Wine Basics 1: Most Popular American Varietals

Posted January 16, 2018

Most of the wines in America that we’re familiar with originated in Europe, mainly France. The difference between wines in the United States and France is a question of varietal vs. Terrior. Did I lose you? Let me explain. In the United States we often identify wine by the varietal (type of grape: Chardonnay, Merlot for instance). In Europe, the wine is most often identified by the region it comes from. One reason for this is due to European winemaking having a much longer history than winemaking in the United States, hence they’ve come to understand and value the importance of Terrior (Wikipedia describes Terroir as…the set of special characteristics that the geographygeology and climate of a certain place, interacting with plant genetics, express in agricultural products such as winecoffee ...). Another reason is that most European wines are often blends of several different grapes (Burgundy being a notable exception).


Since “serious” winemaking in the U.S is relatively young* and Americans are still learning to make (as well as how to appreciate) wines, we still refer to wines by the name of the grape to simplify matters. I would guess that as the industry evolves and American wine drinkers become more sophisticated, we will refer to wines by region more and varietal less. In a recent trip to Santa Ynez (Santa Barbara’s wine making region) most wineries I visited made it a point to talk about the vineyard(s) their grapes came from and what affect the location had on the wines.


Just to confuse matters (or hopefully to simplify things in the long run), in Europe, we often associate certain grapes with certain areas. We use those associations herein the states to give us a frame of reference, and to better understand the wine we're drinking.


In Europe, over the millennia winemakers have found out that certain grapes do better in different regions which are best suited to express the character of each particular grape. Here’s a rundown of the popular varietals in the United States, where they originated, and what region(s) in the United States have become known for those varietals. 




U.S region known for varietal/

Suggestion from the shelves of Uncorked




Napa Valley, Sonoma, Santa Ynez (Happy Canyon), Paso Robles, Washington state (Walla Walla, Columbia Valley, Red Mountain, etc)

William Harrison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon



Napa Valley, Sonoma, Monterey,

Eastern Washington (Columbia Valley, etc)

Chacewater Lake County Merlot



Most of California, Oregon, Washington

PIer Avenue Chardonnay

Pinot Noir


California: Napa, Sonoma, Santa Ynez, Monterey, Mendocino, Central Coast, Oregon (Willamette Valley)

Ave Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

Sauvignon Blanc


Most of California, Washington State

Pier Avenue Sauvignon Blanc


Rhone Valley (France)

Napa, Santa Ynez, Walla Walla (WA)

Tolosa Syrah


Italy via Croatia

Napa, Sonoma, Amador County, Santa Cruz, Paso Robles, Lodi

Plough Zindandel


*For discussion purposes, I’ll use Napa Valley winemaking of the 70’s and the famous “Judgment of Paris” as a signpost of the first real recognition of “serious” winemaking in the United States.

Posted in Events By Uncorked Hermosa

Rhone Varietals

Posted February 08, 2015

The Rhone Valley is in the south of France and divided into North and South and like Bordeaux, blends make up the majority of wines produced here. Also, like Bordeaux, a connection can be made between the main grapes grown there, and the major varietals we’ve come to know and love in the United States. Close to home, a lot of Santa Ynez (Santa Barbara’s wine growing region) winemakers specialize in producing wine from Rhone grapes. Blends from the northern Rhone tend to be Syrah-centric, while blends from the south are usually Grenache heavy. The most famous region in the (southern) Rhone valley is arguably Châteauneuf-du-Pape. One of the standard bearers of Rhone Varietals in California is Tablas Creek, in Paso Robles.



Don’t confuse it with Petite Syrah (a cross of Syrah and another grape too obscure to give a f#*k about). Yeah, they call it Shiraz in Australia. What do Australians know about wine anyway? I mean, they’re all descended from convicts, right? Anyway, Syrah is grown throughout the world and likes moderate climates such as the southern Rhone, Walla Walla region in Washington (don’t get me started! Who on god’s green earth came up with that name? Probably some Australian…) which will produce medium to full bodied wines (like my 3rd girlfriend). In hotter climates such as the Barossa Valley of Australia, the wine produced will be more full-bodied.  Besides California, Australia and France, Syrah is popping up in Chile, South Africa, and New Zealand, and Azerbaijan(next to Whatthefukistan) to name a few.



Pronounced Grin·aaach, it is one of the most widely planted grapes in the universe (I have it on good authority that it does well on Uranus. In actuality probably not. I just wanted to use the word “Uranus” in my blog). Grenache likes it to be hot and dry because it ripens late (kind of like my 5th girlfriend, hot but always late). Grenache is typically blended with other grapes (tempranillo for instance in Spain, Syrah in France). Don’t get all confused if you buy a Spanish wine (a great bang for the buck cause their economy sucks) and they call it Garnacha. Same Grape. Grenache is the lead wine in one of Americans favorite blends, called a GSM Blend: Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre (and you thought it stood for Gimmie Some More).



If you love Cab, you might want to try a Mourvèdre. In addtion to the Rhone Valley, Mourvèdre is grown in Spain, California, Washington State and South Australia. Mourvèdre is somewhat of a pain in the ass to grow, so I’m not sure why winemakers bother with it. It likes hot weather (listen up Temecula), lots of water, and is susceptible to mildew and other stuff that messes up vines. It often tastes like soft red fruit coupled with “farmy- barnyard-y notes. Like berries growing in a cow pie. Sounds like something Nebraskans might enjoy, although Saxum Vineyards in Paso Robles received a perfect 100 from Wine Guru Robert Parker (how can he not be hammered all the time?) for his 07 Red Blend that contained 30% Mourvèdre.




An “aromatic” (usually white wines where the aroma of the wine is that of the grape) wine, Viognier, like Chardonnay can be full bodied, lush, and soft (3rd wife). Since the 90’s it’s been planted more extensively around the world, notably in California, Australia, Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand, even Japan (Saki and Viognier blend anyone?). One legend surrounding the grape has it that the name is a bastardization of the ancient Roman pronunciation of via Gehennae, meaning Road of the Valley of Hell alluding to the difficulty in growing the grape. And I thought the Road of the Valley of Hell was the 405 north over the Sepulveda pass at rush hour. Silly me.



From the French word “roux” meaning “russet”. As in potato? OK, whatever. Rousanne is typically used for blending, and can be difficult to grow and so is sometimes referred to as “The Princess” (I prefer “The Bitch” but to each his own) and so is often passed over in favor of Marsanne (our next and final grape) which is not as, let’s just say “difficult” as Rousanne. Which begs the question: why even f*#k with it? Well, it is flexible, and forgiving once picked and turned into juice, it ages very well, and can turn into a beautiful, rich, complex wine. So, to extend the metaphor one more time- we’ve all known women like Rousanne- difficult at first but, with some tender loving care and patience, turns into a beautiful princess, worth the time and effort.



Another grape used primarily for blending, Marsanne, as noted above is relatively easy to grow, and is native to the Northern Rhone valley, although since the late 1800’s those crazy Australians have been loving them some Marsanne, and now grow about 80% of it world-wide. It’s typically minerally (it gets a lot of its flavors from its Terroir- another pretentious wine term we’ll delve into later), big and rich in the mouth, and gets nuttier with age. I will restrain from the obvious joke here for the sake of brevity. Thomas Jefferson, well known wino and president, thought Marsanne the “most epic grape ever, dude”. 

Posted in Jeffs Blog By Uncorked Hermosa