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Cabernet sauvignon is a proud French grape and the principal variety behind France's most famous red wine, Bordeaux. With its lacy, dark green leaf and tight bunches it's one of the more handsome vines in the vineyard. It has quite rightly been called the king of the red grapes. The hallmark aromas of a good cabernet - blackcurrant and cedar - are most definitely regal. Like all good grape varieties cabernet can travel and has adapted very well in countries and climates outside France. One of the last varieties in the vineyard to ripen, cabernet prefers a cool but not cold climate. It's not a difficult vine to grow and the small thick-skinned berries are quite resistant to disease. A fact not widely known is that cabernet has one of the highest pip to pulp ratios, which explains it's firm tannins and longevity. Good quality cabernet sauvignon benefits from ageing and can be cellared for up to 20 years in the right conditions.
The typical wine making recipe is a warm fermentation, pumping over or plunging skins before pressing and transferring to French oak barrels for 18 months maturation. Blackcurrant or cassis is the classic cabernet character and there can also be a little cedar and the notorious cigar box.
Where food matching is concerned, red meat is the obvious choice but it is lamb and cabernet that find the perfect match. The unique, piquant savour of lamb and the aristocratic aromatics in cabernet make for gastronomic harmony.
Chardonnay is the most popular and most planted white grape variety in the wine world and for good reason: It grows well in the vineyard, it crops well, maintains its character in a variety of climates and is relatively easy to make into good wine. It has a long history and the story goes that amongst the spoils the Crusaders took from the Holy Land were the lemon tree and some chardonnay cuttings. Those cuttings hit pay dirt in the soil of Burgundy where chardonnay still produces France's greatest white wines. To the north of Burgundy chardonnay is one of the integral ingredients in France's gift to the world, champagne.
Chardonnay is an early budder and an early ripener and excels most in cooler climates where its peach and melon flavours are backed by more minerally characters. It has a great affinity for absorbing the flavours of oak via fermentation and maturation in barrel. French oak marries particularly well with the natural chardonnay flavours adding savoury, spicy elements.
Befitting a complex, highly flavoured white wine chardonnay prefers complex rich flavours in the food it is served with. Rich fish dishes such as crayfish, scallop and crab are particularly well suited.
Merlot is one of the most misunderstood grape varieties. While it has a reputation of being a soft, easy drinking quaffer, the world's most famous merlot, Chateau Petrus from the Pomerol district of Bordeaux, is the exact opposite.
Part of the image is due to the cute name, which came from the Aquitaine dialect for 'little blackbird'. There are a couple of theories as to why it was called this. One is that ripe merlot is the same colour as the blackbird, another is that ripe merlot grapes are the favourite diet of the little pest.
It can be a difficult vine to grow and can have setting problems during flowering and rot during ripening because of its thin skins. However, the thin skin means that it doesn't have the tough tannin of thick-skinned cabernet and that has been the reason that it is so popular as a blending option. A little bit of merlot tends to round out a boisterous young cabernet. It is vinified in the traditional red wine way but most merlots can't take as much new wood as the equivalent cabernet, nor do they have the same longevity.
Merlots plummy mid palate richness and smooth tannins mean that it is suitable with leaner types of meat: lean pork, veal, and spring lamb.
Pinot gris is intriguing. It is a white grape that makes white wine, but the variety is a mutation of the black grape, pinot noir and when ripe on the vine, the grapes are a tawny brown colour. It dates back to medieval times. There is a record of the Emperor Charles IV taking pinot gris cuttings to Hungary in the 14th century. It is well travelled and has gained fame in Alsace, Germany and in Italy where it is known as pinot grigio.
Italian grigio is a very different style of wine to Alsatian gris. Some say that the Italian pinot grigio style evolved because the grape has low acidity and in the warmer climate the Italians picked the grapes earlier because they were wary of the escalating ph and the resulting wine losing its tang. The other theory is that Italians tend to prefer fairly neutral white wine and picked their grigio accordingly.
The 'gris' style is picked later, is more perfumed, textured and unctuous and suits the heavier food of Alsace and Germany. Both versions are viable - grigio is lighter, lither with more citrus flavours and a better white with Italian styled seafood, pinot gris on the other hand is more voluptuous with complex aromatics that hint at brown pear and salt spray and is delicious with pork.
In the wine world pinot noir is the difficult child. Attention seeking, and needing lots of love and care from viticulturalists and winemakers alike, it is the variety beloved of those red winemakers who love a challenge. Absolutely sublime when it is good, but thin and disappointing when it's not, pinot is worth the effort. Good pinot is ethereal and the aromas and flavours can range from strawberry to cherry to forests bestrewn with mushrooms. Quite frankly there is no other wine like it.
In the vineyard pinot buds early and ripens early and prefers a cool climate with long autumns and plenty of hang time in the vineyard. The best results come from tiny crops – sometimes only one bunch or two bunches per plant, which makes it an expensive wine to produce. As far as winemaking goes pinot demands plenty of hands on labour- hand plunging of skins and as little pumping and filtering as possible. It does benefit from maturation and fermentation in French wood and prefers the most expensive barrels.
All the effort to produce good pinot noir makes sense at the table where its sophistication and complexity can add an extra dimension to a simple coq au vin, or a duck breast.
Like most of the great grape varieties riesling is adaptable. Just consider the climatic difference between Germany, Austria and Alsace - its ancestral homes - and the Clare Valley, the Eden Valley and Mount Barker in Western Australia - it's three prime spots in Australia. Despite the huge differences in climate it retains its innate characteristics. Riesling is an ancient variety that dates back to medieval times when the pure, clean flavour and longevity were already highly regarded.
Like most vines that have survived the test of time it is tough. It is resistant to extremes of heat and cold and is not too susceptible to disease. Good quality Australian riesling is generally whole bunch pressed with every attention given to the gentle handling of the juice. It is fermented in stainless steel, taken off lees and put into bottle as quickly as possible. Made in this way it displays the lemon/lime, floral and minerally sides of its personality.
Riesling is arguably Australians greatest white wine in the cellar. Good examples can easily handle a twenty-year stint developing a delicious toastiness while still retaining a nervy structure.
Where food is concerned riesling is a versatile white and can happily go with sashimi or a fresh whiting fillet. Its pristine, pure flavours tend to prefer similar characteristics in the food it is served with.
If one grape variety sums up modern wine drinking it's sauvignon blanc. In just three decades it has gone from being a peculiarity of the Loire valley in France to world domination. It's a phenomenon that can be explained on the one hand by improved winemaking technology which has enabled fresher, brighter sauvignon blancs than ever before, and also modern drinking habits where wine is consumed within hours of purchase. Sauvignon blanc is perfect for this – like fruit juice the fresher sauvignon blanc is the better, it is not a variety that benefits from cellaring. There is also a third factor. In an era where overdelivery is expected, sauvignon blanc gives much more that most grape varieties. It is not a shy variety and leaps from the glass assaulting the nostrils with vibrant, fresh, distinctive sauvignonblanc-ness.
An easy vine to recognise in the vineyard, sauvignon blanc canes stick up above the trellis like a gelled hairdo. It grows well in most places but prefers cooler climes and a slow ripening. The trick to making good sauvignon blanc is to pick it at precisely the right time. The timing is critical. During ripening the flavours can go from feisty to flabby in a matter of days. Winemakers continually taste grapes in the vineyard to monitor the flavour development. Sauvignon blanc is in and out of the winery quicker than most varieties where it receives a cool fermentation in stainless steel. Some styles use a little oak particularly when it is blended with semillon. v
As if to underline how much sauvignon blanc is the wine of our times, its favourite food partners are fresh, unfussy Asian styled food.
Australia may have once hitched a ride on the sheep's back, now it sits astride shiraz. It is the merino of grape varieties, and is the variety for which Australian wine is most globally famous.
Surprisingly for such a fantastically versatile variety it is not planted as widely as you might think. The Rhone Valley in France is its home, Australia its second home, while origins of the grape are suspected to be in Persia and the namesake city of Shiraz. It is strange that only Australia and South Africa use the word shiraz, everywhere else shiraz is known as syrah.
Shiraz is more adaptable to a warmer climate than cabernet and that explains its spread across this wide brown land. The vine has a lighter coloured and less lacy leaf than cabernet sauvignon and ripens a little earlier. One of the fantastic things about shiraz is the way that it changes character according to where it is grown. In cooler climates shiraz is lighter bodied and much more spicy showing white and black pepper aromatics, while in warmer climates the wine becomes denser with aromas of plums and blackberries. It can be matured in either American oak (the classic Australian style) or French oak, which is the more modern style.
Shiraz' best friend is beef, in all its cuts. Shiraz' spicy depth of flavour is perfect for the steak, roasts and beef hot pots.