Updated: Oct 7, 2021
From the (late) Greenwich Citizen:
Uvephobia is the fear of trying new grapes, or wines. Uvephobia is a disease with a cure, but it continues to run rampant despite our greatest efforts to eradicate it. In young populations, this is primarily due to a lack of information; in older groups, it happens because individuals continue to make unsafe buying decisions despite the alternatives that are available.
So how does a shopper navigate the wine shop’s variety more effectively? Geography is the most precise indicator of quality in a bottle of wine, but memorizing appellations is cumbersome. Rote learning of grape varieties gives us the illusion of neat comparability, but varietal style varies by location.
You may prefer the concept of Grape Archetypes. This system breaks grape varieties down into three tiers. The top tier consists of five grapes chosen for their color, weight on the palate, and abundance (or lack) of fragrance. The choices are somewhat arbitrary, but these grapes are famous, easy to memorize, and will help you organize the second and third tier.
The top tier consists of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay. Cabernet is relatively neutral, it has very strong tannins, and can produce either fruit-forward wines (think Napa), or more neutral wines that pick up flavors as they age.. It is perfect with steak. Zinfandel (AKA, Primitivo) has high alcohol levels, low acidity, huge fruit, and can be rich. It is good alone or with barbecue. Pinot Noir is light in color and weight, but these belie its subtle perfume and strong red fruit and earthy flavors. It is great for game or duck.
Riesling has wonderful perfume, an unmatched, complex palate of flavors, and racy acidity that refreshes the palate. It goes with Asian and Indian food or as an aperitif. Chardonnay, like Cabernet, is neutral, and picks up what the winemaker gives it. When buttery and oaky, it is fantastic with chicken and fish. Steely, like Chablis, it is the perfect accompaniment to lobster.
It pays handsome dividends to try different examples of the first-tier wines. Try a California or Australian Cabernet next to one of the Cabernet-dominant blends of Bordeaux one evening. For Chardonnay, try a Chablis next to a Meursault, Chassagne, or Puligny. Or save some money by tasting a generic white Burgundy next to a Macon or a Pouilly-Fuisse. Best yet, try a California or Chilean Chardonnay next to a Burgundy, or next to each other.
Compare an Alsatian or German Riesling with one from California, Washington State, or Australia. Or compare Rieslings from different areas within Alsace or Germany! For Pinot Noirs, the differences between Burgundy and Oregon or California are striking, as are the contrasts between Oregon and California Pinots.
The second tier varieties match their first-tier archetypes in many of the aspects cited above, but they are often more interesting because of their own specific flavors and textures. The second tier follows below; the differences between them and their archetypes are in parentheses.
Cabernet Sauvignon’s second tier includes Cabernet Franc (softer on the palate), Merlot (juicier, less tannic), Syrah/Shiraz (spicier, more complex), and Tempranillo (softer tannins, more earthiness). Zinfandel’s second tier includes Aglianico (more restrained, more balanced), Malbec (more blueberry and balance), Mourvedre (more bramble, but also more velvet), Petite Sirah (juicier, grapier), Tannat (great tannins, violet fruit, beautiful velvetiness), Touriga Nacional (the Port grape; amazing richness). Pinot Noir’s second tier includes Gamay (think Beaujolais), Barbera and Dolcetto (light, refreshing) and two grapes that cross over categories: Grenache (light, red fruit or medium weight, dark fruit) and Corvina (the grape in Amarone: noble as Pinot Noir, but richness akin to Zinfandel).
Riesling’s second tier has Gewuertztraminer (lighter, more spice), Sauvignon Blanc (perfumy, lighter, different flavor notes), Verdejo (still perfumy, but less distinct), and Viognier (lighter, notes of honey, lavender, but be careful: French Viognier is very dry, American is sweet). Chardonnay’s second tier is Chenin Blanc (honey, elderflower), Pinot Blanc (honey tones when aged), Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris (indistinct and neutral from Italy’s Veneto; get one from Alsace, Oregon, or Italy’s Alto Adige or Collio) and Semillon (soft and round, Australia has great ones).
The third tier is where things get really interesting for the buyer who is patient. They are harder to find, but represent great values, great flavors, and interesting food matches. Cabernet Sauvignon’s third tier is Bonarda, Carmenere, Nero d’Avola, Pinotage, and Xynomavro. Zinfandel’s is Carignan. Pinot Noir’s is Blaufraenkisch (AKA Lemberger), Lagrein, Lambrusco, St. Laurent, and Zweigelt. For Riesling, they are Muller-Thurgau, Assyrtiko, Laski Rizling, Melon de Bourgogne (Muscadet’s grape), Picpoul, and Roussanne. And for Chardonnay, they are Cortese, Albarino, Arneis, Fiano, Gruener Veltliener, Macabeo (AKA, Viura), Marsanne, and Torrontes.
Please also note that I did not include Nebbiolo (the grape in Barolo and Barbaresco), Sangiovese (the grape in virtually all of Tuscany’s wines, including Chianti), or Muscat (AKA, Moscato). These grapes are in a class by themselves. They produce some of the finest wines on earth, but the rose petal scent and complexity of Nebbiolo, the acidity and richness of Sangiovese, and the perfume of Small-grain Muscat are so unique that they do not fit easily into the above categories.