Tag Archives: Vitis Vinifera

Today’s Wine Word: Vitis Vinifera


Question from Alex: What’s the difference between the grapes we eat and the grapes that make wine? Can you eat wine grapes?

Reply: Hi, Alex. Thanks for writing! As your question implies, wine grapes aren’t the same as the ones we buy at the grocery store. But, you can certainly eat wine grapes. If you visit a wine-growing region during harvest tasting the grapes is a must – they’re very sweet and delicious. The grapes we purchase at the produce counter are usually between 15 and 20% sugar. Grapes for wine (except sparkling wine) are harvested at between 20 and 30% sugar, most often between 21 and 28% – very, very sweet!

All grapes fall into the genus “Vitis”. Most of our favorite table grapes, like Flame Seedless or Concord, the species is lubrusca. So, they’re classified as Vitis lubrusca. If you like Muscadine grapes or wine, or Scuppernong, they’re categorized as Vitis rotundifolia. You can make wine from table grapes – Concord wines are out there – but we, as consumers, just don’t seem to like them very much. We seem to have a taste for wine that’s made from Vitis vinifera – wine grapes in every day parlance. Continue reading


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Cabernet is a Grape?

Question from Mark: Sorry to bother you again, but from what you said it sounds like the names on the bottles are the names of the grape – is that right? 

Reply: Hi, Mark. You’re not bothering me – I love getting your questions! When you shop for new-world wine (not from Europe), most of the time it’s named for the grape variety that made it and the country or region set minimum requirements in terms of percentage. For, instance a bottle of American Chardonnay must be made from at least 75% Chardonnay grapes. 

So, yes, Chardonnay is a grape variety that’s different from Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec… There are thousands of grape varieties, but a relative handful make most of the world’s wine. They’re members of a family called vitis vinifera – vitis is the genus and vinifera is the species. Over centuries we’ve voted with our pocket books. Select varieties within the species make wine that tastes good to us! 

So, you can drink Pinot Noir from its homeland in France or enjoy one from New Zealand.

I’ve noticed that the concept of different varieties is confusing to a lot of people. I like to think of myself at the produce market, choosing apples. Do I want Pink Ladies or Granny Smith? Same deal with wine varieties – they’re all a little different and we all have our personal preferences. 

Wine grapes are good for eating, but they’re rarely sold that way. The reason today’s table grapes are so nice and juicy and don’t bother us with seeds is because they’re hybrids, such as Thompson Seedless. Hybrids for wine are available, but they have a tiny market niche. Most of them were developed in New York to tolerate the difficult climate. Since every single state makes wine now, those hybrids are valuable in places like Minnesota too!  

When you shop for European wines, you’ll occasionally run into examples that name the grape variety, but most of the time there’s a regional name instead, such as Burgundy or Chianti. Within those regions they regulate the approved varieties, methods and so forth. In some regions, they make varietal wine (wine with  a dominant grape variety). Red Burgundy is Pinot Noir; white Burgundy is Chardonnay. In others they blend. Traditionally, Chianti is a blend of several grapes, but today they also permit varietal wine production. 

If you think all this sounds confusing, you’re absolutely right! But, it’s the way it is. Enjoy the wines that taste good to you and please ask a question whenever you have one! Cheers!  

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Q & A: I Thought Malbec is from Argentina

Question from Bob: Hi! I'm confused. I thought Malbec is from Argentina but you said it's a Bordeaux variety. What's the story? 

Hi, Bob! Thanks for writing. When you look at the shelves of your local wine shop, it's completely understandable that you'd think Malbec is from Argentina, but it was imported to Argentina from France in the mid 1800s. And, then, it' wasn't until the mid 1990s that it really took off as the "it" wine from Argentina. 

Its origins are uncertain, but we know it's been in Southwest France since at least the 1700s and was the most widely-planted variety there until the 1950s. If you've ever had a bottle of the rustic Cahors (where it's called Cot) from southern France, it's at least 70% Malbec. There's also a small amount grown in the Loire Valley, where it's called Cot or Auxerrois.    

In Bordeaux it was used to give the wine weight and color, but the plantings have greatly declined over the past several decades mainly because it's difficult to get it ripe in that relatively cool climate. 

Virtually all wine grapes, worldwide, are of European origin and are members of the species Vitus Vinifera. And, Vinifera came to Europe via Georgia and Armenia. Wine is also made of native American varieties, but it has a tiny market niche. We seems to prefer these old-fashioned varieties that have been used for centuries.

But, no one would argue with you that when it comes to Malbec, Argentina is the immediate association. In fact, any number of producers in Cahors are known to be copying the "new world" style of Argentinean Malbec and ramping up marketing trying to get a piece of the Malbec action! 

Hope that helps. Cheers! Nancy

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