Drink

Red Wine 101 with 10 Varietals

A "back to basics" post with what you need to know about the 10 most common red wine grapes.

I thought it would be fun to get back into a “back to basics” post, inspired by the amount of red wine I’m drinking this month (January is a rough one)! There are literally hundreds of varieties of red wine grapes but we’re going to do a breakdown of the 10 major varietals that we encounter the most often. This dips into the flavor profiles and regions of the most common red wine grapes—quick and easy, 101 style.

I love this chart from Wine Folly that shows the spectrum of light to bold wines – a quick and easy resource!

Cabernet Franc

Flavors:
Violets, plum, blueberry, earth, black olive, coffee, chili pepper

Medium-High Tannin
Medium-High Acidity

Along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Cabernet Franc is part of the essential blending triad that makes up the majority of the Bordeaux blends. Cab Franc is a more tannic, earthy cousin to Cabernet Sauvignon. In warmer sites outside of Europe, its most distinctive attributes are its pure notes of violets and blueberry, and its ripe tannins often carry the scent of fresh roasted coffee. It is made (though rarely labeled) as a varietal in Chinon, Bourgueil, and Saumur-Champigny, where it is hard and tannic and can evoke an austere minerality. In Pomerol and Saint-Émilion it is featured in blends with Merlot, adding a spicy, pungent, sometimes minty note.

With Food:
Cabernet Franc is a food-friendly wine, and there are lots of ways to pair it with food. Because of its earthy, rustic flavor, pair it with dishes that have those similar flavors. Try it with roasted or grilled chicken, pork, beef, duck, sausage, lamb, veal, hearty fish dishes, and most cheeses.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Flavors:
Bell pepper, green olive, herb, cassis, black cherry, black currant, cedar

Medium-High Tannin
Medium-High Acidity

The primary component of great Bordeaux and the defining grape of the Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted variety of grape worldwide. It’s hard to get it perfect. It ripens late and can be quite weedy and even vegetal in cooler climate regions such as Chile. In Bordeaux and Tuscany it is almost always blended to soften its astringent tannins. The Napa cab style is dense, purple-black, jammy and tasting of currants and black cherries. In Washington, the best Cabernet is a mix of the ripeness of California versions and the herb, leaf, and olive flavors of great Bordeaux.

With Food:
Cab needs fat to latch onto — if you don’t have fat or salt in your meal, the tannins in the cab will coat your tongue and give you that dry feeling you can’t get rid of. If you’re at a steakhouse, your go-to order should be Cabernet Sauvignon.

Gamay

Flavors:
Strawberry, raspberry, cherry, violet

Low Tannin
Medium/High Acidity

The grape of Beaujolais, Gamay is often made to be drunk quite young, and shows bright, tangy, fruit-driven flavors of strawberry, raspberry, and sweet cherries. When made by the method known as carbonic maceration, young Gamay has a slight effervescence and a distinct smell of bananas. Beaujolais Nouveau, released each year shortly after harvest, is the most famous example of the Gamay grape.

With Food:
Because of its high natural acidity paired with low tannins, Gamay pairs amazingly well with a very wide range of foods. Little Gamay is grown outside of Beaujolais, and what has been planted pairs well with the same foods as Beaujolais — light chicken dishes, salads, cheeses and charcuterie.

Grenache

Flavors:
Spice, cherry, raspberry, tobacco

Medium Tannin
Medium-Low Acidity

Old vine Grenache makes some of the greatest red wines of both Spain and Australia, and is an important blending grape of Châteauneuf du Pape and Côtes du Rhône in France, as well as Rioja and Priorat in Spain. It ripens early and tends toward high alcohol and medium to low acidity. At its best it creates deeply fruity, spicy, bold-flavored wines somewhat reminiscent of a softer version of Syrah.

With Food:

The spice in Grenache makes it a perfect pairing with spiced and herb-heavy dishes including roasted meats, vegetables, and a variety of ethnic foods. A lighter-alcohol Grenache served slightly chilled can help reduce the burn of spicy food.

Malbec

Flavors:
Sour cherry, spice, vanilla, cocoa 

Medium Tannin
Medium-Low Acidity

Somewhere between the strength of a cab and the fruity softness of a Merlot lies Malbec. It’s the best of both worlds, which has made it increasingly popular. Small amounts of Malbec are used as the approved blending grapes of Bordeaux, but it has risen to prominence in Argentina, where it makes spicy, tart red wines that take well to aging in new oak barrels. Elsewhere it remains a minor player, though a few varietally labeled Malbecs are made in California and Washington.

With Food:
Malbec is a medium to full-bodied red wine, so it tends to pair well with more full-flavored foods. However, unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec doesn’t have a super long finish (or those tannins), which means it will pair extremely well with leaner red meats, and even lighter cuts like dark meat turkey or roasted pork. It works well with spicy dishes, creamy mushroom sauces, and melted cheese.

Merlot

Flavors:
Strawberry, cherry, plum, vanilla

Medium-High Tannin
Medium Acidity

Merlot is a simple wine, easy to like, and versatile. Luscious and velvety, fruity, soft, and drinkable, merlot yields a softer, smoother texture compared to wines like Cabernet Sauvignon. Varietal Merlot rose to popularity in the ’90s but too many insipid, watery, over-priced Merlots have given it an undeserved bad name. Its home is in Bordeaux, but it’s also at its very best in Washington state, where it ripens beautifully and creates plump, powerful wines that can age for a decade or more.

With food:
Merlot is fairly food-versatile, and it definitely doesn’t demand being paired with fatty, saltier foods, like a cab. Vegetable-based dishes or tomato-based pastas are also excellent counterparts to Merlot.

Pinot Noir

Medium Low Tannin
Medium-High Acidity

Flavors:
Cherry, raspberry, mushroom, earth, vanilla

Pinot Noir is a wine-lovers’ grape—it is the prettiest, sexiest, most demanding, and least predictable. The benchmark for great Pinot Noir is Burgundy, but even there the grape is flighty, fragile, and prone to weedy flavors. It is a principal component of many Champagnes and other sparkling wines, but can also be ripened to produce wines of surprising density and even jammyness in California, New Zealand, and Oregon. Pinot Noir is best expressed as a pure varietal, and is often featured as a single-vineyard wine in Oregon and California, emulating the hundreds of tiny appellations of Burgundy. It is lighter in body and less tannic than a cab. When at its best, Pinot has an ethereal delicacy and can age for decades..

With food:
Pinot Noir is one of the most versatile red wines to match with food and a great option in a restaurant when one of you is eating meat and the other fish. Pinot Noir is a perfectly suited wine to pair with a wide variety of food because of its bright acidity, complexity, and rich fruit character. It pairs well with meats ranging from roasted chicken to duck, as well as most types of fish, anything with mushrooms — specifically earthy, rustic food.

Sangiovese

Medium-High Tannin
Medium-High Acidity

Flavors:
Cherry, strawberry, anise, tobacco, oregano, balsamic

The principal grape of Tuscany, Sangiovese is the primary component of Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino. Sangiovese is relatively light in color, fruity, and quite firmly acidic. Many of Italy’s “Super Tuscan” red blends marry Sangiovese to Cabernet Sauvignon, a combination that both strengthens the Sangiovese and smooths out the Cabernet.

With food:
Sangiovese is dry and savory. Because it can be a little harsh, this is a wine that’s better enjoyed with food than on its own. It pairs really well with almost all Italian pastas and foods. As well, the wine helps bring out some sweetness in meat, venison, and duck. It goes exceptionally with tomatoes, vinaigrette, and balsamic sauces and dressings —some wines can taste kind of flat with these stronger flavors, but anything with an acidic component can blend well with sangiovese.

Syrah/Shiraz

Medium-High Tannin
Medium Acidity

Flavors:
Blackberry, boysenberry, plum, pepper, spice

Syrah and Shiraz are genetically the same grape. Syrah is typically associated with France and is generally leaner in profile than Shiraz, which is Australian Plantings of Syrah have also exploded in California and Washington, where sappy, spicy, peppery, luscious versions are being made. In Australia, Shiraz is the country’s claim to wine fame. Australian Shiraz is made in every conceivable style, from light and fruity to dense and tarry, and even sparkling and fortified. In France in the northern Rhône, the most extraordinary expressions of the grape are produced, especially in Hermitage and Côte Rôtie, where it is peppery and dense with spicy fruit.

With food:
Lighter styles of Syrah pair well with lamb, and fuller bodied styles pair well with BBQ. This is one of the rare red wines that pairs well with spicier foods. It has a high fruit profile, so foods like Indian or Thai won’t overpower it.

Zinfandel

Medium-High Tannin
Medium-Low Acidity

Flavors:
Raspberry, blackberry, black cherry, strawberry, smoke

For decades Zinfandel was California’s grape, though now it is grown all over the west coast of the United States, in Australia, Italy, and elsewhere. But California Zinfandel remains the model for all others, and it grows well and vinifies distinctively all over the state. Mendocino makes somewhat rustic versions with hints of Asian spices, Dry Creek Zinfandels are racy and raspberry-forward. In Amador and Gold Rush country it is hot, thick, and jammy, while in Napa it is full with ripe, sweet black cherry flavors. Zins are typically high alcohol wines.

With food:
Zinfandel wine is happiest when paired with anything from the meat side of food. Also, the unique flavor profile of Zins makes them an ideal counterpart to pizza, cheese lasagna, and other foods with tart sauces and cheese.

Cheers!
xx—BB

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