Which do you view as the best red grape?

Which is the best red grape variety? A question a I wish to ask all my dear readers. I know I bang on about Pinot Noir all the time but after many discussions on Twitter and Facebook I realise I may not be servicing my reader’s needs. So tell me, what do you consider the best red grape variety, regardless of popularity or vocal support on this site.

Vote for your favourite!

I will try to give you as many options as possible and, as I am a generous sort, I’ll let you vote for three. A few more common blends I include as varietals as they they they more or less are marketed as coherent entities. Just in case I’ve missed anything out there will be an option to add your own twisted and obscure favourite. But first, some thoughts.

I’ll say a few words about the big three red grapes and then some other thoughts just to pique your interest.

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is certainly my favourite grape variety. At its best it’s sexy and seductive with a brilliant ability to express where it has been grown. It can be thin and acrid with little to redeem it when made by soulless bastards. It is also one of the classier contributors to the type sparkling wine blend, and pure Pinot sparklers can be electric. Some people even make it into still white wine, but I cannot remember the last time I reported on one of those here. It scales the heights of intellectual pleasure, hedonistic ravishment and extreme expense, whilst all too often plunging to the depths of all those categories. This is a biggie to consider.

Cabernet Sauvignon is the real winner in the international popularity stakes, much like lager is to beer, I feel. The best are undoubtedly brilliant, but rarely it shows its best when all alone. It can do elegant and refined or big and buxom and I quite understand if you like it. No, I’m lying, I don’t understand at all, but lots of people do so please let me know if you are one of them.

Syrah on the vine in Argentina

The final big dog at the red grapes’ table is Syrah or Shiraz to our more modern cousins. It can do elegant, as I had the other night, it can also do heroic and bruising. It is grown the world over, and can also shine in blends, so this is a worthy contender.

Other reds include the powerful and scented Mourvedre of Spain, Chateauneauf and Bandol, capable of such aromatic complexity and incredible ageing capability it commands respect. Nebbiolo also manages these characters but is perhaps more generally accessible, and it is certainly in vogue at the moment. My personal view is that Cabernet Franc is more interesting, both pure and as part of a blend, than its more popular offspring. Vintage Port would be nothing without Touriga Nacional, but where else in the world does it flourish and deliver such quality? Some people have an undying love for Gamay of Beaujolais, but if that gets most votes I may give up writing this site.

There’s loads more to choose from, all the remotely serious ones are listed, in random order, below. Cast your three votes!

Discussions in the comments section, please, and the poll will close in a week (23 March).

We shall come to white grapes when all is done and dusted here.


23 Comments

  • Ricard wrote:

    First, David, it is a relief to see you have survived the proverbial scalpel. I hope you are feeling full of beans and have laid out a recovery plan consisting mostly of offal and Riesling.

    I love this question. Sometimes when I’m in the shower, or walking, or commuting, or somewhere where I can’t read, don’t need to concentrate, but can let my mind wander, I draw up mental lists – as men do. And grape varieties is one of them. My top five reds are normally Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah. Sometimes Cabernet or even Merlot makes it in there, more frequently Sangiovese or Nebbiolo, but they end up getting booted out when I think of a varietal wine I love made wholly or primarily from one of the five varieties above.

    Pinot is the true giant of them all in my book, the Leviathan, the Zen master. Admittedly a variety capable of withering disappointment, especially when in the wrong hands or in the wrong place (don’t let me start on one I had from Argentina a few years ago…), but when great, nothing can match its ethereal lofty poetry, its majesty and sheer ravishing, melancholic, transcendental beauty. And when consumed at the right temperature – what others would consider “slightly chilled” (the amount of times I have asked sommeliers to put it in the ice bucket for 10 minutes!) – it is eminently capable of accompanying flesh from the land and flesh from the sea with equal aplomb. Though you may disagree, David, I also think it is flourishing splendidly outside of Burgundy – notably in Oregon and New Zealand, and in some cases, Chile. It’s just the most exciting red variety on the planet, bar none. Nothing can touch it.

    On the Tempranillo front, and speaking as a Spanish wine enthusiast and former “specialist”, my affection for this variety goes back about 25 years, and in the last decade or so, it has become capable of such extraordinary greatness – in depth of beauty as well as in breadth of expression – that I am obliged to list it immediately after Pinot. I have had Riberas that have made me weep with humility, and Riojas that have made me realise the region is as profound as Bordeaux or Burgundy. I have also seen value out of Tempranillo that practically no other red variety can match – truly delicious wines at ridiculous prices. (But this last virtue is not an intrinsic virtue – just a useful, circumstantial one).

    Finally, as a Catalan, I must speak up for Grenache (which we call Garnatxa) because there is no more profound or moving wine for me than a serious Priorat (which is normally about 90%-95% Grenache and the rest Carignan, known in Priorat as Carinyena). And I believe that the greatest expression of this variety in the world is Priorat: mineral, beguilingly complex, intensely concentrated and aromatic, capable of port-like density and richness, and offering not just a heady concoction of dates, figs, liquorice and blackberries, but a more mysterious herbal dimension – rosemary, oregano, basil. Priorat is also capable of impossible astringency and tannic violence – but no region is without its let-downs. The fact that the case for Grenache is also supported by the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape strengthens the variety’s claim to greatness.

    Anyway, that’s my ha’penny’s worth.

  • Ed Tully wrote:

    This might seem like a dodge but it most certainly is not – there is no such thing as a best or favourite because putting things in rank order is silly. There are several reasons why. Firstly, is the grape variety what matters most? Pinot would be utterly ghastly in Bordeaux or in the Douro. The point is the wine should sing of the place it grows. Secondly, why would anyone want to limit themselves to one form of pleasure? All sorts of things can be wonderful. Asking a wine lover what her favourite wine might be is the same as asking an artist what his favourite colour is, or a poet her favourite word. It is true that Yves Klein’s favourite colour was blue, but then he is a pretty poor artist. It is simply asinine to reduce. Thirdly (it maybe the same as secondly) surely both mood and circmustance change? Beaulolais in spring sunshine is much more joyful than La Tache. At this point we should remember the wise words of Louis Macniece “The drunkness of things being various”.

  • Tom Blach wrote:

    There are two noble red grapes-pinot noir and nebbiolo-and one noble white grape-Riesling. Further discussion is futile.

  • Jenny Semmler wrote:

    Touriga Nacionale does very well in Australia’s hotter climates, as does Petit Manseng (as a table wine, not as a dessert wine) and Spanish & Portuguese varieties (tempranillo, grenache, brown muscat, muscadelle, tinta barocca, bastardo etc).
    I think trying to pick three varieties needs to be taken in context of ˆterroir or place, so the three will vary according to country, or even region.
    eg: France Pinot noir, Syrah, Cabernet sauvignon
    Italy: Largein, Sangiovese, Montepulciano (also known as Cordisco)
    USA: Zinfandel, Tempranillo, Petit Verdot
    Portugal: Touriga Nacionale, Tinta roriz (tempranillo), Syrah
    Spain: Grenache, Mataro (mouvedre/monastrell), Tempranillo
    Australia: Shiraz (syrah), Durif (Petite syrah) and Cabernet Sauvignon
    May I suggest that Shiraz could be Australia’s national grape in the way that Pinot would be French, Zinfandel would be American and Touriga would be Portuguese?
    So: in the context of my own region, I will vote Shiraz, Durif & Lagrein.
    Cheers
    Jenny

  • David Strange wrote:

    Ricard,
    Clearly I agree on with the primacy of Pinot. Over 50% of my little collection is Pinot after all. I’ve had some spiffy Pinots from Oregon and New Zealand; indeed I have an ‘Escarpment’ Pinot from the brilliant Larry McKenna sitting on my dining table waiting to review when I’m feeling less rancid. She’s a difficult mistress, though, and so many experiments from elsewhere fail. A recent Tasmanian Pinot, that must have been picked at 10.5% potential alcohol tops then had enough sugar added to get it up to 14.5%, was remarkably regrettable and repulsive. Turns out most of the serious Rioja that’s done it for me has been Grenache based and I’ll comment on this below.

    Edward,
    Some arguments are easy to topple. Relativism, for example, is destroyed by the existence of repeatably observable facts. Similarly, your points that one cannot have favourites are countered by me being able to honestly say, “My favourite grapes are Riesling and Pinot Noir”. QED.

    Tom,
    Isn’t the fact that public discourse no longer permits the discussion of anything one if the most vile things about modern times? Discussion is about all things is important, if we cannot do so we may as well all sign up to drink Sainsburys’ extra value Australian red.

    My views: well I’ve said moat of my collection is Pinot. Then comes Syrah, largely in a pure form but I agree it has a great role in blends. Which brings me to number three: Mourvedre. Sure it can be a burly, stinking brute, but when it is made like the Bandol I had the other day it’s utterly beautiful. I admit, it mainly exists in blends, and if I were being honest I would have voted for ‘Mourvedre blend’ as my third choice. I would say I prefer it to Grenache in this context, even though they live so well together, as it has greater aromatic complexity and is capable of more restraint. My favourite CndP remains Beaucastel, and not the silly ultra-expensive cuvee, as that is Mourvedre based and clocks in at a Burgundian 13.5%. I do like the other grapes associated with it in Bandol, Collioure, CndP and similar blends, but Mourvedre is the core of brilliance.

  • David Strange wrote:

    Oh I pressed the wrong button there.

    I also have a lot of time for Cabernet Franc; more and more good stuff is coming out of the Loire. Nebbiolo is utterly brilliant at its best, a stunning grape, and the Brunello clones of Sangiovese do it for me as well. In the hands of Paul Draper, Zinfandel has plenty of interest, but again that is largely as a blended wine. And I will buy Cabernet Sauvignon, if it is blended with Syrah and comes from Trevallon. There may be others that I cannot think of at 5am.

    But Pinot Noir is my favourite, most assuredly.

  • David Strange wrote:

    Jenny,
    Thank you for your comment. I hope you actually answered what your favourite grapes are rather than your favourite within a specific context, because that’s not what I asked. I was asking you, not you tied to a particular geographical loyalty.

  • Ed Tully wrote:

    I do not think my point had anything to do with relativism. But since you opened her box I am sure Pandora would want a few words on that. It pains almost all philosophers to admit that, despite ninety years or so of intelligent attempts, no-one has managed to “topple relativism”, nor is it possible to see how they might. If we take your effort – “repeatedly observable facts”, there are, of course, no such things. For a start, “observable” depends on observers. In other words, us. And none of us are perfect or even close to it. Secondly “repeatedly”. Just because something has happened a number of times, even a very large number of times, it is not necessary it should continue to do so. And lastly, what then is a “fact”?
    It is possible to imagine a world of wine tasting in which wines were quantified and assessed in terms of “objective” scientific data. No doubt some poor souls are already making claims about wine A being superior to wine B as a consequence of having 0.2 more Sugar Free Extract, or whatever. I am not sure this helps much because there is no universal agreement on what composes the ideal wine. And thank goodness for that!
    You seem to be falling into the trap Hume noticed when he commented that when people make some judgment about the world they leap from statements of what they hold to be facts to expressions of value judgement without any valid means of doing so. For example “Pinot makes complex wines” (fact-ish), “I like complex wines” (value). “I like Pinot” (still only a value). To spare everyone a re-read of AJ Ayer let’s not forget that judgments tell us no more about the world than “Boos and Hoorays”.
    In fact (ha!) I was not claiming value judgments about wine were no more than boos and hoorays, just that I thought the exercise was idiotic. That you can “honestly say my favourite grapes are Pinot and Riesling” does not mean you should. Put it this way, can you imagine wanting to do the same thing over and over? This is my weekly response to Desert Island Discs. If I had to listen to the same eight records over and over I would either soon go mad or I would have smashed the discs. The only drink I could endure endlessly would be water.
    Both you and I have had the massive fortune of drinking some of the finest wines known to humanity. If some unenlightened soul asked me (they often do, bless them!) what the best wine I had ever drunk has been I would (I do, often) gently put them right – I have enjoyed many, many fascinating wines equally. Paradoxically, the only person who could talk about the best wine would be the one who had only ever drunk one wine. The more wines one has drunk the more preposterous the question. This would be true of books also (and probably everything). In less agressive moods I tend to say the best wine is the one i intend to drink next.

  • David Strange wrote:

    Hello Edward,

    I point you toward either Bad Thoughts by Jamie Whyte or his brilliant paper ‘Why relativism is absolutely false’. More importantly, you seem to think I’m asking people to make some definitive judgement about which is the best grape variety, I’m not I’m asking which ‘you view’ as in ‘what’s your favourite’. I actually thought that was the title of this poll, I’d set the SEO title to be that but never went back and changed the display title. That’s all I want to know, what people like. I like Pinot Noir, and it appears lots of other people do to. In saying that we don’t mean we want the same thing repeatedly, because there is a multitude of types of Pinot-based wine. And I gave three votes so you’d be even less constricted. Your arguments are sophistry when I am asking a simple question about what people like, if you don’t want to commit to three general, unranked views then no one is forcing you to.

  • Ed Tully wrote:

    I am afraid I didn’t think much of Jamie Whyte’s essay. That is, of course, just my opinion.

  • Ricard wrote:

    I understand you two gentlemen know each other from your Oxford blind tasting days, so apologies if there are any personal subtexts to your remarks that I can’t see. However, I feel I must point out that while I have been fighting the good fight against the cognitive cancer of relativism for more than 20 years, relativism is not, of course, false (pace Whyte), but paradoxical (because it’s inherently self-refuting). It can neither be false nor true – it merely implodes under the force of its own logic. So, perhaps in an early Wittgensteinian fashion, it cannot be “said”.

    It also follows from this that, like something false, it cannot be used successfully in an argument. The fact that it continues to have wide appeal is baffling, but sociologically and culturally explicable, rather like religion, or other forms of structured superstition, like astrology.

  • David Strange wrote:

    Quite, Ricard. Cognitive cancer indeed!

  • Tom Blach wrote:

    It is indeed, David.I was only being provocative. Although if there really were best grapes as well as best terroirs I would probably be right.

    • David Strange wrote:

      An interesting point, Tom. I suppose it depends on how general one is willing to be with ‘favourites’. If asked my favourite red wine I’d definitely say ‘Burgundy’ before ‘Pinot Noir’, but I probably also wouldn’t say ‘Clos St-Denis’*. I would similarly hate to limit myself to a single site in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, but that’s the location I care most about for white wines.

      *My dream last night was about drinking CSD 01 from Dujac and Arlaud; I bet they are even better in real life than in my fairly rapturous dream.

  • Ed Tully wrote:

    Perhaps Wittgenstein should have said the “wine is everything that is in the case”. Maybe he did.

  • David Strange wrote:

    Wittgenstein certainly said some good stuff – I particularly like “An entirely serious work of philosophy could be written completely with jokes”. However, on my last heavily delayed flight I read Tracatus Logico-philosophicus and some later work by him. I found myself rather irritated by it all and reached the conclusion that whilst the path taken by Wittgenstein’s thinking is very long indeed, the actual distance travelled is considerably shorter.

  • David Strange wrote:

    I’ve really gone off Lord Bertie R as well. He may be largely right, but his writing style is just awful. When reading something I should be nodding in furious agreement with (Why I am not a Christian, for example), I just find myself thinking “Either get to the point or shut up, you semi-coherent, turgid git!”

  • Ed Tully wrote:

    The thing I forgive him for the least is his education of our old friend wragge-Morley. Moral philosopher?

  • Ricard wrote:

    I entirely concur on the Wittgenstein front as well as the Russell front. Old Bertie was a huge influence on me in my wanton, wasteful youth – but not only is he too frequently fallacious and sloppy in later life (I mean after Ayer’s Language, Truth & Logic – surely a turning point in British empiricism), his style is all too often vain and dismissive. His humour is also grating and too lazily reliant on ridicule. But happy times! To start with Pinot and end with Russell – this gives me great pleasure, so thank you, David for initiating this improbable (and appropriately Tractatus-like) sequence. Normally it’s the opposite: I start with Russell and make a dash for the Burgundy after a few sentences. Right now I am enjoying a most invigorating Brunello di Montalcino – 2006 – a very very good vintage.

  • David Strange wrote:

    Brunello is spiffing stuff and, a few producers excepted, I think you are perfectly correct to drink them at that age. The combination of lively fruit and raspingly rigorous tannins makes them energetic and exciting entities to entice and enchant. Similarly, I had a 2007 Barbaresco the other day and I simply loved it. Just because something is tannic and a bit butch doesn’t mean it needs to be ruined with lots of cellar time.

  • Tom Blach wrote:

    Nothing wrong with tannin, I agree, David, in fact I love the stuff, but I’ve got a bit of a Brunello blind spot I think and the only ones I’ve ever really enjoyed have been fabulously etiolated very old bottles from Biondi-Santi. Not that I would ever consider paying the prices they command.
    It’s at least possible to argue, though, that great Barbarescos and particularly Barolos only attain their proper meaning when fully mature. Finding fully mature Barolo is one of the very hardest things in wine, sadly. Italy is full of the stuff but it’s nearly all been cooked to death.

  • David Strange wrote:

    Tom, I am not sure there is a single bottle of old wine in Italy that has not been ruined, based on what I’ve purchased there. I do like old Nebbiolo, all my 90s Barolo and Barbaresco is buried away for the long term, but bottles I buy now generally get popped. Perhaps I’ll regret this in a decade or so, but I really find myself enjoying pretty much everything when it is charged with energy and life. The only stuff I buy now that gets kept is the most serious Burgundy my budget allows. It’s easy to do that as I buy it direct and my long-term cellar is in Burgundy…

  • David Strange wrote:

    Right, the poll is closed and I am pleased to see Pinot Noir the soaraway success in terms of people’s favourites. Syrah comes in second which also pleases me as this is something I drink and can report on regularly. Tempranillo did well, I shall have to explore this further in the future and I will keep popping the odd bottle of Nebbiolo – I’m bringing a load back from my long-term cellar when I visit in the summer. It was great to see that Bordeaux/Meritage could only manage a tie with the more geographically limited Sangiovese. I’m pleased as chips that pure Cabernet was utterly trounced by the far more interesting Cabernet Franc.

    We shall assess the relative popularities of white grapes soon.



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