grape with little color, prone to oxidation and high sugar levels. Like Merlot, acidity plunges at the end of ripening.

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  • Tempranillo is Spain’s signature black grape variety, at about 190,000 hectares, or around 500,000 acres, planted. The grape gets its name from the Spanish word ‘temprano,’ which means early, a reference to the grape’s quality to ripen early, often two weeks ahead of other red grapes. The tempranillo grape has many strains with different names in many wine regions across Spain; in Rioja it is known as Tempranillo, in Ribera del Duero it is called Tinto Fino or Tinta del Pais, in Toro it is named Tinta de Toro, in La Mancha and Valdepeñas the grape is Cencibel, in Cataluña it’s Ull de Llebre. All these grapes are genetically traceable to Tempranillo, but have mutated over centuries and adapted to the unique climate conditions and soil types of their respective regions. Rioja’s best winemakers say Tempranillo has a unique ability to transmit subtle and distinct differences in the terruño (terroir) that the vines are planted in. Top sommeliers place Tempranillo alongside the Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese grapes in their ability to produce versatile, “food friendly” wines.

    Winemakers often observe that Tempranillo is a reductive grape similar to Pinot Noir in that it will exhibit shy, backward aromas during barrel aging, but when mature the grape normally shows characters close to Pinot Noir: strawberry and red cherry aromas and flavors on the palate along with spicy, herbal and woodsy notes that place it apart. The best examples of Tempranillo combine the floral and berry depth and complexity of Burgundy; the spicy characters of the Rhône; and the suave, polished palate presence of Bordeaux. Older Gran Reservas from Rioja and Ribera del Duero develop alluring cigar box, leather and dried rose petal aromas. Rioja Gran Reservas made in the 1940s and 50s from legendary bodegas R. Lopez de Heredia, Viña Real and CVNE are still aging gracefully, as are Ribera del Dueros from Vega Sicilia, perhaps Spain's most prestigious producer. For ultimate quality, wines such as these can stand next to any First Growth Bordeaux, Grand Cru Burgundy or Rhône.

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  • Grenache is the backbone of the wines of the southern Rhone valley, and the second-most widely planted black variety in the world. This grape originated in Spain, where it's called Garnacha, and was brought to France in the eighth century. It is a thin-skinned grape with loose bunches that ripens late and is prone to oxidation. When it ripens to very high sugar levels it produces high-alcohol wines with high sugar, low acid (oxidizing easily) and light color. When grown in higher elevation, cool climate vineyards, as in Sardinia (where the grape is known as Cannonau) and some regions of Spain and France, the wines can show low sugar, low alcohol, fresh berry fruit and vibrant acidity. The aroma is typically expressive red berry fruit with herbal, spicy and peppery notes.

    Grenache is often grown in poorer regions in bush-trained vines. The best examples of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Priorat and other regions in Spain show the great possibility of this grape.

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  • Cinsaut also plays a role in the wines of the southern Rhone. The grape is widely planted, and gives a wine that has more acidity and color than Grenache, but fairly low tannin. Cinsaut is also one parent in the Pinotage hybrid that is ubiquitous in South Africa; the other is Pinot Noir.

    Mourvedre has become well known as a Rhone varietal. In fact, it originated in Spain, where it is known as Monastrell and where it is second only to Garnacha. It produces wines that are high in acid and tannin, and has pronounced aroma of blackberry. It is a featured player in Jumilla and Yecla in Spain, France's Bandol and in California it is called Mataro.

    Carignan is also a significant Rhone grapes and is also native to Spain, where it is called Cariñena. It produces wine with forward, red berry fruit and earthy, spicy notes, deep color, mid- to high-alcohol, high extract and high tannin. Old-vine Carignan is found in France's Languedoc, and produces concentrated, characterful wines. The best examples come from Spain's region of Rioja, where it is called Mazuelo, as well as Priorat and its neighboring region of Montsant. Carbonic maceration has proven successful.

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  • Gamay produces deeply colored wines with high acidity, low tannin, medium body, low to moderate alcohol, and a fruity grape aroma. The fruity character is often made more pronounced through the use of carbonic maceration. In addition to its traditional home in the southern Burgundy region of Beaujolais, it is also blended with Pinot Noir in Switzerland.

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  • The most widely planted fine wine variety in Italy is Sangiovese. Several clones exist, including Grosso (Prugnolo, Brunello, Morellino), which is widely planted and ripens earlier than other clones. The Piccolo (Sangioveto) has tighter bunches, smaller grapes. Sangiovese often lacks deep color, and is subject to oxidation. It can produce a wine relatively high in acidity and low in extract, with medium sugar, and medium to high tannins. It has a tart cherry, earthy aroma, and is often blended with Cabernet to give it forward fruit. Sangiovese di Romagna is a separate grape with its own clones. Yield is generally higher, but quality is not necessarily lower.

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  • Nebbiolo is considered the finest grape of Italy, used in such renowned wines as Barolo, Barbaresco and Gattinara. A difficult grape to grow, it is one of the last to ripen, and it is prone to mutation. The different clones include the Lampia, which gives yield, colour, body and perfume, the Michet which has low yield but gives good structure (thought to be the best clone), and Rose which has a low yield and light body, but gives perfume to the blend. Although it is fairly low in coloring agents (anthocyanins), Nebbiolo is high in tannin.

    The classic descriptor for Nebbiolo is “tar and roses” on the nose, although the mineral component is minimized in some of the more modern styles. Recent years have seen an increase in the use of small French barrels for aging Nebbiolo, so that the sweet spice of new barrels is not uncommon now. On the palate, Nebbiolo-based wines are tannic and structured, with the ability to age gracefully for 30–50 years.

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  • Barbera is considered the second grape of Piedmont. It is high in acidity, low in tannins, and high in coloring agents. Barbera d’Alba is firmer, with more structure, while Barbera d'Asti is suppler with more finesse and is less full bodied. Some modern producers age their best Barberas in small French oak which can produce wines that are international in style and are priced closer to Nebbiolo.

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  • Dolcetto is the everyday grape of the Piemontese farmer. It gives a deep purple wine with soft tannins, low acids, and moderate alcohol. The fruit character is fairly neutral and some describe it as showing mulberry and quince aromas.

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  • In the Northeast, Corvina gives wines with crisp acidity, low tannins and fairly light color, although two clones exist, and the one known as Corvinone gives deeper-colored wine higher in alcohol and tannin. Rondinella and Molinara are used in the same areas as Corvina, since they ripen earlier, although they have less aroma and finesse.

    Aglianico is a warm-weather grape from the south that gives wine that is rustic and full-bodied, but shows good depth of character. It is considered the best black grape of Southern Italy, and is grown in Campania, Calabria, Apulia, and Basilicata, where it is known as the base of Taurasi and Aglianico del Vulture. The fruit has a ripe red and black berry nose with a distinct earthy, minerally note chock full of wild herbs and spices.

    Other black varieties from the south of Italy include Piedirosso from Campagnia and Uva di Troia from Puglia, both of which show great potential. They are mostly used in blends. Negroamaro from Puglia is thick skinned; giving dark, tannic wine with a tart berry edge, and the best wines have a hearty, rustic edge. It is popular in the Salento peninsula. Nero d’Avola, used in Sicily (notably in Corvo), gives full body and ripe, dark berry, herb-inflected earthy fruit.

    Primitivo from Puglia is a relative of the American Zinfandel by way of Croatia. It formerly gave high alcohol wines used for blending, but better examples show robust, brambly, black currant or raisined aromas and spicy flavors on the palate. When it ripens unevenly, it can show ripe and unripe, green flavors at the same time.

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  • The traditional Port grapes are also very popular for Portuguese table wine: the Touriga Nacional grown in the Douro and the Dao is a grape that produces tannic, alcoholic wines with a pronounced rustic red and black fruit aroma. Tinta Amarela (known as Trincadeira in Alentejo) also produces a characteristic deeply coloured, fruity wines. Baga, used in Bairrada, has a thick skin, giving rustic wines with deep color and high tannins. Castelao Frances (known as Periquita in the Alentejo) has a silkier texture and is softer and more aromatic than Baga.

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  • Carmenère, almost unknown in Bordeaux vineyards today, this grape was widely grown in the Médoc in the early 18th century. It is a relatively vigorous variety but is prone to coulure, a malady wherein early during the vegetative season, the grapes exhibit a poor fruit set and soon after flowering the very small berries fall off the vine prematurely. Vine diseases aside, the grape produces small quantities of markedly dark, full-bodied wines with a distinct, spicy and herbal green-leaf edge. Similar to Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec (other varieties notable for their use as blending grapes in Bordeaux), Carmenère is currently enjoying a newfound popularity among winemakers around the world. Similar to Malbec in Argentina, Carmenère has become the signature grape in Chile, where it was discovered in 1994. Originally believed to be Merlot, it is thought that it was brought from Bordeaux in the late 19th century. It ripens later than Cabernet Sauvignon and has been widely planted in Chile and northern Italy.

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