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The Wine Keyboard Guide to Tasting Different Varietals

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Abrusco

Abrusco makes its home in Tuscany in Italy. It is rarely made as a single varietal. So why include it here? It is very often blended with Sangiovese as well as other varietals to make Chianti.

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Albarino

Up for an intoxicating slap in your senses? Great, then let’s taste that zippy, highly aromatic white varietal known Albarino in Spain and Alvarinho in Portugal! The Albarino grape has a unique combination of characteristics. The grape is very small, thick skinned, and loaded with pips (seeds). It can withstand the sometimes dry and often wet, blustery weather of the coastal regions where it is grown.

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Barbera

Barbera has traditionally been an easy-drinking, rustic and hearty table wine. However, some modern vineyard practices can result in the enhancement of certain characteristics. For example, the use of oak can add spice and richness, and pruning off some fruit to limit production, known as cropping, can concentrate flavors in the remaining grapes.

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Blaufrankisch

Did someone say Blaufrankisch? Now try saying it ten times after tasting... Blaufrankisch is a black grape varietal. Frankisch denotes a superior varietal, and so it is. Blaufrankisch is grown in various parts of Middle Europe.

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Cabernet Franc

Let’s taste the oft blended Cabernet Franc as a single varietal. You may enjoy it as a stand alone and even be assisted in recognizing it in your favorite blends. Some fun facts before getting started.

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Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon wine tasting can be a bit of a puzzle, a most yummy one though. Here are some pre-tasting factoids to help you put the pieces together. DNA testing showed that Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc are the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon. Say what? Yep, the science does not lie.

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Carignan

Carignan is generally medium- to full-bodied. You will find it often dark, minerally, ripe, and occasionally astringent because of the naturally high acid and tannin characteristics. Have some grilled meats and veggies available.

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Carmenere

Carmenere - the abbreviated history. Carmenere was grown mainly in the Bordeaux region of France. Sadly, it was wiped out there by the dreaded phylloxera around 1867. Happily, though, cuttings had previously been exported to winemakers in Chile in the 1850’s. And as is the way of things, people believed the vines to be Merlot for decades.

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Chardonnay

Chardonnay is one of the most widely cultivated varietals in the world. It is also known as white Burgundy after the main region in France where it is grown. Before you taste, a few thoughts about oak and oak barrels. Size matters, but not as you might think.

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Chenin Blanc

Chenin is an amazingly versatile varietal producing extremely high quality, long lived botrytis wines, fortified wines, sparkling wines, and excellent, cellar worthy sweet and dry table wines. And an unfortunate amount of plonk. Let’s focus on the good table wine versions of Chenin Blanc in this tasting adventure.

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Cinsault

Cinsault or Cinsaut, a red varietal however you spell it, is pronounced SAN-so and is cultivated in a variety of places. You will find plantings in southern France, northern Africa including Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, South Africa, Lebanon, Corsica, and California. Cinsault produces tight bunches, which makes it prone to rot, and so does better in drier climates.

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Corvina

Corvina is grown mainly in northeastern Italy and is also known as Corvina Veronese. It is used to make wines in a variety of styles. Perhaps you have heard of Amarone or Recioto. Corvina is also often blended, particularly in Valpolicella and Bardolino.

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Dolcetto

Dolcetto is a drink young red varietal grown pretty much only in the northwestern part of the Piedmont region in Italy. Dolcetto is characteristically low in acid and high in tannins. To the local palate, the low acidity makes the wine sweet, dolce in Italian.

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Grenache

Can you say Grenache or Garnacha? Either way, it is the most widely planted black varietal in Spain, and one of the most widely planted world-wide. Grenache probably originated in Sardinia, and may have been brought to Spain when Sardinia was part of the kingdom of Aragon from 1297 to 1713. Wine tasting AND history - such fun!

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Marsanne

Marsanne is intriguingly quirky. It can be both full-bodied and rich, while also displaying terrific minerality. Marsanne is typically low in acid. It performs well when treated either in stainless steel or in oak. It is an eminently cellar-worthy varietal.

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Merlot

Because we don’t all agree with that guy from the movie “Sideways,” let’s taste Merlot! After we learn a few side facts first. Merlot is one of the most widely planted varietals. You can find it in practically every wine growing region of the world. Like Cabernet Franc, it is very often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon because of the complimentary characteristics.

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Moscato

You say Moscato; I say Muscat; he says Moscato di Canelli; she says Moscato d’Asti; they say Muscatel, Muskotaly, Muscat d’Alsace, Moscatello, Frontignac, Muskadel, stop already! Who knew Muscat blanc a petits grains could masquerade under so many different names?

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Pais

Who is up for tasting an unusual varietal? Okay then, let’s learn about Pais! The varietal is widely planted in Chile, especially in the southern Maule and Bio-Bio valleys. Pais is one and the same as the Mission grape of California and Mexico. Many of the Chilean Pais vines in production today are more than 100 years old.

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Pinot Gris

Whether you are tasting Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio, you are enjoying the same varietal and might be interested in these facts as well. The grapes of Pinot Gris bunches are often multi-colored ranging from grayish-blue to brownish-pink. How cool is that?! The leaves are almost identical to Pinot Noir leaves, not terribly surprising when you consider that Pinot Gris is a mutation of Pinot Noir.

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Pinot Noir

Let’s taste some Pinot Noir! But first, some possibly interesting trivia. In French, Pinot means pine and Noir black. Some clever French speaking individual saw a resemblance between the shape of a pine cone and the tightly bunched, conically shaped grape clusters. And so, “the black pine” was born.

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Riesling

Riesling rocks! And you will soon taste why that is true. First, some background trivia. Like many varietals, Riesling aromas and flavors depend upon the site where it is grown and in particular the climate, soils, viticultural practices, and winemaking style. Riesling is especially nuanced because the same varietal can produce wines of vastly different sweetness from bone dry to dessert style, botrytis wines.

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Sangiovese

Sangiovese is a red varietal which has long been cultivated throughout Italy. It is the principal varietal in the west-central regions of Tuscany, Umbria and Latium (Lazio). Most of us think of Sangiovese as synonymous with Chianti, Tuscany, and heaven. Things are actually a bit more complicated.

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Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc is the varietal but the wine is equally well known as Sancerre, for the Loire Valley region in France where it is widely grown. You may also know it as Fume Blanc, Bordeaux Bianco or Muskat-Silvaner, but let’s just stick with Sauvignon Blanc here.

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Syrah and Shiraz

Syrah or Shiraz? Both! The varietal is believed to have come from the Fars province in Persia, whose capital is Shiraz. The French word, Syrah, is probably more common, except of course in Australia. There is also credible evidence that Syrah descended from a particular vine cultivated in the Rhone region of France as far back as Roman times.

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Tempranillo

Tempranillo is cultivated predominantly in Spain and particularly in the Rioja region on the Iberian Peninsula. Tempranillo accounts for about 70% of all vines under cultivation in Rioja. In Spanish, Temprano means early and -- are you already there? -- Tempranillo tends to ripen early!

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Zinfandel

Zinfandel tasting can be complicated by some vastly different styles, from light white zinfandels to the more massive red expressions of the varietal. These tasting descriptors will focus on the more typical red expressions. But first, a little trip down memory lane.

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