Hope Family Wines recommended in Chicago Sun Times

The Pour Man: Build your wine knowledge from six ‘noble’ grapes

Oct 11, 2011

They used to call them noble grapes - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling - but somewhere along the way that term fell out of fashion.

Those six grapes might now be referred to as "classic" or "international," and there might be a few more than six depending on whose list you are consulting.

The original noble grapes were designated as such for their ability to consistently produce high-quality wines on their own, without being blended with other grapes, and for their ability to grow well in wine regions all over the world.

But while the term may be fading away, the original six are here to stay and they are among the most prevalent grape varietals, either on their own or in blends, available to American consumers. And yes, most of them are from France, where they are known as cepages nobles.

Call them what you like, and expand the list as your familiarity grows. But start by getting intimately acquainted with each of those six grapes until you are able to tell them apart the way you can tell a cola from a cherry cola from a root beer, or a tonic from a lemon-lime from a ginger ale. Three reds and three whites. That will put a solid foundation under your house of wine knowledge.

Look for wines that include 100 percent of a particular grape, or close to it, and remember while you are doing so that a wine made from only one kind of grape is not necessarily better than one made from several different kinds of grapes. A master sommelier can pick out each grape varietal used in a blend. We mortals can only hope to come close to that, and we start by being able to identify one.

The classic flavors of Cabernet Sauvignon could be some combination of blackcurrant, chocolate, bell pepper, mint, cedar, leather and tobacco.

In Merlot, which can be similar to Cabernet Sauvignon, look for blackcurrant, cherry, mint and plum.

Pinot Noir can conjure anything from violets and strawberries to mushrooms and game.

Among the whites, Chardonnay offers lemon, apple and melon, and can lean toward buttery, nutty or even smoky.

Sauvignon Blanc can range from grassy to tartly citrusy to flinty.

And Riesling, though you may think it is all sweet, can offer everything from apricots and peaches to spices and tart citrus.

According to The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil, there are about 5,000 different wine grapes in the world, and only about 150 of those are planted in any significant amounts.

Start with the six and then add Syrah, Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Semillon and lots of others, right on down the line until you get past Grenache, Malbec, Pinot Gris, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Viognier and Zinfandel.

After that you might find yourself in the rare territory of Assyrtiko, a white grape grown on the volcanic Greek island of Santorini; Palomino (and you thought it was only a horse), another white grape, grown in Spain and used to make sherry; or Scuppernong, a white grape native to the United States, prominent on the East Coast.

Maybe someday you'll become an advocate of red grapes such as Blaufrankisch, which grows in Austria and Hungary; Plavac Mali, which is Croatian; or Schioppettino, which is native to northeast Italy.

Someday you might even know everything there is to know about Huxelrebe, a German white grape made by crossing the Weisser Gutedel and Courtillier Musque grapes.

So yeah, start with the six.

WINES TO TRY:

REDS

Cabernet Sauvignon: 2009 Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon, $14;

2007 Flora Springs Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, $27.99

Merlot: Lot 2 Candor Merlot, $18

2008 Frog’s Leap Merlot, $34

Pinot Noir: 2009 Pali “Alphabets” Pinot Noir, $19; 2008 Pfendler Pinot Noir, $45

WHITES

Chardonnay: 2009 Mossback Russian River Valley Chardonnay, $18;

2010 Frank Family Vineyards Napa Valley Chardonnay, $32.50

Sauvignon Blanc: 2010 Casa Silva Reserva Sauvignon Blanc, $12;

2010 Craggy Range Te Muna Road Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, $21.99

Riesling: 2010 Urban Riesling, $11.99; 2007 True & Daring Riesling, $44.99


Michael Austin is a Chicago free-lance writer. E-mail thepourman@suntimes.com.

Copyright © 2011 — Sun-Times Media, LLC

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