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"Big Six" Wine Grape Varieties

by Staff Writer - C. Barnett | July 03, 2011

Most wines are made from grapes that are from the “Big Six” main grape varieties. There are three white grape varieties and three red grape varieties. They are the six grape varieties that are most widely grown around the world.

The Big Six Wine Grape Varieties are: (white) Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and (red) Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. These Big Six Wine Grape Varieties make up about 80% of all wines made from around the world. If you become familiar with the aromas and flavors of the Big Six Wine Grape Varieties, then you will be familiar with most of the types of wines you will encounter.

A general description of the Big Six Wine Grape Varieties

  • Chardonnay: full bodied white wine
  • Riesling:light bodied white wine
  • Sauvignon Blanc:medium bodied white wine
  • Cabernet Sauvignon:full bodied red wine
  • Merlot:medium bodied red wine
  • Pinot Noir:light to medium bodied red wine

One of the main things for a wine drinker to learn to determine is the “body” of a wine. Once you learn how to determine the body of a wine, then you can start to compare wines in relation to their body type. The body of a wine is the way a wine feels and tastes when drinking it. The body of a wine can range from a light bodied wine to a very full bodied wine. Once you are familiar with wines created from the Big Six Wine Grape Varieties, you will have a solid foundation for exploring other types of wine varieties. It can be difficult to find the adjectives to describe a new wine, but a good starting point is to compare a new wine you are trying with wines which you and other are familiar with; and the Big Six Grape Varieties are the best place to start.

White Wines of the Big Six Wine Grape Varieties

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  • Chardonnay Chardonnays are a full-bodied wine, known for their flavors that are light, citrusy and crisp. Chardonnay has a fruity taste with a flavor of apples, peaches or tropical fruit, such as mangos and pineapples. Chardonnays are usually fermented or aged in oak barrels. Oak can give Chardonnay a buttery taste. There is very little acidity left which makes the wine feel very warm and soothing.
  • Riesling Riesling wines are light bodied with the flavors of tangy apple, floral, lime, melon or mineral flavors. Riesling is usually made to be a sweet wine, although they can also be made as a dry wine as well. Riesling is rarely mixed with other grapes. Riesling is one of the few white wines that have a long aging ability.
  • Sauvignon Blanc Sauvignon Blanc is a crisp, high in acidity and light to medium-bodied wine. They can be anything from sweet to dry, but are typically very light. Sauvignon Blanc is recognizable for its grassy, herbaceous flavor and aroma. The most prominent characteristic of Sauvignon Blanc wine is its distinctive, penetrating aroma, which can evoke scents of grapefruit, lime, green melon, gooseberry, passion fruit, freshly mown grass, and bell pepper. Sauvignon Blanc can have a vastly different flavor depending on where it is grown.

Red Wines of the Big Six Grape Varieties

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  • Cabernet Sauvignon Cabernet Sauvignon is known as one of the world's finest red wines, with its depth of complexity and richness of flavor. Cabernet Sauvignon is a rich full-bodied red wine. It is aged in oak with the typical flavors being that of black currant, raspberries, cherries, blackberries, bell pepper, chocolate and sometimes spice flavors, such as vanilla and black pepper. To make these wines drinkable sooner they are often blended with other grapes. Because of the high tannins in Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine starts off very complex, and with a harsh flavor. But with aging, first in oak barrels and then in bottles, the Cabernet Sauvignon wine softens and smooth’s out the flavor. The best Cabernets age for decades.
  • Merlot Merlot is a medium-bodied wine with a soft texture. Most Merlot growers blend in Cabernet Sauvignon or other grapes. Merlot usually has ripe berry components in the bouquet. The dry, rich, and smooth texture of Merlot wine is both soft and fruity with notes of berry, plum, and black currant. It is best after four to eight years of aging and should be served slightly below room temperature. Merlot is second only to Cabernet Sauvignon in popularity in the United States.
  • Pinot Noir Pinot Noir is a light to medium-bodied red wine that matches well with many foods. The color ranges from light red to a medium dark red color. Pinot Noir has aromas and flavors of raspberry, cherry, and occasionally hints of spice, and sometimes earthy flavors like that of mushrooms. The Pinot Noir grape is difficult to grow, but when grown well, they make some of the world’s best wine.

Related Topics

The Big Six Grape Varieties are the grape varieties that are most widely planted and used in wine making. There are four additional grape varieties that are expanding and it is sometimes argued that they should be added to the list. The four additional grape varieties are Pinot Grigio, Sangiovese, Syrah and Zinfandel.

As you become more familiar with the Big Six Wine Grape Varieties you will be able to begin to compare other wine variations with each other. First begin by learning the three main red wines (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir) and three main white wines (Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc) and then branch out to include the four additional expanding wine varieties of Pinot Grigio, Sangiovese, Syrah and Zinfandel. By the time you have become very familiar with all of Big Six Wine Grape Varieties you will be knowledgeable and comfortable enough in understanding and discussing various wines and their body types.

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    • DOROTHY
      Feb 03 2013 6:31 AM
    • What is sherry wine? How is it made?

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