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The Wine World's Superstar Grapes

Although near-great varietals may attempt to compete, these six grapes remain the most influential and adored around the globe. An oenophile tells why.

There are over 4,000 wine grapes in the world, and almost all of them have more than one name. Malbec, for example, has at least 34. Still, few are worth keeping track of, and even fewer are of world-class consequence. In fact, I put the number of superstars at six. I'm sure that some wine lovers will consider this number too small, while others may argue that a worthy grape got slighted (I'll bet Merlot drinkers will be leading this charge), or simply that far too many of the six are French. But these grapes have proven themselves in every part of the world. They've consistently produced great wines in their countries of origin as well as in many new regions--unlike near-great grapes like Sangiovese and Tempranillo, which have yet to truly shine in non-native soil. So, six it stays--at least for now.

Chardonnay
Although it's known as the winemaker's grape because it adapts to so many different winemaking techniques, Chardonnay should really be called the politician's grape because its wide range of flavors and styles means it's fully capable of being all things to all people. It can be buttery, with notes of oak and vanilla, when it's aged in barrels; rich and tropically flavored when it's made in certain parts of California; or steely and austere, marked by mineral notes, when it comes from Chablis. Chardonnay is not only adaptable, it's easy to grow. It's also very easy to find, since Chardonnay is called Chardonnay all over the world. Except, of course, in the region that made it famous--Burgundy. There it's known by the place where it's grown. Hence, famous Burgundian Chardonnays are called Montrachet, Meursault and Chablis. Chardonnay is also an important grape in other parts of France--notably Champagne, where it's blended with Pinot Noir. But the character of Chardonnay is arguably clearest in Burgundy, where it produces wines of such breed and distinction that the whole world has spent decades in attempted duplication. The result is that many very good (and some superb) Chardonnays are made all over the world.

GREAT NAMES Burgundy Colin, Dauvissat, Drouhin, Leflaive, Ramonet, Verget. California Landmark, Marcassin, Peter Michael. Italy Jermann. Australia Petaluma. South Africa Thelema. GREAT BUYS California Estancia. Australia Lindemans. South Africa Cape Indaba.

Sauvignon Blanc
While rich and powerful Chardonnay still wins the popularity contests, thanks no doubt to its endlessly accommodating ways, lean and spare Sauvignon Blanc has sparked its share of international interest. In fact, Sauvignon Blanc is now grown successfully in so many places, it's hard to remember that it too hails from France, specifically the Loire Valley and Bordeaux, where it's half the equation of dry white wines and that legendary dessert wine, Sauternes.

Sauvignon Blanc is more difficult than Chardonnay in many ways; it's harder to grow and tougher to like, with a more assertive nature and a smaller range of flavors. However, thanks to its crisp character and generous acidity, it's in many ways the more versatile food wine. A young Sauvignon Blanc can be remarkably refreshing, with an aroma that is often compared to citrus fruits like lemons, limes and grapefruits or even to fields of freshly mown grass.

The first great Sauvignons were made in France's Loire Valley, notably in the appellations Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé (where, like Chardonnay, it goes by place name rather than grape name). In fact, Pouilly-Fumé inspired Robert Mondavi to name the Sauvignon Blanc that he aged in wood Fumé Blanc, a moniker that other California winemakers have since called their own. More recently, stunning Loire-style Sauvignons have been produced in all sorts of new places like South Africa and, even more notably, New Zealand.

GREAT NAMES Loire Didier Dagueneau, Lucien Crochet. New Zealand Cloudy Bay, Seresin Estate, Wairau River. California Robert Mondavi, Murphy-Goode, Spotteswoode. South Africa Mulderbosch, Thelema. GREAT BUYS California Buena Vista, Chateau Souverain, Chateau St. Jean. New Zealand Brancott Vineyards, Villa Maria.

Riesling
Although some claim Riesling to be the noblest white grape of all, it's hard to think of another varietal that has suffered a more ignoble treatment at the hands of modern winemakers. In a crime called Liebfraumilch, a torrent of wrenchingly sweet wines was sent forth and misidentified as Rieslings. So great was the damage that Riesling is still fighting to reclaim the respect it deserves.

Of course, committed wine drinkers have known all along the great heights this German grape is capable of achieving. And although a full-fledged Riesling revival has yet to occur, Riesling has been rediscovered by a small but passionate cadre of chefs in this country who've found in its flowery-steely character a perfect food wine. For Riesling possesses ample amounts of food-friendly fruit and bracing acidity, as well as a range of flavors and textures more varied than Chardonnay's. Beginning with its bouquet, which can be delicately floral or dramatically opulent, it can be bone-dry or gloriously sweet, lively and low in alcohol in its youth or impressively stately in its maturity, for a great Riesling can improve with decades of aging.

Riesling's most profound expressions are still found in Germany and its neighbors, Alsace and Austria, although Italy, Australia, Washington State and New York State can also produce memorable examples.

GREAT NAMES Germany Bürklin-Wolf, Ernst Loosen, J. J. Prüm. Austria Hirtzberg, Pichler. Alsace Boxler, Hugel, Kreydenweiss. Washington State Chateau Ste. Michelle. Australia Grosset. New York Hermann J. Wiemer. GREAT BUYS Washington State Chateau Ste. Michelle. Australia Pikes Polish Hill River Estate. Germany Christoffel.

Cabernet Sauvignon
There's a mantra that must be repeated wherever this grape is grown. It begins with "Cabernet is King" and ends with "Show me the money." For Cabernet Sauvignon not only produces some of the world's most regal and polished wines, but also commands some of its most staggering prices.

Cabernet Sauvignon is an easy grape to grow and to recognize, with signature aromas of black currant and cedar, as well as tobacco or even lead pencil. And while it can be surprisingly fruity and accessible in its youth, Cabernet is generally quite dark and tannic, requiring several years of aging (often in oak barrels) to fully reveal itself. In Bordeaux, Cabernet is customarily blended with several other grapes, although it is, especially in the Médoc, very much the dominant grape. (It's a full 80 percent of first growths Châteaux Mouton and Latour and around 70 percent of first growth Château Lafite.)

Cabernet is planted pretty much anywhere winemakers want to show their intentions are serious but certain places seem to have yielded greater wines than others, notably Bordeaux, Italy, California (that's Napa) and Washington State.

GREAT NAMES Bordeaux Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Latour, Château Mouton Rothschild. California Arajuo Estate, Bryant Family, Caymus Special Select, Chateau Montelena. Washington State Andrew Will, De Lille Winery. Italy Sassicaia, Darmagi. GREAT BUYS California St. Francis, Markham. Washington State Columbia Crest. Chile Concha y Toro.

Syrah/Shiraz
Burly is the word that comes to mind when describing the rich, full-bodied, muscular, rugby-player style wines this grape can produce. Little wonder the same country that gave us Crocodile Dundee adopted it for its own (and had the audacity to rename it Shiraz). However, this grape first achieved greatness in the Rhône Valley, where it's responsible for the "manliest" wine in France, Hermitage. This was the wine that Australians paid homage to with their first great Shiraz, calling it Grange Hermitage until the proprietary French registered a protest and the name was shortened simply to Grange.

California producers, thanks to a group formed in the Eighties called the Rhône Rangers, have also recognized this grape's great potential, turning out extraordinarily rich, spicy wines that owe much to the Australian model in both flavor and attitude.

GREAT NAMES France Chapoutier, Chave, Guigal, Jaboulet. Australia Elderton, Fox Creek, Penfolds, Tim Adams. California Ojai, Qupé, Thackery. GREAT BUYS Australia Rosemount, Bulletin Place. South Africa Backsberg.

Pinot Noir
Although it's often described as the grape of sensualists, owing to its peculiar blend of the earthy and the ethereal, Pinot Noir sometimes seems better suited to the care of psychiatrists than winemakers. For no other grape has ever been as consistently described as "fragile," "neurotic," "temperamental" and even "heartbreaking." Nevertheless, it's planted all over the world. Even though it can be trying and difficult to grow, Pinot Noir can also be utterly beguiling. Its elusive character can encompass everything from simple red fruits like cherries and strawberries to deeper, more mysterious elements of earth and soil. And, as another point in its favor, thanks to luscious fruit and good acidity, Pinot Noir is probably one of the world's most versatile food wines, as appropriate with salmon as with boeuf bourguignon.

While it's the red grape of Burgundy and Chardonnay's partner in the making of Champagne, Pinot Noir has been planted with particular success in parts of the United States, notably Oregon and California's Carneros region and the Santa Maria and Russian River Valleys. There is also interesting Pinot Noir (called Pinot Nero) being made in northern Italy, as well as, more recently, New Zealand and even South Africa.

GREAT NAMES Burgundy Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Dujac. California Au Bon Climat, Rochioli, Williams Selyem. Oregon Beaux Frères, Brick House, Ken Wright. Italy Höfstatter. South Africa Hamilton Russell. GREAT BUYS California Napa Ridge, Saintsbury. Oregon Rex Hill.

Published January 2000
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