In tasting room, restaurant, or wine shop conversations you might hear the term Noble Grapes, but what are they referring to?
This is a two-part answer. Depending on context, they may be referring to either The Six Noble Grapes or referring to The Five Noble Grapes of Bordeaux.
It can be confusing, so it’s always good to know if you’re talking about a Bordeaux or Bordeaux-style blend, or just wine in general.
When speaking to wine in general, the Noble Grapes are:
Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Gateway drugs, if you will. Ask anyone (who remembers) what their first wine was, and 99% of the world wine drinking population will mention one of the 6 aforementioned grapes. They’re everywhere. You cannot escape them. Not one of them is unfamiliar, even just by name.
You’ve probably never heard of Xinomavro, let alone tasted one. You may have also never tried a Riesling (however, that’s most assuredly one hell of a rock you’ve been under if this is the case), but you sure as hell have seen and heard of it before, hence its nobility.
While there are other noticeable varieties of grapes (Syrah comes to mind), they still don’t hold the “noble status” that the 6 listed above do, hence their “Noble” title.
When speaking to Bordeaux or Bordeaux-style wines, the Noble Grapes are:
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.
These 5 grapes make the world’s most coveted red blend wine the world over; Red Bordeaux. Desired for ageability, history, notoriety, high price tags, and bragging rights (some are so highly allocated – good luck just hopping into Total Wine and grabbing a bottle from certain producers), these wines are probably the most recognizable wines on the planet.
The Bordeaux is split into two halves, the Left Bank and the Right Bank. On the Left, Cab is the dominant grape in the blend, and on the right, Merlot is the dominant grape. Aside from that, not all 5 grapes are required to be used, they can be at the winemaker’s whimsy.
Generally speaking, PV and Malbec are used for blending in color properties, Cab, Merlot, and Cab Franc making up the bulk of the tasting experience.
There are some other oddities that are allowed, either from ancient plantings that have been given a pass by the AOC or new experimental plantings to combat climate change in the region, but none of those are noble in comparison.
You can throw in Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon for whites mentally, and while Sauvignon Blanc is Noble in general context, it’s not referred to as a Noble Grape in the Bordeaux context.