Powerful red wines are robust, full bodied and concentrated. These are the biggest wines in the world, with characters to match. In the glass they are deeply colored, almost black, can be broody and intense, and generally have high alcohol levels. The common theme connecting them is the ripeness of their fruit, which is deep and luscious. When young they are mouth filling with high tannin levels, but as they age they develop a complex range of aromas and flavors.
While dark fruits predominate (such as blackberry) flavors of vanilla, dark chocolate, licorice and toffee are often exhibited. They can also be smoky, peppery and spicy with earthy aromas. They need oak to soften their tannic structure and balance their flavors. Built for age, they can evolve for years. However, the ripeness of their fruit and modern wine making techniques mean that many are now ready to be drunk young.
Taste: Concentrated and complex. Aromas of black fruits, violets, herbs, leather and smoky notes are followed on the palate by flavors of prunes, blackberries, coffee, chocolate and even tar.
Age: Generally requiring 3 to 5 years to soften its tannic structure. Modern production techniques mean that some wines are ready to drink on release.
Aglianico (ahl-YANN-ee-co) is a high quality grape capable of making world class wine and is one of Italy’s best kept secrets. While considered a native Italian variety it is believed to have arrived from Greece in about the sixth century B.C., and its name may have derived from the Italian word for Hellenic or Greek, which is Ellenico. Aglianico is one of southern Italy’s most important grape varieties and is principally grown in the volcanic soils of Campania (where it makes the famous wine Taurasi) and Basilicata (renowned for its Aglianico del Vulture wines).
As it is a late ripening grape it can develop great concentration of fruit flavors. Its thick skin contributes high tannin levels which combined with high acidity can make these powerfully structured wines very harsh in youth. However, this is a wine made for aging and as it matures it develops remarkable complexity and balance. Aromas of black fruits, violets, herbs, leather and smoky notes are followed on the palate by flavors of prunes, blackberries, coffee, chocolate and even tar.
These complex wines are often compared to Italy’s great Barolos (made from the Nebbiolo grape) and are available at a much more affordable price, but you will have to seek them out. The best wines are stunning and can compete with top quality Nebbiolo and Sangiovese wines, but be wary, as many are poor and unexciting. On the bright side, standards are improving and modern wine making techniques mean that many are ready to drink after release. Generally they need 3 to 5 years to soften their tannic structure and the best wines can improve for 10 years or more.
Taste: Intense black cherry and blackcurrant flavors accompanied by cassis and licorice. Oak aging adds additional vanilla, cedar, coconut and spicy notes.
Age: Most should be drunk within two or three years of the vintage, but the best wines will continue to improve for another five or ten years.
As the world’s most famous red grape variety Cabernet Sauvignon (ka-ber-NAY saw-vee-YOHN) has a big reputation. That reputation was earned over centuries in its homeland in Bordeaux, where it continues to play a leading role in the famous blends of the ‘left bank’ (see Cabernet Sauvignon / Merlot blends in the Smooth style).
From France it colonized all the New World wine regions and went on to prove its classic credentials in the prevailing warmer climatic conditions there by producing wines of the highest quality – see the section on the “Judgement of Paris” below.
In these temperate and even hot climate regions outside of Europe, Cabernet Sauvignon produces big, powerful, full bodied varietal wines. As the vine is very late to bud the grapes achieve a higher degree of ripeness in warmer conditions, which changes their flavor profile in comparison to those from cooler regions (see cool climate Cabernet Sauvignon in the Smooth style).
The grape’s characteristic black fruit becomes a more intense black cherry and blackcurrant flavour, accompanied by cassis and licorice, while the herbaceous notes of green bell pepper which are common in the cooler regions are greatly reduced – there is a risk, if the grapes over-ripen in very hot conditions, that the fruit will taste heavy and stewed.
Although these wines are dry, the ripeness of their fruit can make them appear slightly sweeter than their cool climate counterparts. Tannins, while still high, are softer and acidity is lower. They are very full bodied and generally oak aged to give additional vanilla, cedar, coconut and spicy notes. Given their structure most of these wines are approachable within a few years of release, but they also have very good aging potential.
At their best, with low yields, Cabernet Sauvignons from these warmer regions are elegant, stylish, intense and very complex wines, which can offer great value for money.
Judgement of Paris
Back in 1976 the wine world was shaken to its core by a watershed event, which marked the coming of age of these New World Cabs. It took place at a professional, ‘blind’ wine tasting held in Paris to mark the American Bicentennial – this was afterwards referred to as the “Judgement of Paris”.
Top Bordeaux Cru Classé wines (including Château Mouton-Rothschild and Château Haut-Brion) were tasted blind, i.e. without seeing the labels, against Californian Cabernet Sauvignons. To the astonishment of all present California’s Stags Leap 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon was the clear winner. What made this so significant was that, not only had the judges impeccable wine tasting credentials and reputations, they were also all French.
At this event Californian Chardonnays were also tasted against Grand Cru white Burgundies and – of the Chardonnays – California’s Chateau Montelena 1973 beat all comers. The wine world would never be the same again.
Taste: Amarone, the most typical expression of Corvina (Semi-Dried), is richly textured with complex aromas of dark fruits, leather, tobacco and wood smoke followed by flavors of black cherry, plums, damsons, chocolate and a bitter almond finish.
Tannin: Medium to high
Acidity: Medium to high
Age: Amarone is usually released 5 years after the vintage when it is ready to drink. Good examples can easily last another 10 years.
Other: Amarone is very high in alcohol, ranging from 14% to 17%.
Corvina (kor-VEE-nuh) is a very good quality grape from Italy’s Veneto region and is the main variety, along with Rondinella and Molinara, in the production of Valpolicella and Bardolino wines. The vast majority are made in the standard way, where the grapes are harvested and go through the normal fermentation and maturation process. These wines are light and fruity, and ideal for everyday drinking – see Corvina (Standard) in the Fruity style.
However, within the Valpolicella DOC a small quantity of wonderful wines, much bigger and more powerful, are made when the best grapes of the harvest are kept and semi-dried (or raisined) for a period of up to 4 months. This process, where the grapes were traditionally laid out on straw mats or today on wooden racks in drying rooms, greatly concentrates their sugars and flavors. After the drying period the grapes are pressed and fermented.
If fermentation is stopped early the wine will retain residual sugar and therefore be sweet. These sweet versions called Recioto della Valpolicella are Dessert wines and have succulent fruit flavors of stewed cherries combined with spices and licorice.
When fermentation is allowed to continue until all the sugar is converted to alcohol the resulting wines will be dry and are called Amarone della Valpolicella. The word Amaro means “bitter” and traditionally these wines lived up to their name but are more approachable today. Nonetheless, these are big, brooding, powerful wines with complex aromas of dark fruits, leather, tobacco and wood smoke, followed by flavors of black cherry, plums, damsons, chocolate and a bitter almond finish. They are some of the super stars of Italian wine today and are often placed on the same level as Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino – see Nebbiolo (Barolo) and Sangiovese (Classic) in the Powerful style.
Another wine which is derived from a by-product of the production of Amarone is Ripasso della Valpolicella. To make Ripasso wine standard Valpolicella is ‘re-passed’ over the lees (dead yeast cells and grape pulp left after fermentation) of Amarone resulting in a second fermentation, which adds complexity and richness. These full bodied wines are Smooth in style and not as big or intense as Amarone. Ripasso wines are often referred to as Valpolicella Superiore.
All of the above wines are made in accordance with Valpolicella DOC regulations, which require Corvina to make up 40% – 70% of the blend. For more on the production techniques see “Passito” in the glossary section.
Taste: A ‘meaty’ and savory aroma when young, with red fruit and blackberry flavors accompanied by pronounced spicy, herbal and earthy notes. With age develops more complex flavors of leather, mushroom and truffles along with notes of black pepper, cinnamon and licorice, as well as coffee and chocolate.
Acidity: Medium to high
Age: Most should be drunk within a few years of release, but those from Bandol in France, and good varietal wines, need several years to soften their tannic structure.
Aka: Also known as Monastrell and Mataro in Spain. Generally referred to as Mataro in the USA.
Mourvèdre (moor-VEDH-ruh) is a high quality grape variety, which is best known today by its French name, although it actually originated in Spain where it is still widely planted and known as Monastrell and Mataro. In the late Middle Ages it made its way to southern France, from the Spanish town of Murviedro (hence the origin of its French name).
It is a very thick-skinned grape, which ripens slowly and is usually one of the last varieties to be harvested. It therefore needs a long and hot growing season to fully ripen and reveal its true character. It makes deep coloured, full bodied wines with high tannin, medium to high acidity and high alcohol which require bottle age to soften their dense structure.
When young, they have typical ‘meaty’ or gamey aromas, which can be mistaken for wine faults. On the palate, they display red fruit and blackberry flavors accompanied by pronounced spicy, herbal and earthy notes. As they age they develop more complex flavors of leather, mushroom and truffles along with notes of black pepper, cinnamon and licorice, as well as coffee and chocolate.
Mourvèdre makes elegant, concentrated and very individual wines, but only when the grapes have achieved full ripeness, as otherwise the wines will be tannic and one dimensional. Generally, Mourvère is used for blending and is increasingly considered a highly desirable ‘improving variety’ as it brings important blending qualities much appreciated by winemakers. Its firm structure and savoury flavors beautifully compliment the fleshy richness of Grenache and Syrah.
It can play either a leading or supporting role in blends, but is best known for the important part it plays in Rhône-Style Blends and their New World equivalent, often referred to as GSM for short (blends of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre). Mourvèdre has the ability to age well and when made as a varietal wine, or when playing a leading role in blends (such as in Bandol in France), it needs bottle age to soften its structure and allow its flavors to develop.
This is a grape variety that we will see and hear more of in the years ahead: it has proven its ability to make world class wines.
Taste: Aromas of cherry and violets are followed by red fruit flavors of strawberries, plums and red cherries. As it matures it develops a classic aroma of ‘tar and roses’ with notes of herbs, leather, wood smoke, mushrooms and truffles.
Body: Medium to full
Age: Modern Barolo (aged in new oak barriques) can be drunk within three to four years but the finest wines, and those made in the traditional manner (aged in large old oak casks), need several years to develop and mature. Generally, Barbaresco requires less aging than Barolo.
Aka: Also known as Chiavennasca, Picoutener and Spanna.
Nebbiolo (neh-B’YO-low) is considered a classic grape and one that produces wines of very individual character that are some of the finest and longest-lived in the world. It hasn’t strayed far from its homeland in Piedmont in the northwest of Italy, where almost all Nebbiolo comes from. Here it makes the two most famous wines of the region: Barolo, which many people consider to be the finest of all Italian wines, and Barbaresco.
Nebbiolo is a difficult grape to grow and provides considerable challenges for the winemaker. Typically it is full bodied with high tannin, acidity and alcohol. Because of these characteristics it can be very harsh when young and traditionally has been aged for several years (a minimum of two and up to ten years for the highest quality vintages) in order to soften its astringency. Wines made in a more modern style are approachable much earlier on.
When young, aromas of cherry and violets are followed on the palate by red fruit flavors of strawberries, plums and red cherries. As Nebbiolo matures it develops an aroma that has often been described as ‘tar and roses’ and its flavors deepen and become suppler, with notes of herbs, leather, wood smoke, mushroom and truffles. As Nebbiolo is a rich wine it is best consumed with full flavored foods.
Although Nebbiolo is acknowledged as one of the finest grape varieties in the world, plantings of the grape outside of Piedmont, and Italy, are not significant. This is largely due to the fact that it is such a difficult grape to grow and is so fussy about its terroir. In time other countries and regions are likely to master Nebbiolo and it will be interesting to see the results.
Taste: Dense and powerful with aromas of violets, dark fruits, black pepper and vanilla, followed by flavors of blackberry, cherry, plum, cassis and dark chocolate, as well as strong spicy notes. Additional smoky aromas develop with age, along with hints of clove, licorice and tobacco.
Acidity: Medium to high
Age: Best within two to five years of the vintage, but the finest wines can improve for ten years or more.
Other: Varietal examples are generally high in alcohol.
Petit Verdot (puh-TEE vehr-DOH) is a grape whose origins are uncertain, although it is believed to be native to Bordeaux in southwest France where it has long been one of the six classic grape varieties permitted in the region’s famous red wine blends (the others being Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Carmenère). It is a very late ripening grape and requires a hot climate with a long growing season. For this reason, in its Bordeaux home it is only grown on the left bank (Medoc and Graves) where the gravel soils retain heat far better than the cooler and damper soils of the right bank.
Even so, Petit Verdot will not achieve full ripeness every year in Bordeaux making it a risky proposition for the grower. Yet this risk is worth taking because the powerful characteristics of Petit Verdot are highly valued in blending (the art of the Bordeaux winemaker) and can have a significant impact even when making up less than 5% of the blend, as it generally does in the Médoc and Graves. The contributions it is prized for in blends are color, aroma, tannic structure and spice.
After many decades of decline in Bordeaux plantings have begun to increase again, but it is in the New World that Petit Verdot has started to come into its own. In warmer climates it can fully ripen and has proven its ability to retain acidity even in hotter conditions. This has enabled Petit Verdot to reveal its full potential not only as a major blending partner but also as a very interesting varietal wine with a distinct profile.
These varietal wines are dense and powerful with aromas of violets, dark fruits, black pepper and vanilla, followed by flavors of blackberry, cherry, plum, cassis and dark chocolate, as well as strong spicy notes. As they age, they develop additional smoky aromas with hints of clove, licorice and tobacco. Australia is currently the largest producer of these varietal wines, followed by California, with many vineyards still at the experimental stage. Interesting blended wines are also appearing which indicate that Petit Verdot can be a very successful partner with varieties such as Malbec and Merlot, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon.
Most of these wines are best within two to five years of the vintage, but the finest can improve for ten years or more. It is generally a good idea to decant these wines an hour or two before serving to allow them to open up and reveal their full flavor profile.
Taste: Powerful and intense with dense blackberry and plum fruit and a savory, peppery edge, along with smoky notes.
Acidity: Medium to high
Age: A few years are required to soften their structure. The best wines have good aging potential and can continue to develop for a decade or more.
Aka: Also known as Durif.
Petite Sirah (puh-TEET si-RAH) is a grape variety with a confusing history. It is found mainly in California where the vast majority of the vines described as Petite Sirah are in fact a variety called Durif, which is a crossing of Syrah and an obscure French grape called Peloursin. This gives it a good pedigree as it is therefore a son of Syrah.
The man who gave it its name, Dr. Francois Durif, in 1880, first propagated Durif in the Rhône Valley in France. From there it made its way to California in 1884 where some growers began to call it, and other similar looking vines, Petite Sirah as this was an alternative name for Durif in France – while Durif is an offspring of Syrah it produces much smaller sized grapes.
So Petite Sirah and Durif are actually synonyms for the same grape variety, which originated in France although it is extremely rare in its home country today. It is quite a vigorous vine that requires a warm climate to fully ripen. When it does, its small berries have a high skin-to-juice ratio making the wines very tannic and deeply colored. Alcohol is also high and acidity is good, which helps balance the wine.
These characteristics make Petite Sirah very attractive for blending with fleshier varieties and it provides the backbone to many fine cuvées – it is a particularly good partner for Zinfandel. When made as a varietal wine Petite Sirah is powerful and intense, with dense blackberry and plum fruit flavors and a savoury, peppery edge, along with smoky notes. In their youth they can be very abrasive and muscular, requiring age in order to mellow and soften their profile.
The best wines are made from old vines, which take the concentration and intensity to an even higher level and they can be massive in structure. For all that, they are exciting wines and have an almost cult following (an organization called PS I Love You has been set up by fans of Petite Sirah). An interesting tasting exercise is to compare Petite Sirah with Syrah to see how closely the burly son takes after its father.
Taste: Big and powerful with red and black fruit flavors of raspberry, blackberry, cherry and plum, along with spicy pepper notes.
Tannin: Medium to high
Acidity: Medium to high
Age: Best enjoyed within a few years of the vintage.
Primitivo (pree-meh-TEE-voh) has a long history, going back to the seventeenth century, in the southern Italian region of Puglia (Apulia in English). While its home today is very much in Puglia, it most likely arrived there from Croatia, which is just across the Adriatic Sea from the southeast coast of Italy.
Traditionally, Primitivo had been used as a blending wine because of its deep colour, good fruit flavors and relatively high tannin and alcohol content. However, it is a challenging grape to cultivate and when the EU introduced vine pull schemes at the end of the last century many growers took advantage and consequently thousands of acres were uprooted.
Then an unexpected and dramatic increase in interest in Primitivo occurred in the 1990s, when it was discovered through DNA analysis to be genetically the same as Zinfandel from California – they are both clones of the same variety. This does not mean that they are identical but rather that the differences are very minor.
Like Zinfandel, it is full bodied with medium to high tannin, bright acidity and high alcohol. It also has similar red and black fruit flavors of raspberry, blackberry, cherry and plum, along with spicy notes of pepper. While Primitivo has a very similar profile to Zinfandel it does not reach the heights achieved in California. This may be due to many factors including climate, soil, vinification and age of the vines.
Since Primitivo’s relationship with Zinfandel was revealed, interest in the grape has increased in southern Italy and its quality has improved significantly. It is no longer seen as just a blending grape, but rather as a traditional grape of Puglia which highlights the quality and appeal of indigenous grape varieties. Many fine examples are now made and they are generally available at relatively modest prices.
In 1999 The EuropeanUnion legally recognised Zinfandel as a synonym for Primitivo, thereby allowing Primitivo winemakers to label their wines as either Primitivo or Zinfandel. This has caused a great deal of controversy in the United States (which recognises European labeling laws) as it is seen to undermine, and take advantage of, Zinfandel’s fine reputation, which was established over many years by skilful American winemakers.
Not surprisingly, other countries are now taking note of Primitivo.
Taste: Lush and characterful with aromas of violets, dark fruits, herbs, spices and vanilla, followed by flavors of blackberry, black cherry and plum, together with bitter chocolate, cinnamon and nutmeg. When fully mature, can display additional smoky and earthy undertones with notes of tobacco, leather, clove, licorice and coffee.
Body: Medium to full
Acidity: Medium to high
Age: Many are best drunk within 5 to 8 years of release, but more tannic versions will require 10 to 15 years of aging to fully mature – check with your retailer before purchase.
Other: Due to limited production Sagrantino wines are expensive. Decant for at least an hour or two before drinking.
Sagrantino (sa-grahn-TEE-no) is quite an intriguing grape variety. It makes some of the finest red wines in all of Italy and yet it remains relatively unknown and is rarely encountered, despite the fact that its cult status is growing.
There are two main reasons for this. First, much has to do with the fact that Sagrantino is only grown in a very small area around the town of Montefalco in the central Italian region of Umbria and consequently, production is very limited. Also, it was not until the late 1970s that Sagrantino was used to make dry table wine. Up to that time it was mostly grown in small plots rather than vineyards and what little wine was made went into the production of sweet passito (made from dried grapes – see entry in Glossary for more details) dessert wine.
Therefore, it is only relatively recently that the great qualities of this grape, when made as a dry wine, have come to the attention of the wine world. Sagrantino’s origins are unknown, but it has been grown for centuries around the town of Montefalco and may be indigenous to Umbria. Its name is thought to derive from the Latin word “sacra”, meaning “sacred”, for it has traditionally been used as a sacramental wine.
As a vine, Sagrantino is low yielding and produces quite small bunches of grapes. The grapes themselves are also small with very thick skins, which makes it one of the most tannic of all grape varieties. These thick skins are also the reason it has traditionally been produced as a passito wine as the grapes can dry for months without rotting while also preserving their sugar content.
Like many Italian grape varieties that were on the verge of extinction by the 1960s, its survival is due to the dedication of a handful of producers, and none did more than Arnaldo Caprai to revive Sagrantino’s fortunes and begin making it as a dry table wine. These Sagrantino di Montefalco wines (also referred to as “Montefalco Sagrantino Secco” – the word “secco” meaning “dry”) were awarded the highest Italian DOCG classification in 1992. They must be 100% Sagrantino and aged for a minimum of 30 months (12 of which must be in wooden casks) before release.
One of the biggest challenges in making these dry wines is managing the tannins. Some producers allow the grapes to achieve a high degree of ripeness before picking as this softens the tannins, but on the downside it reduces acidity. Extending maceration time also helps and, while Sagrantino has a great affinity for oak, it is often aged in older barrels so as not to increase its tannic profile. Such wines are generally lighter, very elegant, ready to drink earlier and are at their best between 5 and 8 years old. Wines made by other producers may be fuller, much more tannic in structure and quite harsh in youth, requiring 10 to 15 years to be at their best.
While flavour profiles can vary considerably between producers all of these wines have great personalities and intensity. You can expect aromas of violets, dark fruits, herbs, spices and vanilla, followed by flavors of blackberry, black cherry and plum, together with bitter chocolate, cinnamon and nutmeg. When fully mature they can display additional smoky and earthy undertones with notes of tobacco, leather, clove, licorice and coffee. At their best these wines are impressively complex with great structure and depth and can hold their own with the finest red wines Italy can produce.
The passito wines have become very rare today, although they can be exceptionally good. The relatively small area devoted to Sagrantino around Montelafco means that the amount of wine produced is quite limited and prices are therefore very high. Other areas in Italy have tried to cultivate Sagrantino, but as yet with little success. Experimentation with the grape is taking place in some countries, with Australia leading the way. There is a tiny area under vine in California in the USA.
If you are a devotee of Powerful style wines then Sagrantino is one that should be on your ‘wish list’. However, be sure to check with your retailer or the producer’s website when the wine should be at its best and ideally decant the wine at least an hour or two before drinking.
Taste: Intense and concentrated with flavors of black cherry, plum, blackberry and redcurrant together with herbs, truffles, licorice and spice. Develops great complexity with age.
Age: Require a minimum of between 2 to 5 years aging before release. The finest wines need more time to reach maturity and have great longevity.
Sangiovese (san-joh-VAY-zeh), when used in the production of everyday Chianti, makes medium bodied wines – see Sangiovese (Everyday) in the Smooth style. However, in the best areas of Tuscany it is used to make more serious wines, which are a significant step up in quality. These are some of the finest wines made in Italy and have a world-class reputation.
Intense and concentrated, they have flavors of black cherry, plum, blackberry and redcurrant together with herbs, truffles, licorice and spice, and develop great complexity with age. They are full bodied with high acidity and tannin and must be aged in bottle or cask before release. These classic, bigger, more powerful wines include the following:
Up to recently, Riserva was the highest quality classification for a Chianti wine and all of the best wines carried this designation, and many still do today – see Chianti Classico Gran Selezione section below. While the difference between individual wines can be significant, Riservas are generally a considerable step up in quality. Wines labeled Chianti Riserva can be pure Sangiovese, but are usually a blend dominated by Sangiovese with the balance (up to 20%) made up of native varieties Canaiolo and Colorino or international varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah. All Riserva wines must be aged for a minimum of 2 years (in oak) and 3 months (in bottle), although most are aged for much longer. Some Chianti Riserva wines are labeled Chianti Classico Riserva.
Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
This classification was introduced in 2013 as the highest level in the Chianti Classico region and is therefore officially positioned above Chianti Classico Riserva. The focus here is on quality and all grapes must be sourced from properties under the same ownership. The wines have to be aged for a minimum of 30 months, with at least three months in bottle. Like Chianti Riserva, the minimum proportion of Sangiovese must be 80%, although some winemakers release pure varietal Sangiovese wines. To qualify for this classification all wines must also be assessed and passed by a panel of top winemakers, which is independently monitored. There has been some criticism of this new designation as the wines are “Selected” by a tasting panel, who may be subjective, and are therefore not representative of any specific terroir. It is worth noting that some Riserva wines are also bottled and sold as Chianti Classico Gran Selezione.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
This is a classic Italian red wine with a history going back centuries. Quality can vary widely, but the best wines are truly majestic and can offer good value for money. All these wines are produced around the township of Montepulciano in Tuscany. They must be a minimum of 70% Sangiovese (known locally as Prugnolo Gentile) with the balance made up of native varieties like Canaiolo, Colorino and Mammolo, as well as the international varieties Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The wines must be aged for a minimum of 2 years (at least 12 months of this period in oak barrels) and 3 years for Riserva wine. An alliance of some of the best winemakers are now producing their top wines from 100% Sangiovese and are referring to them simply as “Nobile”.
Brunello di Montalcino
These are some of the finest and longest-lived Italian wines and compete with Barolo (made from the Nebbiolo grape) for the title of Italy’s greatest red wine. The first historical record of Montalcino wines goes back to the 14thcentury, but it wasn’t until the late 19thcentury that the varietal style of the modern wines emerged. All Brunello di Montalcinos are pure varietal wines, made 100% from a Sangiovese clone called Brunello (means “little dark one”), which is grown around the hilltop town of Montalcino in Tuscany. They must be aged for at least four years before they can be released, with Riserva wines requiring five years. This aging is necessary to soften the tannic structure of these wines, as well as to add complexity. These are the biggest and richest wines produced in Tuscany and can be high in alcohol. Unfortunately, prices are also high.
In the 1970’s a new group of ground-breaking wines emerged in Tuscany and quickly gained worldwide attention. Because of their exceptional quality, and the excitement surrounding them, they were referred to as Super-Tuscans. While most of these wines were based on Sangiovese they did not conform to the Italian classification system at the time, because they added grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot to the blend. The Italian classification system has since been modified to accommodate these non-traditional wines. The best of these Super-Tuscan wines are much sought after today and command very high prices.
Taste: Aromas of autumn berries, ripe dark fruits, cassis and spice, with some earthy and smoky notes, are followed by flavors of cherry, blackberry, blackcurrant and plum, together with hints of leather, licorice, chocolate, coffee and even tobacco. If the wines are oaked, you can expect additional flavors of cedar or vanilla.
Age: Has good aging potential. The better wines will improve for 10 or 15 years, while some are reputed to last several decades.
Other: Decant an hour before serving to allow the flavor profile to open up. Look out for naturally made wines produced in qvevri – see below for further details.
Saperavi (saw-pear-ah-vee) is an ancient grape variety from the most ancient winemaking region of the world. It is indigenous to the Republic of Georgia, located between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, which, together with neighboring Armenia, is where wine making began at least 6,000 years ago. This area, dominated by the Caucasus Mountains, is known as Transcaucasia and contains some of the oldest known human settlements. The wine making tradition here has survived for thousands of years and is embedded in the culture of Georgia in particular, where there are at least 525 indigenous grape varieties, although fewer than 40 are currently used for commercial wine production.
Saperavi is the most important red grape variety in Georgia and also plays an important role in the wines of former Soviet Republics, including Russia, Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus. The name Saperavi means “dye” in Georgian and reflects the extremely dark color of the wines it makes. This deep color is due to the fact that Saperavi belongs to a small group of grape varieties known as teinturier grapes (teinturier is a French term meaning to dye or stain).
What makes these grapes unique is that, in addition to having red skins, they also have red pulp or flesh. Most red wine grapes have red skins and clear pulp, and the color of their wines is obtained when the clear juice comes in contact with the skins during fermentation. With teinturier grapes, the juice itself is red and therefore when it comes in contact with the skins it becomes even darker in color. Unlike regular grapes, the pulp of teinturier grapes contains the pigment anthocyanin, which also has powerful antioxidant properties. Saperavi is one of the few teinturier grapes to be used in wine production and its dark color is greatly valued for blending.
It’s a hardy grape and its loose grape clusters make it more disease resistant than many other varieties. It tolerates cold well, can grow at altitude and is very expressive of its terroir. Saperavi is also a high yielding variety, but it can deliver good quality even when yields are high, although lower yields will produce better results. The wines it makes are very full bodied and, while tannin and acidity are usually high, they can vary depending on yield and production methods employed.
Varietal Saperavi wines are powerful and robust and have often been compared to Cabernet Sauvignon, with which they share many taste similarities. Aromas of autumn berries, ripe dark fruits, cassis and spice, with some earthy and smoky notes, are followed by flavors of cherry, blackberry, blackcurrant and plum, together with hints of leather, licorice, chocolate, coffee and even tobacco. If the wines are oaked you can expect additional flavors of cedar or vanilla. It is generally best to decant these wines an hour before serving to allow the flavor profile to open up. They have good aging potential and many can improve for up to 15 years and longer. Saperavi is also very good in blends, as it can bring many attributes to the finished wine.
Georgian wine production today is dominated by large modern wineries, many of which produce good quality wine using modern winemaking techniques. However, the most exciting wines are made by a small number of artisan winemakers who use the ancient method of fermenting and aging their wines in qvevri (quev-er-ree), which are large clay amphorae (pottery vessels) that are buried in the ground – for more on this, see details below. Most of the Saperavi wines you encounter will be made using modern winemaking techniques, but be sure to look out for those produced by the ancient qvevri method, as they are unique and reflect how wine might have tasted thousands of years ago.
A word of caution here! Most of these qvevri-produced wines are natural wines, that is to say, they have been made without any human intervention and although they may taste “conventional”, they may also taste rather odd and even funky (for more see the glossary entries on “Natural Wine” and “Funky”), so be sure to talk to your wine supplier before purchasing – if they stock these wines they will understand and be very happy to help.
You may also chance upon some sweet Saparavi wines, as sweet reds are very popular in the former Soviet Republics, including Georgia. Outside of the former Soviet Republics there are just a few wineries cultivating Saperavi. There are some in the USA (in Finger Lakes in New York State and also in Pennsylvania) with a larger number in Australia, though still small in general terms.
Qvevri Winemaking Method
A qvevri (quev-er-ree) – also spelt quevri and kvevri – is a large clay vessel or amphorae that has been used for winemaking in Georgia and the wider Transcaucasia region for thousands of years. The word qvevri in Georgian means “buried in the ground” and that is exactly what the winemakers do, leaving the top of the vessel at ground level for easy access. The top is covered with a wooden or stone lid and then sealed with a layer of clay. Qvevri vary in size and can hold anything from a few hundred to a few thousand litres of wine.
In preparation for use, the qvevri are heated and then lined with a coating of beeswax, which sterilizes and keeps them watertight. After the harvest the grapes are crushed and then added to the qvevri, along with the ripest stems, and left to ferment naturally. This fermentation begins spontaneously and is activated by the wild yeasts that are present on the grape skins and stems – there is no human intervention – and due to the fact that the qvevri is buried in the ground the temperature inside remains constant.
Depending on the size of the qvevri, and the grape variety used, the fermentation period may last anything from a few days, to several months. After fermentation the wine is sometimes left to age on its skins for about six months or it may be transferred to another clean qvevri. As these wines age they acquire greater depth and dimension and the qvevris, being made of clay, allow micro-oxygenation to take place, which softens the tannins. Wines made in this traditional way are not filtered and there are no fining substances used (i.e. egg white or isinglass to remove very fine particles from the wine).
Because the whole winemaking process is entirely natural the results are, to a large extent, unpredictable, and that is the great appeal of these wines for many people. You should note that some winemakers are now combining qvevri and modern winemaking techniques. For example, they may use the qvevri method for fermentation and then age the wine in oak barrels. Alternatively, they may produce 30% or 50% of the wine by the qvevri method and the remainder by the modern method of stainless steel tanks or barrels and then blend the two. For more information in the app see related glossary entries on “Natural Wine” and “Orange Wine”.
Taste: Aromas of black and red fruits with flavors of blackberry, blackcurrant, redcurrant and raspberry. Has a spicy, black pepper, character and as it ages develops smoky aromas, with notes of licorice, cloves, leather, coffee, caramel, vanilla and dark chocolate.
Tannin: High (firm in cool climate / soft in warm climate)
Acidity: Medium to high
Age: Drink simple wines in the first few years, better wines need up to five years and the best required ten years to fully open up.
Aka: Known as Shiraz in Australia.
Syrah (see-RAH) – called Shiraz in Australia – is a classic grape variety of exceptional quality and nobility. It originated in the Northern Rhône Valley in France, where it has long produced some of the finest red wines in the world. DNA analysis has revealed that its parents are the now rare varieties Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche from southeast France.
For most of its history, Syrah has had a very low profile and it is only since the 1990s that it began to receive due recognition as an excellent grape variety and started to colonise the wine world. This change was triggered by rave reviews of the Northern Rhone wines and the emergence of Australian Shiraz to meet the world demand for big wines with ripe, warm-climate flavors.
Syrah is a warm climate grape, although it is at the limit of its range in the Northern Rhône, where it only ripens on the warmest sites. It is quite accommodating in terms of where it grows, but does best on poor soils with a granite substructure. Vigorous growth is a characteristic of Syrah, however pruning to reduce yields in order to improve quality is not very successful.
The best wines come from old vines or where natural conditions, such as vineyard location, restrict yields. Although a relatively small, thick-skinned grape, Syrah makes big wines that can be very powerful and intense. They are normally full bodied with high levels of tannin that are generally soft in structure.
Syrah from cooler and more temperate climates, such as the Northern Rhône, has high acidity, firm tannins and red fruit flavors, such as redcurrant and raspberry, which are more dominant than the black fruit flavors of blackberry and blackcurrant also present. These cooler climate versions can also display herbaceous flavors along with the spiciness of black pepper. As they age they develop lovely smoky aromas, with notes of licorice, clove, leather, coffee and caramel. Barrel aging in oak gives additional vanilla and toasty notes. These wines from cooler regions can be very elegant in structure.
By contrast, Syrah from hotter regions, such as South Australia, will have moderate acidity and more integrated and softer tannins, as well as richer and riper fruit flavors giving a slightly sweet impression, even though these wines are dry. Black fruit flavors are more prevalent and can be accompanied by lovely rich notes of dark chocolate. They are very fruit driven wines and are therefore bigger, denser and more alcoholic than their cool climate equivalents. They also age extremely well, developing additional aromas and flavors, and can match the complexity of those from cool climates.
Generally, Syrah is also quite responsive to terroir, displaying different characteristics when grown in different locations, which adds another dimension to these wines. It makes wonderful varietal wines and some winemakers, such as those from the Northern Rhône and Australia, will often add a small proportion of Viognier to enhance texture and introduce an exotic, aromatic quality to the wine. Syrah is also an excellent blending partner, working exceptionally well with grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Malbec, Mourvèdre, Sangiovese and Tempranillo.
The success of Syrah cultivation around the world has resulted in the production of an enormous amount of varietal and blended wines, in a range of styles. An inevitable result of this success is that some of these wines are produced at a price point for the mass market and have little to recommend them. Fortunately, there are also many dedicated producers making wines of great merit and distinction, which will reward the discerning wine enthusiast time and again.
Taste: Big, masculine wine with red and black fruit flavors of raspberry, plum and blackberry, combined with smoky and spicy notes. Age adds additional flavors of chocolate, coffee, tobacco and vanilla.
Age: Most should be drunk within a few years of the vintage, but those from Madiran in France are long lived and need additional time to soften their tannic structure.
Aka: Also known as Harriague in Uruguay.
Tannat (tah-nat) is a very old grape variety. It is believed to have originated in the Basque region of northwest Spain, but also has a centuries old association with Madiran in southwest France. In the late 19th century it was brought to Uruguay by Basque immigrants, where it flourished, and has since become the national red grape variety of the country.
It is a very easy grape to grow and, unlike many red varietals, it produces relatively low yields and therefore requires less vineyard management. Another positive attribute is the fact that it has good disease resistant properties. Tannat berries are small, giving the grapes a high skin-to-pulp ratio, which adds significant levels of tannin to the finished wine. The fact that Tannat grapes contain 5 seeds (pips) compared to 2 or 3 for most other varieties also adds to tannin levels. These tannins give the wines structure and aging potential.
Tannat makes big, masculine wines that, as the name suggests, are very high in tannin. Acidity and alcohol are also high and the body is very full. These robust wines display red and black fruit flavors of raspberry, plum and blackberry, combined with smoky and spicy notes. With age they can develop additional flavors of chocolate, coffee, tobacco and vanilla.
The impact of the high tannin has been reduced in recent years through a process known as “micro-oxygenation” which allows oxygen into the wine during fermentation. Oak aging also helps in this regard, as well as adding complexity and a vanilla flavor.
There are subtle differences between Tannat wines from France and those from Uruguay. Generally, those from Uruguay are softer in structure with less harsh tannins and deeper black fruit flavors. It is an interesting exercise to compare and contrast the characteristics for the wines from these two countries to fully appreciate their differences.
Tannat is a grape of admirable quality and is attracting increasing interest amongst wine lovers and winemakers alike. Outside of France and Uruguay, there are a small but growing number of plantings in California, led by the progressive Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles.
An interesting fact about Tannat is its reputed “Health Benefits” due to the fact that it contains the highest levels of procyanidins and the phenolic compound Resveratrol of any grape variety. They are thought to convey cardiovascular benefits by reducing cholesterol and lipid levels when wine is consumed in moderate quantities.
Quoted in support of this theory is the fact that the Gers department in southwest France (which includes the Madiran appellation) has double the national average of men aged 90-plus. This perhaps explains the “French Paradox”, which relates to the relatively low level of heart disease in France despite the consumption of a high level of saturated fat.
Taste: A richly aromatic fragrance of violets gives way to black fruit flavors of blackberry and mulberry on the palate, along with spicy black pepper notes.
Acidity: Medium to high
Age: Needs to age for a few years to soften its tannic structure.
Touriga Nacional (too-REE-gah na-son-AL) is native to Portugal and many consider it to be the country’s best grape variety. It has long been revered as the star grape in the production of Fortified (Port) wines, and today produces many excellent varietal and blended wines in the Powerful style.
It is a vigorous growing vine that likes hot climatic conditions and is usually planted on the warmest sites. However, despite this vigor it produces very low yields from its sparse bunches of small, thick-skinned grapes – its yields are much lower than most commercial grape varieties. Clones are currently being developed in an attempt to increase yields and therefore improve productivity.
The wines Touriga Nacional makes are concentrated and full flavored with high tannin and medium to high acidity. A richly aromatic fragrance of violets gives way to black fruit flavors of blackberry and mulberry on the palate, along with spicy black pepper notes. The high tannin levels, due to the small thick-skinned grapes, and good acidity make the wines very suitable to oak aging, which helps soften their structure and allow them to age beautifully.
Because of Touriga’s low yields and tannic structure it is mainly used as a blending partner in table wines, as well as being a very important component in the production of Port. While it is undoubtedly excellent in blends, and many believe this to be its true vocation, it is increasingly fashionable to produce it as a pure varietal table wine (made from 100% Touriga Nacional). In this respect it is often compared to Cabernet Sauvignon, which is often made as a varietal wine but excels in blends.
At its best Touriga Nacional is a lush, yet vibrant, wine with great character and finesse. It ages well and needs a few years to soften its tannic structure, but as it does so its rich flavors deepen and develop wonderfully. It is definitely a grape worth getting to know, both as a blending partner and going solo as a varietal wine.
Taste: Rich and complex with aromas of red and black fruits, accompanied by characteristic tomato and olive fragrances as the wine matures, followed by flavors of plum, cherry, raspberry, fig, tapenade, earth and spice. With age, additional flavors of leather, licorice, and clove can develop.
Body: Medium to full
Tannin: Medium to high
Acidity: Medium to high
Age: With relatively high acidity and tannin these wines require up to five years to achieve balance and can improve for a further ten.
Other: Name is also spelt Xynomavro.
Xinomavro (ZEE-NO-mav-row) is a native Greek varietal of great quality and class that produces the finest red wines of this ancient wine producing country. These wines can compete with many of the world’s best and are often compared to Nebbiolo (Barolo), which produces some of Italy’s most revered red wines.
It is the country’s most planted red grape variety and is grown all across northern Greece and particularly in the province of Macedonia and its two prestigious wine regions of Naoussa and Goumenissa. Of these two regions, Naoussa is considerably more important and all the Xinomavro produced there are pure varietal wines (made from 100% Xinomavro).
The grape’s name translates as “sour black” and in youth the wines can be bitter with high acidity and harsh tannins. However, these same properties ensure the wines age well and they generally need up to five years to develop a balanced structure. Many can continue to mature and evolve for a further period of ten years.
Xinomavro is a late ripening grape that only produces its best fruit in ideal climatic conditions, so quality can vary between vintages. It is also a particularly difficult grape to grow and requires considerable skill from the winemaker if it is to realise its potential. But when it does, mature wines from good producers show great elegance and complexity.
Aromas of red and blackfruits are accompanied by characteristic tomato and olive fragrances as the wines mature, followed by flavors of plum, cherry, raspberry, fig, tapenade, earth and spice. With age, additional flavors of leather, licorice and clove can evolve. The best wines will benefit from decanting for an hour before serving.
Greek wine production has gone through a revolution in recent decades and continues to develop and improve. As it does so, native varieties like Xinomavro are revealing their true qualities and international appeal. Experimentation is also taking place and some blends featuring Xinomavro, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are showing great promise.
As Greek wines are still not widely available you will have to seek them out, but your effort will be well rewarded.
Taste: Big and intense with red fruit flavors of raspberry and cranberry (cooler regions) and rich juicy flavors of blackberry and plum, accompanied by the spiciness of pepper, clove and cinnamon (warmer regions). Oak adds additional vanilla, cedar and smoky notes.
Tannin: Medium to high
Acidity: Medium to high
Age: Best enjoyed within a few years of release, but the highest quality wines age well.
Other: Tends to be high in alcohol.
Zinfandel (ZIN-fan-dell) has been adopted by California, which has done so much to develop and promote this quality grape. It has a long history in the American west, having originally been used to make wine for the miners of the famous gold rush of 1849.
However, its origins remained a mystery until the 1990s, when DNA profiling confirmed that it is genetically the same as the Primitivo variety from Southern Italy, but not absolutely identical – they are both clones of the same variety (see Primitivo in the Powerful style). More recently, it has been confirmed that it is actually identical to a Croatian grape variety that is known by several names, including Crljenak Kaštelanski and Tribidrag.
Zinfandel is an early ripening grape variety that likes a long warm growing season with hot days followed by cool nights. In these ideal conditions it will achieve full ripeness while retaining acidity. It has been used to produce pretty much every style of wine, but what it makes best are big, robust, intense wines full of character and personality. These powerful wines are very full bodied with medium to high tannins, bright acidity and high alcohol levels.
One of Zinfandel’s main attributesis its fruit-driven character, which varies in intensity depending on where it is grown. In cooler regions red fruit flavors, such as raspberry and cranberry, are more prominent, while in warmer regions its ripe ‘brambly’ fruit comes through, with rich juicy flavors of blackberry and plum accompanied by the spiciness of pepper, clove and cinnamon. It takes very well to controlled oak contact, which adds additional vanilla, cedar and smoky notes.
There is no doubt that old vines produce the best wines, as yields are naturally low (Zinfandel has a tendency to over-produce) resulting in denser structure and better balance. Many of these wines from old vines, especially single vineyard examples, are world class and as they age, develop more complex flavors of coconut, cigar box, herbs and tobacco.
It is quite common for winemakersto add a little Petite Sirah to their Zinfandel wines. In general, most Zinfandels should be consumed within a few years of release as only the highest quality wines have long aging potential.
Mention should be made of White Zinfandel. It is not actually a white wine, but a Blush wine or Rosé, which is made by removing the skins of the Zinfandel grapes from the juice after they are pressed. This prevents most of the dark red pigment in the skins from coloring the wine, which as a result ends up pink. They are generally quite sweet to taste but can be dry, have little or no tannin and may have a small amount of Muscat or Riesling added to give an aromatic quality.
White Zinfandels are considered to be more like a fruit punch than a wine. Most are mass-produced from high-yielding vines to keep costs down and meet specific retail price points. They became enormously successful in the 1980s, so much so, that they marked a revival in the fortunes of Zinfandel, which might otherwise have been replaced by varieties that were more popular at the time, resulting in the loss of many precious old vines. White Zinfandel remains extremely popular in the United States today.