Grape Varieties — Prologue: Species, varieties, and clones

With grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir dominating the markets, the varieties we work with may be unfamiliar to you. Here we will introduce you to the varieties we work with: Viognier, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and, coming soon, Grenache. But first, a little background.

What is a grape variety?
With few exceptions, most wine is made from a single species of grapevine, Vitis vinifera L. Wines made from other fruits must so indicate on the label, e.g., blueberry wine, or dandelion wine. In some parts of the United States, winters are too severe for V. vinifera to survive, so other species of grape vine, most of which are indigenous to the US are used. Unfortunately, many of these species, such as V. labrusca (Concord), V. riparia, and Muscadinia Rotundifolia (Muscadine, Scuppernong) produce wines with flavors that many consider off-putting.

Varieties and clones
So, yes, everything from Albariño to Zinfandel–including Cabernet, Chardonnay, etc.–are the same species. The differences among them make each a variety. Note that a wine produced from grapes of single variety can be called (a) varietal. Even within a given variety, differences among grapevines can be detected. Some are minor, such as leaf size. Others can have a relatively large impact on the resulting wine. Pinot noir clone 777, for instance, is known to produce wines with deeper color and more intense tannins than other Pinot noir selections, or clones. Generally speaking, the older a variety, the more diversity its clones will show. Pinot noir and Sangiovese have tremendous diversity among clones, and both are thought to be at least 1000 years old. Cabernet Sauvignon, by contrast, likely resulted from a spontaneous cross between Cabernet franc and Sauvignon blanc in Bordeaux in the mid-18th century. Many Cabernet Sauvignon clones have distinctive characteristics, but not to the same extent as older varieties.

Next up: Viognier