If you’re new to the world of wine, navigating the variety of wine styles and flavors can be tricky. Why not start your tasting journey with time-tested options? 

Surely, you’ve already heard of noble wine grape varieties. Recognized worldwide and widely planted in California, noble grape varieties produce excellent wines. With the combination of taste palettes of noble wines, everyone can find something that meets their preferences. Therefore, noble wines can be a good starting point in your wine appreciation experience.

In this article, we will explore what makes noble wines special. Then, we will look at the main varieties that you should try.

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What are noble grapes?

Today, over 100 grape varieties produce a wide array of single-varietal wines and blends; you can read about the most popular ones here. As people around the globe are producing and drinking wines, certain grape varieties received widespread appeal and recognition from both winemakers and consumers. As a result, a separate group of so-called noble grapes appeared.

“Noble” is a term to describe grape varieties considered to produce high-quality wines consistently. Because of their worldwide-spread appeal, noble grapes are also referred to as international varieties. You can find noble grape varieties cultivated in all wine regions across the globe, and Californian vineyards are no exception.

What is special about noble grapes?

Noble grapes make excellent wines and display their distinctive features regardless of their growing region. That’s why many wine producers across the globe tend to stick to these international varieties primarily. No wonder because everyone wants to make top-quality wines.

While easily grown in any region, noble grapes may display the specifics of local terroir in the flavor and aromas of the resulting wine.

As wine ages, the distinctive varietal character of a noble grape doesn’t fade away.

Why do wine enthusiasts go for noble wines?

What makes noble wines the most sought-after ones? Time-tested wines from international varieties are usually good to start your wine-tasting journey. As seasoned wine lovers say, noble wines will hardly disappoint you. 

The seven noble wine varieties representing the backbone of winemaking can expose you to various flavors and aromas, thereby expanding your palate.

The good news is that “noble” doesn’t mean availability to a group of VIP customers only. Instead, noble wines are available to everyone, so you don’t have to be a millionaire to enjoy their properties. You can choose an option for any budget at a wine store — from affordable to investment-grade bottles. 

How wide noble grape varieties are there?

Historically, noble grapes included only six to seven varieties, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Syrah being noble reds and Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling — noble whites. 

However, with the continuing vineyard planting experiments across the globe, the list of noble grape varieties has constantly been expanding. With new hybrid varieties appearing, wine enthusiasts are exposed to more options than ever. The latest lists of noble grapes may comprise up to 18 varieties today.

Our review focuses on the classic list of noble wine grapes; if you’re curious about other popular grape varieties cultivated in California, check this post

Let’s dive into each of the seven time-tested international varieties.

Four noble red grapes

Different wine experts include three to four red wine grapes in the traditional list of noble varieties. They agree that Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir are noble red grapes. Some experts consider Syrah or Shiraz a noble grape variety as well.

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Cabernet Sauvignon

According to the University of California, Cabernet Sauvignon grapes appeared due to crossing Cabernet Franc grapes with Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Considered to be the king of red wine grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon is among the top grape varieties planted all over the world.

Along with the outstanding flavor and aroma bouquet, the grapes’ adaptability to different climatic and soil conditions and their high yield contributes to the worldwide popularity of Cabernet Sauvignon.

In California, it is the second most popular grape after Chardonnay. As of 2022, the Napa Valley is the leader in Cabernet Sauvignon acreage (with 22,494 acres planted with this grape variety), followed by San Luis Obispo, Sonoma, and San Joaquin. These wine regions produce Cabs of different price categories — from affordable ones for a couple of tens of dollars to elite ones sold for thousands of dollars per bottle.

Cabernet Sauvignon is a dark, thick-skinned grape variety that buds and ripens late. The high concentration of anthocyanins in grape skins gives the resulting wine a dark, intense color. 

Red wines made of Cabernet Sauvignon are full-bodied, tannic, and high-acid. The high level of tannins contributes to the excellent aging potential of Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Flavor and aroma profiles may differ depending on the local terroir conditions, such as soil and climate specifics. Generally, the primary notes in Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are black currant, blackberry, and black cherry. Wines aged in oak often get vanilla, toast, or tobacco notes.

The full body of Cabernet Sauvignon wines makes great pairings with hearty dishes like steaks, grilled burgers, mushrooms, and rich cheeses.


Merlot is the third most popular wine grape variety in the United States that has earned consumer recognition. San Joaquin County is the leader in planting Merlot grapes.

Merlot grapes are usually large and have a dark, intense color. Unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot grapes bud and ripen earlier. Still, their skins contain a high concentration of color pigments giving the wine a dark, rich color. 

Wines made of Merlot are typically dry, with medium to full body and moderate acidity. Merlot wines may display black fruit, cherry, fig, and plum flavors and aromas varying based on the grape growing area. Merlot gets tobacco, vanilla, and mocha notes when aged in oak barrels.

Compared to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot wines are noticeably less tannic. As sommeliers and experienced wine lovers say, tannins in Merlot are soft and velvety, which makes these wines easy to drink for novice wine enthusiasts. Previously planted primarily for blending with other red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon to soften their tannins, Merlot is now popular as a single-varietal wine.

Merlot pairs well with lamb, veal, pork, chicken, mushrooms, and cheeses as a full-bodied wine.

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is a cool-climate grape variety that does well in breezy regions with stony, drained, or limestone soils. In 2021, the leaders in Pinot Noir acreage were Sonoma and Monterey counties. 

Pinot Noir has been popular in the US for decades. However, it is noteworthy that in 2004 the consumption of this wine variety increased dramatically after the “Sideways” movie release.

Pinot Noir is small light-colored grapes that are delicate and demanding. These grapes bud and ripen early. Being quite challenging to grow, Pinot Noir grapes produce sought-after wines that are often pricier than other reds. 

Pinot Noir may come in different stylistic profiles depending on the grape-growing terroir. California Pinot Noirs’ primary flavors and aromas include cherry, blackberry, and raspberry. Oak aging balances the fruity notes with earthy flavors. Fruity notes combined with low tannins and bright acidity make Pinot Noir taste lively and refreshing.

Pinot Noir wines are very food-friendly and make great pairings with a wide range of dishes, including beef, veal, poultry, salmon, tuna, and sushi.


Syrah grape variety is the result of crossing a white-skinned grape variety Mondeuse with a black-skinned grape variety Dureza. These grapes perform exceptionally well in sandy, limestone, or schist soils. The top California counties cultivating Syrah are San Luis Obispo County, Madera, and San Joaquin.

Syrah grapes are dark-skinned varieties that are relatively easy to grow. Growing in small bunches, they bud late and ripen not early, but still not late. In addition, Syrah works well with oak and stainless steel as a versatile grape variety.

Syrah wines are full-bodied, with naturally high tannins and medium acidity. Wines made of Syrah grapes display intense dark fruit flavors — plum, black currant, blueberry, blackberry, and raspberry together with noticeable peppery notes. Aging in oak barrels may add smoke, chocolate, and tobacco notes to the wine. Syrah wines have great aging potential — it may take years or even decades to mature.

Syrah pairs perfectly with grilled, roasted, smoked meat dishes and stewed meats and fish thanks to its smoke and spicy notes.

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Three noble white grapes

Now, let’s move on to three classic representatives of noble white grapes.


While Cabernet Sauvignon is the king of red wine grapes, Chardonnay is the queen of white wine grapes. Chardonnay is the world’s most-grown grape variety and the source for producing best-selling white wines in the US — Americans consume 840,000 bottles of Chardonnay annually. 

Chardonnay is a thin-skinned white wine grape variety that appeared after crossing two grape varieties — Pinot noir and Gouais Blanc. What’s notable about Chardonnay grapes is their adaptability to almost any climate and soil, and condition. So, winemakers all over the globe take advantage of Chardonnay’s vitality to produce sought-after white wines. The counties that lead the production of Chardonnay wines in California are Monterey, Sonoma, and San Joaquin. 

Another distinctive feature of Chardonnay is versatility, enabling wine producers to influence the stylistic characteristics of the future wine. Depending on the winemaking techniques applied, Chardonnay grapes can produce wines ranging from light and refreshing to full-bodied, buttery ones.

Chardonnay gets a fruit-forward profile with a light body, crisp structure, and medium acidity when aged in stainless steel. Oaked Chardonnays are typically full-bodied wines with vanilla, toast, and buttery notes derived from oak.

Depending on the Chardonnay stylistic profiles, good food pairings for it will be different.

Unoaked Chardonnays go well with fresh salads, seafood, and goat cheese. Rich oaked ones pair perfectly with fatty fish, crab, and lobster served with creamy sauce.

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc is the fourth most-planted white grape variety in California, with the Sonoma, Napa Valley, Lake, and San Joaquin regions being the top producers. These green-skinned grapes bud late and ripen early. The challenging part of cultivating Sauvignon Blanc, noted by winemakers, is tender grape skins and tight bunches.

Sauvignon Blanc grapes typically produce dry wines with a light to medium body and medium to high acidity. A winemaker can age Sauvignon Blanc in oak to add a creamy texture.

The distinctive bouquet of Sauvignon Blanc wines includes herbal notes like cut grass, green pepper, or asparagus and fruity notes like gooseberry, green apples, melon, or lime zest. The harvest time significantly determines Sauvignon Blanc wine’s flavor and aroma profile. Wines made of early-harvested grapes typically have herbal aromas and a grassy taste. In contrast, wines made from late-harvested grapes tend to have more fruity flavors and aromas.

Sauvignon Blanc makes great paintings with seafood, chicken, pork, and grilled vegetables.


Riesling is a light-skinned grape variety that performs best in cooler climates. For these grapes, early budding and late ripening are typical. The leading Riesling-producing countries in California are Merced and Monterey. 

High acidity and medium to full body are typical for Riesling wines. The tasting profiles of these aromatic white wines may range from bone-dry to sweet.

With stainless steel fermentation applied, the resulting wine preserves the varietal fruit and floral notes. Younger Rieslings may display citrus, peach, or beeswax flavors and aromas. As the wine ages, it may acquire petrol and gasoline notes. Dessert versions of Riesling tend to have honey, apricot, and raisin flavors.

Given its high acidity and crisp structure, Riesling pairs well with spicy foods from Asian cuisine. It can also balance the saltiness and creamy texture in dishes like mac and cheese.

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Now that you know the seven noble grape varieties producing top-quality red and white wines, it will be easier for you to start your wine appreciation journey. Familiarizing yourself with the stylistic profiles of each international variety will help you build a personal relationship with the wine you will taste.

The traditional representatives of noble grape varieties we’ve covered are just a starting point. Once you get to know them, move on to the latest lists of noble wines compiled in recent years.