In the last post I wrote about two sets of grapes/wines that consistently give students nightmares in tasting practice and exams. Why? Because each set is filled with grapes easily confused with each other. I called these grapes the “Evil Dwarves.” My last post covered the first set which consists of semi-aromatic white grapes. This post is dedicated to the second set which is comprised of thinner-skinner red grapes including Pinot Noir, Gamay, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Grenache, and Nebbiolo.  

As with semi-aromatic white grapes, the color and fruit qualities of thinner-skinned red grapes can be similar making them difficult to tell apart. But once again practically all the grapes have a strong objective factor—a “Prime Factor”—that can be an important aid in identifying the grape/wine. Add this to the non-fruit and structural qualities (levels of acid, alcohol, and tannin) in each grape and you have a blueprint to be able to tell classic examples of the wines apart. For our purposes we’ll use the following wines as models for their respective grapes:

· Pinot Noir: Côte de Nuits/Beaune or California/Oregon New World

· Gamay: Beaujolais Villages

· Sangiovese: Chianti Classico Riserva or Brunello di Montalcino

· Tempranillo: Rioja Reserva or Gran Reserva

· Grenache/blend: Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Gigondas

· Nebbiolo: Barolo or Barbaresco

Evil Dwarves Part II: Thinner-Skinned Red Grapes

I. Pinot Noir

Prime Factors: possible stem inclusion, oak usage

Non-fruit: broad range of non-fruit including rose-floral, tea/herb/leaf, citrus rind, and spice

Structure: medium to medium-plus alcohol, medium-plus acidity, and medium tannin

Why it’s not:

Gamay: Pinot Noir lacks the candied/artificial fruit character of carbonic maceration as well as the granite/stony minerality. Pinot can also often display considerable use of new barrique.

Sangiovese: Pinot Noir lacks the tannin of Sangiovese—specifically the grape tannin often perceived in the front of the mouth on teeth and gums. Pinot will also often display more overt small oak character with Sangiovese often aged in larger cooperage. The anise-bitter herbal flavors set Sangiovese apart from Pinot Noir.

Tempranillo: extended aging in American Oak (coconut, dill, herb, pronounced vanilla, and baking spices) sets Tempranillo completely apart from Pinot Noir.

Grenache: Pinot lacks the peppery-rotundone and savory herb/garrigue qualities of Grenache or Grenache blends. Structurally, a Grenache blend also has higher alcohol and more tannin. Larger cooperage is also traditionally used for a Grenache/blend vs. barrique in Pinot Noir.

Nebbiolo: Pinot Noir with the acidity and tannin levels of Barolo would be Pinot Noir from hell.  Just kidding—or not. That is to say that both the tannin and acid levels of Nebbiolo are far higher than Pinot. Nebbiolo also is more floral (terpenes) with a completely different non-fruit set including anise, tar, and bitter herb. 

II. Gamay

Prime factors: carbonic maceration and stem inclusion

Non-fruit: green woody character (stem inclusion), granite/stony minerality

Structure: medium alcohol, medium-plus acidity, medium-minus tannin

Why it’s not:

Pinot Noir:  the candied fruit/tropical fruit punch qualities from carbonic in Beaujolais Villages set it apart from Pinot–whether the latter is from Burgundy or the New World. Beaujolais will also lack the new barrique qualities often found in Pinot regardless of origin.

Sangiovese: carbonic notes again differentiate Gamay from Sangiovese with the latter also having more tannin. No stem inclusion notes for Sangiovese.

Tempranillo: carbonic notes and lack of overt oak influence—specifically American Oak influence.

Grenache: ditto the carbonic notes with the Grenache blend having more non-fruit complexity (pepper, dried floral, garrigue/herbs, savory qualities) as well as higher alcohol and more tannin. And no stem inclusion.

Nebbiolo: again, no carbonic notes in the Nebbiolo along with higher levels of alcohol, tannin, and acidity as well as an oxidative character and completely different fruit/non-fruit set.

III. Sangiovese

Prime factor: oak usage, possible VA

Non-fruit: rose floral, anise, green herb, sandalwood, chalky/dusty earth

Structure: medium-to medium-plus alcohol, medium-plus acidity, medium-plus tannin (sometimes higher)

Why it’s not:

Pinot Noir: more grape tannin in Sangiovese as well as more of an anise/herbal character. Barrique also not used as often.

Gamay:  lack of carbonic artificial fruit character in Sangiovese as well as a higher level of tannin.

Tempranillo: the oxidative style and American Oak set Tempranillo apart from any form of Sangiovese. The latter is usually more tannic as well.

Grenache: lack of pepper/rotundone character in Sangiovese.  Grenache/blends will also offer a higher level of alcohol with relatively less acidity.

Nebbiolo: Sangiovese vs. Nebbiolo is one of the more challenging side-by-side comparisons. There are many similarities between the two but in the end Nebbiolo in the form of Barolo and/or Barbaresco is usually more tannic and acidic as well as offering more floral and high-toned aromatics.

IV. Tempranillo

Prime factors: oxidation, oak usage (American Oak markers)

Non-fruit: dried flowers/potpourri, dried herbs, dusty-baked earth

Structure: medium-to-medium-plus alcohol, medium-plus acidity, medium-to-medium-plus tannin

Why it’s not:

Pinot Noir:  oxidative winemaking/aging and American Oak set Tempranillo apart from Pinot Noir regardless of origin.  

Gamay:  same as above: oxidative style and American Oak. On the other side, no carbonic character or stem inclusion in Tempranillo.

Sangiovese: ditto: oxidative style and American Oak. Sangiovese is usually more tannic as well.

Grenache: although some styles of Grenache blends may show oxidation similar to Tempranillo with age the wines will never display the American Oak character. Grenache blends will also offer more alcohol as well as pepper and Mediterranean herb (garrigue) notes.  

Nebbiolo:  American Oak is rarely, if ever, found in Barolo and Barbaresco.  The latter two will also be far more tannic and acidic than Tempranillo.

V. Grenache and Grenache Blends

Prime factor:  rotundone (pepper) and possible oxidation

Non-fruit: wild flower/potpourri, lavender, garrigue (wild herbs), dried savory meats, stony earthiness

Structure: medium-plus-to-high alcohol, medium-plus acidity, medium-plus-to-high tannins

Why it’s not:

Pinot Noir: too much richness, alcohol, and tannin on the part of Grenache.  The peppery and herbal qualities of Grenache/blends also set them apart from Pinot Noir.

Gamay:  unless it’s a basic Côtes du Rhône the use of carbonic is very infrequent for Grenache/blends; thus the artificial fruit qualities of Gamay set it apart from the latter. Grenache will also offer more richness, alcohol, and pepper/herb notes.

Sangiovese: Grenache is richer with higher alcohol and peppery qualities than Sangiovese. Sangiovese will often have more grape tannin in the front of the mouth as well.

Tempranillo: Grenache/blends lack the American Oak character of traditionally made Tempranillo-based wines.

Nebbiolo: more acid and tannin—especially grape tannin–in the Nebbiolo.

VI. Nebbiolo

Prime factor:  possible VA, oxidation

Non-fruit: dried rose petal, pronounced tarry earthiness

Structure: medium-plus-to-high alcohol, high tannin, high acidity

Why it’s not:

Pinot Noir: Nebbiolo is usually far too tannic and acidic to be Pinot Noir. 

Gamay: ditto the above about tannin and acidity. Note that Nebbiolo rarely, if ever, shows carbonic notes. Finally, Nebbiolo is often aged in wood and can show considerable oak influence.

Sangiovese: as mentioned above, Sangiovese—especially Brunello—can often be confused with Nebbiolo. Generally the latter will have higher levels of acidity, tannin, and often alcohol. Nebbiolo usually displays more floral and high-toned aromatics than Sangiovese.

Tempranillo: again too much tannin and acid in Nebbiolo to be confused for Tempranillo. American Oak in the former also makes it easy to differentiate from Nebbiolo.

Grenache: Nebbiolo offers higher levels of acidity and tannin than Grenache as well as more floral and high-toned aromatics.