Q: What can I do to make better choices when buying wine and be more likely to get a bottle I like?
A: Knowing a few of your favourite grape varieties can really help the process of choosing a wine you will like, whether you are in a supermarket, wine shop or restaurant.
There are over 1,000 grape varieties, most of them obscure and grown only in specific regions. While these are currently very fashionable among wine lovers, there are roughly a dozen varieties that are widely grown around the world and are worth getting to know. While there will be regional differences with each variety, most of share certain flavours and characteristics. Sadly, not all wines will have the variety on the label. Some European wines are labelled by region instead.
This week, six well-known white grape varieties and the wines they produce. I suggest wines to try out, but your local wine shop or supermarket should have a decent example of each grape variety, although Grüner Veltliner may be a little more difficult to find. I have tried to keep the costs low, but if you can afford to pay a little bit more, you will get a better wine.
Sauvignon Blanc is one of our most popular grape varieties. The wines are typically aromatic and fresh with good acidity and racy green fruits. We are very familiar with those from Marlborough, but you can also find very good Sauvignon in the rest of New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, and parts of France. All Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, some Touraine and most white Bordeaux is made from Sauvignon Blanc. French versions will tend to be a little drier and more austere. Almost all Sauvignon is dry and unoaked with medium alcohol.
Try: Villa Maria Private Bin Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (€12.49-€16.49 SuperValu, Tesco, Dunnes Stores)
Chardonnay produces some of the world’s greatest wines. This includes virtually all the white wines of Burgundy such as Chablis, Mâcon, Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet. It is one of three grapes used to make Champagne. It is also grown in almost every wine-producing country. Chardonnay doesn’t have the exuberant aromas of Sauvignon Blanc, instead it has very satisfying rich, almost textured flavours that fill the mouth. Wines from cooler regions (such as Chablis) tend to have higher acidity and crisp green fruits. Chardonnay from warmer climates tends to have more exotic, tropical fruits. However, there are many cooler regions in countries we think of as hot. Tasmania and the Adelaide Hills in Australia are two good examples. Some winemakers mature their Chardonnay in oak barrels which can add toasted nuts, vanilla or spice. Done sensitively, it adds another layer of complexity.
Try: Mâcon-Lugny (€15-€20, various examples available in every supermarket, all pretty reliable)
Riesling, (pronounced reesling) produces some thrilling wines. Some wine drinkers believe all Riesling is sweet and therefore tend to avoid it. Yet most Riesling from Australia, New Zealand and Alsace are bone dry. German riesling can be gloriously sweet, medium-dry or very dry. Look for the word Trocken (German for dry) on the label if you want a dry wine. Like Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling delivers lots of aromas and flavour, and is usually unoaked and low in alcohol.
Try: Specially Selected Clare Valley Riesling, Australia €8.99 (Aldi)
Very widely grown in Northern Italy, pinot grigio (or grey pinot) from the Veneto is usually light in alcohol and often very light in flavour too. It is perfect on a hot sunny day when you want something simple and refreshing. A few regions, including Friuli and Trentino, produce wonderful wines, perfumed and full of fruit with lots of refreshing acidity. Austria and Germany also produce small amounts of very good pinot grigio (grauburgunder in German). Called pinot gris in Alsace, it is made in a rich textured style that is often off-dry.
Try: Rizzardi Pinot Grigio, Veneto (€14.95/ €16.45 O’Briens)
Albariño (Alvarinho in Portugal) is grown almost exclusively in the northern corner of the Iberian peninsula, Rías Baixas in Spain and Vinho Verde in Portugal. The wines typically have 11-13.5% alcohol, succulent plump pear and apple fruits and lots of lemon zest. Portuguese Alvarinho tends to be lighter and more acidic, Spanish Rías Baixas richer and more powerful. Both are usually unoaked.
Try: Abeillo Albariño, Rías Baixas - €10.70-€14.95 (SuperValu)
Grown almost exclusively in Austria, this is a variety well worth trying out. Almost all are dry, unoaked and have lowish alcohol levels (12-13.5%). They tend to have succulent green fruits and refreshing racy acidity. If you enjoy Sauvignon Blanc, you will probably enjoy Grüner (pronounced Grewner).
Try: Domäne Wachau Grüner Veltliner Selection (€16-20 independents, plus O’Briens has the Rabl for €14.95/€18.95)
Originally from the Loire Valley, Chenin Blanc found a very happy home in South Africa where it is the most widely planted grape variety. In the Loire it is used to make sparkling (usually called Crémant de Loire), dry, medium-dry and sweet wines. Vouvray, which is made in all these styles, is the best best-known name, but there are plenty of great wines, including dry whites, such as Savennières, and sweet wines such as Quarts de Chaume. South African Chenin can be excellent and offer good value for money. The wines tend to be more opulent.
Try: Delhein Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch (€13.95 O’Briens)