In blind tasting there are two sets of grapes that consistently give students nightmares. This because each set is populated by grapes easily confused for one another. I call them the “Evil Dwarves.” The first set is made up of semi-aromatic white grapes and includes Albariño, Grüner Veltliner, Loire Chenin Blanc, Alsace Pinot Gris, Northern Italian Pinot Grigio, and dry Riesling from Alsace or Germany. The other set is comprised of thinner-skinner red grapes such as Pinot Noir, Gamay, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, and Grenache. In this post I’ll cover the white grapes and get to the red grapes in a future post.
On the surface one would think it wouldn’t be that difficult to tell the various grapes/wines apart. But stop for a moment and think about how similar the fruit qualities are for all the grapes within each set. Add to that the fact that within each set the colors of all the wines can be remarkably similar—if not the same. Thus if a student is keying off color and fruit trying to tell the grapes apart it will be an endless nightmare.
But there is good news in that practically all the grapes have a strong signature in terms of what could be called a “Prime Factor”—an objective factor such as botrytis, TDN or phenolic bitterness. Combine any of these prime factors with the fact that all the grapes have unique non-fruit and structural profiles (levels of acid, alcohol, and in the case of red wines tannins) and you have a blueprint to be able to tell classic examples of any of the grapes/wines apart. And that’s a very good thing. So without further ado here’s a roadmap to help identify the Evil Dwarves and further to help tell them apart from their bretheren. Onward!
Part I: Semi-Aromatic White Grapes
Prime Factors: terpenes—pronounced floral qualities combined with sweet citrus notes.
Structure: medium alcohol and medium-plus (sometimes high) acidity
Why it’s not:
Grüner Veltliner: Albariño lacks the white pepper or vegetal qualities found in Grüner. Further, Smaragd Grüners will always be a much richer wine than Albariño combined with the pepper/vegetal qualities and botrytis notes.
Loire Chenin Blanc: Chenin often shows botrytis notes as well as a green olive/green herb character as well as pronounced chalky minerality. Structurally Chenin has medium-plus alcohol and high acidity. It also lacks the overt terpenic qualities of Albariño.
Alsace Pinot Gris: Albariño lacks the botrytis notes and phenolic bitterness found in Pinot Gris. Structurally Pinot Gris has higher alcohol and lower acidity—and often displays residual sugar.
Northern Italian Pinot Grigio: in weight and structure Albariño and Alto Adige Pinot Grigio can be similar but the Pinot Grigio lacks overt terpenic qualities and also shows phenolic bitterness on the finish.
Riesling: the lack of TDN (petrol/fusel/kerosene notes) sets Albariño apart from Riesling. Alsace Riesling—especially Grand Cru quality—and German Grosses Gewächs Riesling tend to be much richer wines with elevated alcohol and yet higher acidity. Finally, the fruit profile in Riesling is also much broader than Albariño with botrytis notes sometimes found.
II. Grüner Veltliner
Prime factors: the pepper-vegetal qualities of Grüner—rotundone—make it unique in the white wine universe. As mentioned above, with Smaragd Grüners the combination of pepper/vegetal and botrytis make them utterly singular.
Non-fruit: it’s all about white pepper, lentils, radish, daikon, and more.
Structure: can range from medium to high alcohol with the acid fairly consistently around medium-plus.
Why it’s not:
Albariño: pepper/vegetal notes and lack of terpenes.
Loire Chenin Blanc: ditto and odds are the Chenin will be a richer wine with the pronounced chalky minerality and sulfur-like notes.
Alsace Pinot Gris: no rotundone in Pinot Gris. PG will also usually be a richer wine with lower acid, phenolic bitterness, residual sugar, and a good possibility of botrytis.
Northern Italian Pinot Grigio: could be similar in weight and structure to some Grüners but again lack the pepper/vegetal qualities. Pinot Grigio will also have a trace of phenolic bitterness on the finish.
Riesling: it’s all about the pepper/vegetal qualities of Grüner vs. the TDN and possible botrytis notes of Riesling. The two are completely different universes.
III. Loire Chenin Blanc
Prime factor: possible botrytis notes and sulfur character
Non-fruit: green olive/green herb and pronounced chalky minerality
Structure: medium-plus alcohol and high acidity
Why it’s not:
Albariño: the terpenes set Albariño apart from Chenin and generally the latter is a richer wine showing herbal, chalky mineral, and sulfur notes.
Grüner Veltliner: Chenin completely lacks the rotundone character found in Grüner.
Alsace Pinot Gris: both can show botrytis notes but the Pinot Gris will display phenolic bitterness on the finish and have lower acidity.
Northern Italian Pinot Grigio: Loire Chenin will be a richer wine with much more non-fruit complexity as well as the chalky minerality and sulfur notes.
Riesling: although both can show botrytis notes Chenin lacks the TDN of Riesling.
IV. Alsace Pinot Gris
Prime factors: possible botrytis notes with phenolic bitterness and residual sugar on the finish.
Structure: elevated alcohol and lower acidity.
Why it’s not:
Albariño: Albariño generally is a lighter wine with higher acidity and the lack of botrytis notes and lack of residual sugar on the finish.
Grüner Veltliner: while it can match the weight and richness of a Smaragd Grüner the Pinot Gris will completely lack the rotundone pepper qualities.
Loire Chenin Blanc: both grapes can show botrytis character but the Chenin will show the sulfur/herbal notes, chalky minerality, and have higher acidity—and phenolic bitterness.
Northern Italian Pinot Grigio: will be a much lighter wine than its cousin from Alsace. The Pinot Grigio will also lack any botrytis notes and residual sugar.
Riesling: Alsace Pinot Gris can easily match the weight and richness of Riesling from the same region as well as Riesling from Germany (or Austria). But Pinot Gris lacks the acidity and TDN qualities of Riesling and will also show phenolic bitterness on the finish.
V. Northern Italian Pinot Grigio
Prime factor: like Alsace Pinot Gris, Alto Adige Pinot Grigio consistently shows phenolic bitterness on the finish.
Non-fruit: floral and nut/peanut shell qualities.
Structure: tends to be fairly light-bodied with medium alcohol and medium-plus acidity.
Why it’s not:
Albariño: both grapes can be similar in weight and texture but Pinot Grigio is a more narrowly defined–almost neutral–grape/wine by comparison. PG also lacks the overt terpenic qualities of Albariño.
Grüner Veltliner: Pinot Grigio lacks the pepper/vegetal qualities of Grüner.
Loire Chenin Blanc: Pinot Grigio is generally a lighter-bodied wine compared to Loire Chenin. Classic Pinot Grigio will also not show botrytis character and will offer less in the non-fruit category.
Alsace Pinot Gris: Alto Adige Pinot Grigio is a scaled down version of its Alsace cousin but with higher acidity and no residual sugar.
Riesling: Pinot Grigio lacks any TDN qualities found in Riesling not to mention possible botrytis character. Riesling also lacks phenolic bitterness found in Pinot Gris/Grigio.
Prime factor: the presence of TDN, possible botrytis notes, and the wide range of fruit qualities are factors that help make Riesling unique and so versatile in the white wine world.
Structure: higher levels of acidity.
Why it’s not:
Albariño: TDN, more complexity, and higher acidity set Riesling apart from Albariño.
Grüner Veltliner: it’s all about the rotundone pepper/vegetal in Grüner vs. the TDN of Riesling.
Loire Chenin Blanc: although both can show botrytis notes, the chalky minerality and lack of TDN set Chenin apart from Riesling.
Alsace Pinot Gris: both can again show botrytis character but Riesling will display TDN, have higher acidity, and lack phenolic bitterness.
Northern Italian Pinot Grigio: TDN, more complexity, and the lack of any phenolic bitterness will set Riesling apart from Pinot Grigio.