Grape Varietal Wine Tasting Themes:
Cabernet Wine Tasting

cabernet wine tastingA cabernet wine tasting or other grape varietal-based tasting is one of the classic wine tasting themes. A grape variety is a breed or variation of the Vitis vinifera species of grapes that all wines are made from. In plain English, this means that although all grapes are related by species, they vary dramatically from one type to the next. Think about domestic dogs. They are all the same species, they can all breed with each other, yet each breed is distinctly different with unique characteristics. The same goes for grape varietals.

You've probably heard of many grape varietals even if you don't realize it. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Zinfandel are some of the more common red varietals we see wine made from. For white wines, varietals like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Grigio are equally common and widespread. There are literally hundreds of red and white wine grape varietals but only a handful of them are most important in your knowledge of fine wine.

One great way to learn about the differences and unique characteristics of each grape varietal is to host a grape varietal-based wine tasting theme such as a Cabernet wine tasting. By comparing several wines made from primarily the same grape you start to see similarities and you can build a picture in your mind of what is typical for that varietal of grape. So lets get started!

  • So what is a grape varietal wine tasting or Cabernet wine tasting anyway?
    This is a tasting where you only taste wines which are primarily made from the same grape varietal. Therefore you can have a Cabernet wine tasting, or you can have a Merlot wine tasting, or a Chardonnay wine tasting. There are many possibilities. All the wines do not have to be from the same region or even the same country necessarily, and that is part of the fun. You can compare the differences between a Merlot from Napa Valley versus one from Bordeaux in France. This helps build your knowledge of the characteristics of each individual wine grape varietal so that you know what to expect from a wine.
  • How do you pick the wines for a grape varietal wine tasting? Don't some wines contain a blend of many types of grapes?
    The only important criteria for a varietal-based tasting is to make sure the wines are all made from the same grape. Yes, many wines are a blend of several grape varietals, but often they have one predominant grape. For example, most Cabernet based wines are not 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. They often blend in various proportions of other Bordeaux varietals (grapes allowed in the Bordeaux wine region in France) such as Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. However, if the wine is named a Cabernet then them large majority of the wine is made from Cabernet.
  • This can be a bit trickier for many European wines because most regions name wines for the area they came from rather than the grape varietal. For example, while most Californian wines list the name of the predominant grape in the wine, most French wines do not say anything about the varietals in the wine! So how do you know what grapes were used? You can't from the label! You have to know something about that wine region. Most regions have typical grapes that are allowed to be used. For example, "left bank" wines from Bordeaux are generally mostly Cabernet while "right bank" wines from Bordeaux are more predominantly Merlot based. Northern Rhone red wines are generally all, or mostly, Syrah. All red Burgundies are 100% Pinot Noir. So unfortunately to include these types of wines in a varietal wine tasting, such as a Cabernet wine tasting, you need to know something about the wines. If all else fails, ask a salesperson at your local wine shop! They are often knowledgeable and can be very helpful in choosing a wine. Tell them that you plan to host a Cabernet wine tasting (or Merlot wine tasting, or whatever varietal you have chosen) and ask them to help you pick out some wines that fit that theme.

  • Some classic grape varietal wine tasting themes other than a Cabernet wine tasting.
    While Cabernet is one of the most ubiquitous and popular grape varietals around the world, there are so many interesting grapes out there that you shouldn't limit yourself to just one! Here is a list of some common grapes. Following each is a list of regions that produce good examples based wholly or largely from that grape. You'll notice that some regions, like California, produce examples of many different types of grapes. The classic regions that are best known for originally producing this grape and making the "gold standard" examples are in bold. This is by no means an exhaustive list! Once you've learned about these common grapes and regions try branching out and getting more esoteric!

    • Red Grapes:
      • Cabernet Sauvignon - California (Sonoma and Napa), red Bordeaux (primarily "Left Bank" wines from Pauillac, St.-Estèphe, St.-Julien and the like), some "Super Tuscan" wines from Tuscany in Italy
      • Merlot - California (Sonoma and Napa), red Bordeaux (primarily "Right Bank" wines from Pomerol and St.-Emilion), some "Super Tuscan" wines from Tuscany in Italy
      • Pinot Noir - California (Sonoma, Russian River Valley, Central Coast), Oregon, red Burgundy
      • Zinfandel - California (Sonoma, Napa, Russian River Valley, etc.), Southern Italy (known as "Primativo" there!)
      • Syrah - California (Napa, Sonoma, Central Coast), Northern Rhone Valley (Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, St.-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas), Australia (where it is known as "Shiraz"!)
      • Mourvedre - California (can also be named Mataro), red Bandol (France), Spain (the grape Monastrell is similar and was once thought to be identical but is in fact a different grape!)
      • Cabernet Franc - California (Napa), red Bordeaux (a few wines from "Right Bank" villages, particularly St.-Emilion, are primarily Cab Franc, most notably the famous Chateau Cheval Blanc), Loire Valley in France (Chinon, Saumur-Champigny and Bourgeuil primarily, known as "Breton" in the Loire)
    • White Grapes:
      • Chardonnay - California, Australia, white Burgundy
      • Sauvignon Blanc - California, white Bordeaux (along with Semillon), Loire Valley in France (Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé), New Zealand
      • Riesling - California, Germany, Alsace in France
      • Chenin Blanc - Loire Valley in France (Savennières and Vouvray), South Africa (where it is known as "Steen"!), California (but most of the examples are not that good!)
      • Marsanne - white Northern Rhone wines (white Hermitage), California
      • Gewurztraminer - Alsace in France, California
      • Pinot Gris - Alsace in France, California, Italy (known as "Pinot Grigio" there)
      • Viognier - Condrieu in the Northern Rhone of France, California

Thats it! Have fun planning your Cabernet wine tasting or other grape varietal-based wine tasting themes!

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