The most common wine related advice that I get asked by my friends and people that come to realise that I have wine knowledge is how to identify different cultivars of wine. What is the difference between a Shiraz and a Cab? Or how to tell your Chardonnay from your Chenin. And it’s quite a simple thing, really. If you learn the inherent flavour characteristics of the grape variety and have an idea about the style of wine it is most commonly made in, it is easy to judge if a wine is true to its cultivar or not. Here are a few simple tips to help you to identify the most well-known wine cultivars in South Africa.
The wine that is produced from this white grape cultivar is very much dependant of the climate that the grapes are grown in. Grapes that are grown under warm climatic conditions tend to produce wines that have a floral or fruity aroma that is sometimes said to be reminiscent of tropical fruits like guava or pineapple. Whereas “green” Sauvignon blancs hail from cool growing regions that generally receive gentle sea breezes during the ripening period. These wines usually have flavours and aromas similar to grass, asparagus or figs. All Sauvignon blanc wines, regardless of the climate the grapes are grown in, tend to be quite dry and acidic- making it the perfect wine for a hot summer’s day.
Like some Sauvignon blancs, Chenin is also characterised by the flavours of tropical fruits. But unlike its blanc cousin, Chenin is not quite as acidic and is more commonly found in heavier, wooded wine styles. However, these days light and fruity Chenin blancs are becoming a lot more popular and care should be taken not to assume that all Chenins are heavily wooded or even aged in oak at all.
This cultivar is mostly used to produce wines that are pleasant and delicate. Typical flavours include citrus, peaches, tropical fruits and nuts. Wooded styles tend to have a creamy, almost buttery flavour that makes it the perfect accompaniment for chicken or fish.
Commonly considered to be the King of red wines, this red cultivar’s reputation most certainly precedes itself. However, it is not an easy wine to place in a flavour or aroma category as so many different clones of Cab are now commercially available. The most popular clones exhibit flavours similar to berries, raspberries, olives, nuts and eucalyptus. South African Cabernet’s can occasionally also have a green characteristic that is associated with grass, green pepper or mint. This is sometimes considered to be a negative characteristic, but really it is all a matter of personal preference.
To me, this is a cultivar that doesn’t play games. It hits you in the face right from the get-go- whether you like it or not. And let me tell you, most people do like it. The spicy or peppery flavour of this wine makes it a crowd favourite. Other flavours that are associated with this cultivar are berries, fruit and smokiness. Its sharp acidity and strong tannins make for quite a dry red wine.
The baby brother of red wines. Merlot is generally considered to be softer and easier to drink than most other red wine cultivars. I often recommend trying Merlot to people that are weary of drinking dry red wine as it is usually well balanced and not as dry and pungent as some others may be. When drinking a typical example of Merlot you can expect to experience flavours of fruits, especially berries, and also a hint of greenness.
Our own proudly South African cultivar can- in true rainbow nation style- exhibit quite a few different flavour profiles depending on the wine style it is made in. Generally, there are two types of Pinotage wines- the popular coffee-style and the more traditional fruity and leathery wines. The coffee or chocolate-like flavours that are so prominent in many Pinotage wines are not because someone added a cup of Nescafe or bar of chocolate to the tank but it is rather a result of the oak barrels that the wine is matured in or oak wood chips that matured with the wine. The other style can be intensely fruity or it can have an aroma that is reminiscent of sweet cigars and leather.
Hopefully this simple guide will help you to impress some friends and family in the near future. And just remember that this is only a guide to the most common flavours and aromas that are associated with each cultivar when they are made in wine styles that are true to their genetic cultivar characteristics. So be on the lookout for strange and interesting wine styles and don’t get a fright if your Merlot suddenly tastes like a Shiraz. That is one of the weird and wonderful things about wine- you can never be 100% certain what you are getting in your bottle without tasting it first.