Learn how to identify a grape variety by the leaf and grape bunch

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So you want to be (like) a pro ampelographer? That’s what they call someone who is a botanic specialist focussed on the grape vine. Or maybe you don’t? Maybe you just want to know how to tell one grape variety from another. Or as they would say in South Africa, one cultivar from another (bear with me, I’m coming to why South Africa). Or even one varietaly as some linguistically misguided drinkers sometimes say. (A ‘varietal’ is an adjective. ‘Variety’ is the noun.) Or you are just curious. Or have nothing better to read.

These days the most reliable way to identify a grape variety is to do a DNA test (made famous in the wine world by the Swiss botanist José Vouillamoz). But few people carry around a DNA test kit in the vineyards.

Sangiovese grape bunch in Tuscany
Sangiovese grape bunch in Tuscany, copyright BKWine Photography

So let’s get serious.

The most important clue to identify the grape variety is the leaf. It should be a full-grown leaf to properly show the characteristics. There are several things to look for. Here are the most important:

  • The size
  • The colour
  • The overall shape
  • What kind of “fingers” and “holes” does the leaf have
  • Is it flat or waffley?
  • Is it smooth or hairy? (Mainly on the back of the leaf) Or perhaps a little bit “dusty”?
  • What is pattern and distribution of the “nerves”
  • And much more

Second thing to look at is of course the grape bunches, although that is difficult unless it is close to harvest time. Here are some of the important things:

  • Well, first is of course the colour…
  • The size of the bunch
  • The size of the berries
  • The shape of the bunch. Is it conical? Cylindric? With two parts, a big main part and a small “ear” to the side?
  • Tight or wide spread?
  • Where on the vine is it attached?
  • The hue of the colour
  • Thickness of the skin
  • And many more

There are other clues too:

  • How do the branches grow?
  • Are they rigid and self-supporting or tend to fall down on the ground?
  • The colour of the wood and bark. Patterns.
  • Look of the buds
  • And much more

To take two examples: Merlot typically has big leaves with a waffley structure and very big grape bunches. Pinot noir typically has small very tightly knit cylindrical or pine-cone shaped bunches.

At the Simonsig winery in Stellenbosch in South Africa they have a grape conservatory with many different grape varieties side by side. The pictures below show you some of this although in reality it is not always easy to tell one variety from another. But even from these simple pictures it is evident that the look of the leaves and bunches does vary significantly from one variety to another.

See all the examples below from Simonsig (plus a few extras).

You might also be interested in our article series on grape varieties. Read some of the articles here:


If you want to get a closer look and better understanding of this you should join us one one of BKWines wine tours, which will give you much more information and a better understanding of what happens in the vineyards.

Travel to the world’s wine regions with the experts on wine and the specialist on wine tours.

The better wine tours. BKWine wine tours.

Semillon
Semillon, copyright BKWine Photography
Semillon
Semillon, copyright BKWine Photography
Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir, copyright BKWine Photography
Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir, copyright BKWine Photography
Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir, copyright BKWine Photography
Pinot noir ready to be harvested
Pinot noir ready to be harvested, copyright BKWine Photography
Shiraz / Syrah
Shiraz / Syrah, copyright BKWine Photography
Shiraz / Syrah
Shiraz / Syrah, copyright BKWine Photography
Merlot
Merlot, copyright BKWine Photography
Merlot
Merlot, copyright BKWine Photography
Merlot
Merlot, copyright BKWine Photography
Ripe bunches of merlot in the vineyard of Chateau Petrus, Pomerol, Bordeaux
Ripe bunches of merlot grapes in the vineyard of Chateau Petrus, Pomerol, Bordeaux, copyright BKWine Photography
Petit Verdot
Petit Verdot, copyright BKWine Photography
Petit Verdot
Petit Verdot, copyright BKWine Photography
Petit Verdot
Petit Verdot, copyright BKWine Photography
Sauvignon Blanc
Sauvignon Blanc, copyright BKWine Photography
Sauvignon Blanc
Sauvignon Blanc, copyright BKWine Photography
Sauvignon Blanc
Sauvignon Blanc, copyright BKWine Photography
Sauvignon blanc in Pouilly-sur-Loire
Sauvignon blanc in Pouilly-sur-Loire, copyright BKWine Photography
Chardonnay
Chardonnay, copyright BKWine Photography
Chardonnay
Chardonnay, copyright BKWine Photography
Chardonnay
Chardonnay, copyright BKWine Photography
Almost ripe chardonnay grapes in Chablis
Almost ripe chardonnay grapes in Chablis, copyright BKWine Photography
Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc, copyright BKWine Photography
Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc, copyright BKWine Photography
Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc, copyright BKWine Photography
Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet Sauvignon, copyright BKWine Photography
Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet Sauvignon, copyright BKWine Photography
Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet Sauvignon, copyright BKWine Photography
Cabernet Sauvignon grapes on the vine in Bordeaux
Cabernet Sauvignon grapes on the vine in Bordeaux, copyright BKWine Photography
Cabernet franc
Cabernet franc, copyright BKWine Photography
Cabernet franc
Cabernet franc, copyright BKWine Photography
Cabernet franc
Cabernet franc, copyright BKWine Photography
Pinotage vines in Constantia, South Africa
Pinotage vines in Constantia, South Africa, copyright BKWine Photography
Pinotage
Pinotage, copyright BKWine Photography
Pinotage
Pinotage, copyright BKWine Photography
Semillon
Semillon, copyright BKWine Photography
Semillon
Semillon, copyright BKWine Photography
Semillon
Semillon, copyright BKWine Photography
Pinot Meunier
Pinot Meunier, copyright BKWine Photography
Pinot Meunier
Pinot Meunier, copyright BKWine Photography
Pinot Meunier
Pinot Meunier, copyright BKWine Photography

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12 Responses

  1. Thank you for these pictures. We purchased some property in Northern Michigan and for the last 15 years there has been a grapes growing and never knew what “species” (?) of grapes they were. Still lost but these pics helped narrow it down between 2 different ones.

      1. Hi Per,
        I’m in Ireland and have 3 vines (1 red & 2 white) growing in a small greenhouse. I bought the vines probably 15 years ago at this stage from a garden center and had them growing outside for a number of years but they never came to anything, I put them in a greenhouse and they too off, the red vine in particular produces a pretty nice wine which I’ve been making for the past 3 years. Problem is a haven’t a clue what the grape variety is! Referencing your site has given me some indication but do you know if there is anywhere in Ireland or UK that would be able to identity the type for me.
        Kind regards,
        Tommy

  2. Hi, I have a grapevine that I grew from a cutting from the old greek/Italian man’s house across the road. It has produced lots of grapes which I have turned into a wine (first time) How do I identify what the grape variety is? I think it may be Vitis Labrusco or concord or Isabell improved. It is definitely NOT a table grape. Is there somewhere I can send a cutting or leaf in Sydney to get it identified?

    1. Hi Steven

      Not an easy task actually. There might be some ampelographer or botanist who can help you. Perhaps the wine and viticulture faculty at the university of Adelaide can help you.

  3. If you were in the USA UC Davis tests grapes. I found out I have a rare, grape cross that’s almost extinct. And my vines are 40 year old from cuttings from a vine at least 112 years old if not older when cuttings were made.

      1. Go to foundation plant services and send an email to Gerald asking for a test kit, he will send you a package that you will put leaves into and send back and within 2-3 weeks you will know what it is.

  4. Per, This a very useful site, I have been making wine from home grown grapes for the past 15 yrs or so, (in Otford – Kent- UK) but have not known the type of grape, simply labelling them White or Red. By looking at the leaves and comparing the characteristics of them I have identified my grapes as Shiraz and Chardonnay. Admittedly I may be a bit off but for a numbskull like me it was a good exercise. I shall be recommending your site to both the Sussex Wine School and to Plumpton College who were each quite reticent when it came to giving advice.

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