What makes a wine grape a wine grape? The flavor of course! Wine grapes are smaller, sweeter, and have thicker skins than the table grape you’d find at the grocery store — all three of these qualities give them the more concentrated flavors and higher acidity that lead to delicious wines. But do some grapes stand out as the best grapes for making wine?
There are over 100,000 varieties of wine grapes grown worldwide, but only a few are used to make the majority of the wines we drink. In this list, we’ll discuss the best of the best wine grapes, from their flavor profile to where they’re grown.
Best Grapes For Red Wine
The most popular wine grape in France, and extremely popular worldwide, the Merlot grape is much for than the primary ingredient in Merlot wines! This black grape is the primary ingredient in many red blends, especially when blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes.
The Merlot grape is colored a blue so dark it appears black and is named for its color, the root of the name is “merle” which means blackbird in French. While the flavor of the grapes, and the wines they produce, vary depending on the climate in which they are grown, Merlot reliably has notes of cocoa, and blue and red fruits and produces red wine that is full bodied and dry.
Merlot is grown globally but is most popular in climates that can take advantage of its ripening early in the season like France, Italy, California, New Zealand, Australia, and Chile.
2. Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir grapes, native to Burgundy in France, make Pinot Noir wine, and can also be blended with Chardonnay grapes to make Champagne. Like Merlot, Pinot Noir grapes are named “pine black” in french for their dark blue color that is nearly black in shade.
This grape is considered difficult to grow, their tendency towards packed clusters that can rot on the vine requires active vine management and harvesting at exact ripeness, the grapes are both sensitive to frost and excessive sunlight. Not only that, these low-yielding vines provide fewer grapes in a field than other grapes. Still, the resulting wines are well worth the challenge.
These sensitive thin-skinned grapes create medium-bodied wines that are low in tannin. When young they have a fruity flavor that can age into a more complex flavor profile with notes of mushroom, anise, and chocolate.
Pinot Noir is grown globally, generally in cooler climates, especially those with a tendency towards overcast. The most prized varietals of this grape are from the Burgundy region of France, the Palatinate region of Germany, and California in the USA.
3. Cabernet Sauvignon
The most widely planted wine grape in the world, the Cabernet Sauvignon is a cross between the Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, both of which originated in the Bordeaux region of France.
The Cabernet Sauvignon grape is so widely cultivated because it is easy to grow! This thick-skinned grape grows wide on the vine and is late-ripening so avoids the risk of a late frost in a cooler climate. When mass-produced this wine grape that can create popular cheap wines, that are still flavorful,
This deep black grape is extremely high in tannins from its thick skin. When cultivated in a cooler climate it creates wines with distinct berry and bell pepper flavors and tends more towards notes of olive, black currant, and cherry in more moderate climates, though can become over-sweet
This “colonizer” grape has taken over nearly every wine region in the world, sometimes pushing out native species. Notable growing regions are France, Italy, the Pacific Northwest of the United States, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Peru, Australia, and China.
4. Cabernet Franc
One of the parent grapes of Cabernet Sauvignon, the Cabernet Franc grape has a thinner skin and is lower in acid than its decedent. This hardy grape creates medium-bodied vegetal wines, that often have flavors of red fruit, crushed gravel, and chili. It is often grown as an insurance grape alongside less hardy varieties as its early ripening means it avoids unexpected turns in the weather late in the season.
Traditionally grown in the Bordeaux region of France, this wine has traveled globally and is important to wine regions in Brazil, Italy, the United States in both California and upstate New York, Canada, Chile, and Argentina.
Syrah, also known as Shiraz depends on the region grown. While typically Syrah is grown in the Rhône region of France and Shiraz is the Australian expression of the grape, the name can vary between the two worldwide depending on the climate the grape is grown in.
As with all grapes, climate can greatly affect the flavor profile of the grapes and the wine they make, so these naming conventions can help to differentiate the way a growing climate impacts the flavor of this grape.
Small and think skinned the Syrah grape makes full-bodied tannin heavy wine. When young the wines are often fruity in flavor, but age into sweet toffee characteristics.
The most popular Italian grape variety, this red grape is the key to the wonderful red wines of Tuscany. Though history cannot be directly traced, it is believed this grape varietal has been grown as far back as the pre-Roman Etruscan period in Italy.
Thin-skinned and prone to rot this difficult-to-grow grape has some popularity outside of Italy in California and New Zealand but has not taken off due to its tendency to fail in climates that are not ideal.
The challenge to successfully cultivate has not stopped this grape from producing truly amazing red wines that are savory and have an aroma of dark cherry. Frequently blended with other grapes Sangiovese grapes are the feature of wines like Chianti, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and the sole grape in Bruello di Montalcino wines.
Gamay is a Burgundy grape, fully named Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc. French wines made from this grape are frequently labeled as Beaujolais after the region in Burgundy where the grape is traditionally grown.
Gamay is an acidic grape that creates light to medium-bodied wines, low in tannins, with flavors of tart red fruits like cherries and berries and an aroma that can vary from fruity to floral and earthy.
Gamay is grown mostly in France, Oregon, and Switzerland, but has expanded its reach into Canada, New Zealand, Italy, and the Balkan region.
Best Grapes For White Wine
Chardonnay is the most widely cultivated white wine grape in the world. Native to Burgundy, France this grape is the key component in sparkling wines, champagne, many white blends, and of course Chardonnay.
The grape itself is not strongly flavored is medium in body and acidity. As with many wine grape, climate can play a major role in the flavor profile of this fruit and the wines it produces. In cooler regions, the Chardonnay grape has an almost mineral quality with citrus notes. When cultivated in warmer climates the grape produces wines with less acidity, and overripe fruit flavors that can resemble peaches, papayas and pineapples.
Major cultivation regions for the Chardonnay Grape exist in the United States, France, Australia, New Zealand, Italy and South Africa.
9. Sauvignon Blanc
Sauvignon Blanc grapes produce dry white wines. Originating in Bordeaux this grape is one of the original 6 wine grapes native to this region.
Wines created with this grape are acidic and medium bodied. They are known to be straightforward in flavor and have intense and complicated aromas. As with all wines the flavors do vary by region, but Sauvignon Blanc is known for flavors that range from the sweet passion fruit and gooseberry, to tangy green olive and aromatic elder flower.
These grapes are still grown in their native climate, the southwest of France, but have spread globally, notably to Italy, Australia, California and New Zealand.
This light-colored German grape is considered the best white wine grape in the world and has traveled to the United States, notably in Washington State, Australia, Northern France, and Austria.
These grapes are made into light-bodied wines that are dry and high in acidity. The Riesling grape’s delicate qualities make it extremely sensitive to flavor differences between growing regions. When grown in cool climates the white wines produced have a tart apple-like flavor, while they can often tend towards a peachy sweetness when grown in warmer climates. Extremely prized for aging over time these wines can gain a smokey, honey flavor, or have a strong character of kerosene.
11. Pinot Gris
Originating in Burgundy, France this white grape variety is a pink-skinned mutation of the Pinot Noir grape and grows in a variety of colors from orange-pink to pale purple. “Gris” is French for gray and refers to the common dusky purple color of the fruit.
High acidity and high insugars the wines made from these grapes are fruity in flavor, often having notes of lemon, lime, pear or apple. Often the Pinot Gris grapes are used to make sparkling wines.
Pinot Gris grapes grow best in cooler climates and are grown in northern Europe, the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and in the cooler regions of New Zealand.
This alpine grape originated in Germany but is grown in Europe all over the alpine region in Italy, France, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania. Because the grape grows best in cooler climates and is found in the Pacific Northwest, Upstate New York, Australia, New Zealand.
The Gewürztraminer grape has a pinkish light purple hue and ripens late in the season. Sensitive to climate and soil quality there are limited regions where it truly thrives.
Treasured for its intense floral aromas, the wine from these grapes is off-dry and extremely aromatic, with notes of rose or lychee and passion fruit.
Final Words on Best Grapes For Making Wine
Wine grapes have taken over the world. From their origins in Europe, these wonderful fruits have spread to regions in the Americas, Asia, and Australia and produced an amazing variety of wines. From the fussy grapes that make specific regional wines to the hardy wide-growers, these are the very best wine grapes for making the wines that wine lovers obsesses over worldwide!
To learn more about grapes, click here for our other grapes blog posts.