The Fingerprints of Red Grape Varietals

Posted by Keith Wallace

This is a declassified article from our Foundation Wine Course from 2008. For the real deal, you should check out our Core Wine Program, which is available both in-person and virtual.

Red wine varietals gain their “fingerprints,” or aromatic signatures, from ESTERS and TANNIN, ACID LEVELS, and ALCHOHOL CONTENT.

You perceive these fingerprints with three sensory organs.

  • Mandibular Nerve: The drying sensation of Tannins and the weight of Alchohol.
  • Tastebuds: The bitterness of Tannins and the cut of Acids
  • Olfactory Gland: aromatics of Esters

When you combine the sensation of drying and a high level of bitterness, the wine can be called “Tannic.” Esters are a type of flavor compound created during fermentation.


Red wines will have varying levels of TANNIN from light to heavy. In ascending order (light to heavy TANNIN) these are the major red varietals:

  1. Pinot Noir
  2. Sangiovese
  3. Grenache
  4. Merlot
  5. Cabernet Sauvignon
  6. Syrah


The flavor compounds in a red wine differ by varietal, and that means the flavors are different, too.

  • Pinot Noir: Barnyard and Roses
  • Sangiovese: Leather or Wet Earth
  • Grenache: Herbs (Thyme, Rosemary, Lavendar), what the French refer to as garrigue.
  • Merlot & Cabernet: Green Pepper (not an ESTER, but PYRAZINE… just like the Sauvignon Blanc)
  • Syrah: Meat (gamey, beef jerky, roast meat) and White Pepper.


Wines will also have different weights (BODY) due to the amount of alcohol. The higher percentage of alcohol, the heavier a wine feels). In ascending order , from light to heavy BODY wines.

  1. Pinot Noir
  2. Sangiovese
  3. Merlot
  4. Cabernet Sauvignon
  5. Grenache
  6. Syrah


Red wines also have different acid levels. In ascending order (from less acidic to more acidic wines), those on the bottom tend to have fresher tasting fruit flavors

  • Grenache
  • Merlot
  • Syrah
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Sangiovese
  • Pinot Noir

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