Winemaking has existed for 8,000 years, and red wine has played a big role in that history. So, let’s take a look at red wine–how it’s made, the different types of red wine, which ones are most popular and more!
Red wine is made by allowing the juice of red-skinned varieties to stay in contact with those skins during fermentation (this contact sometimes also occurs post-fermentation, a process called extended maceration). This is how red wine gets its color, as well as other compounds including tannins, some acids and others that influence taste and texture. Before bottling, some reds may rest for a period of time in oak barrels, which impart additional aromas and flavors.
Let’s take a look at the different types of red wine varieties. Of the more than 1,300 in commercial use worldwide, hundreds of course are red. Many of these are quite obscure, limited perhaps to a single village or region, grown in small quantities and consumed primarily by locals. While the wine world is certainly richer for the presence of such rare varieties, we will limit this discussion to the most popular and widely grown reds. The first 10 listed below are the most important for dry red wine production.
Dry Red Wines
Cabernet Sauvignon The most planted and popular red wine grape in the world, Cabernet Sauvignon is responsible (on its own or in blends) for some of our most prestigious wines. Full-bodied, bold and tannic, it has a strong affinity for oak and shows notes of blackberry, blackcurrant, black cherry, vanilla, graphite and green pepper. It is made in France’s Bordeaux region, California, Washington, Australia, Tuscany, Chile and South Africa. It pairs beautifully with beef and lamb.
Merlot When not made as a single varietal wine, Merlot is often blended with Cabernet, with which it shares many characteristics. Additional flavors include plums, herbs and mint, and it is typically softer and plusher on the palate than Cab. It is grown everywhere Cabernet is, but it ripens earlier and thus provides a hedge against the possibility of bad weather later in the harvest season. Merlot is also great with red meats and is flexible enough to pair well with pork and poultry.
Pinot Noir Believed to be over 2,000 years old, Pinot Noir is a so-called “founder variety” that is the ancestor of a great many wine grapes. Grown in many parts of the world including Oregon, California and New Zealand, it reaches its zenith–in quality, prestige and price–in France’s Burgundy region. Famous for its silkiness, complexity and sensual allure, Pinot Noir offers flavors like loamy earth, mushroom, strawberry, cranberry and cola. This red wine is lighter in color and body than many reds; its bright acidity makes it a versatile partner with everything from duck, to poultry to heartier seafood dishes like salmon.
Syrah Popular in France, Australia and California, among other spots, Syrah has plenty of bold personality, often imbuing wines with suggestions of pepper, spice, graphite, dark fruit and an intriguingly savory character that ranges from meaty to gamey. Syrah is a natural choice for pairing with grilled meats.
Grenache Another red wine variety with a big presence in both the Old World and New, Grenache is the primary red grape in the wines of France’s southern Rhône Valley (like Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Côtes du Rhône) and often in Spain’s Priorat wines. Known for modest tannins, ripe red fruit, and sexy texture, it can be made in light or heavy styles. The former is great with everything from poultry to vegetarian meals, while the latter call for bolder dishes.
Tempranillo Now the most widely planted grape in Spain, with limited acreage in California, Baja California and Argentina, Tempranillo is the primary grape in Rioja and Ribera del Duero and is prevalent in other Spanish regions. With various clones known by different names in different areas, it can vary stylistically. But it is known for structure, age-worthiness and earthy qualities. Try Tempranillo-based wines with lamb, charcuterie, and smoky dishes like barbecue.
Sangiovese Although limited plantings exist in California, this grape is at home in Italy, especially Tuscany. Sangiovese is the dominant (and sometimes only) grape in many of that region’s most famous wines, including Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino. Medium to medium-plus in body, this red wine is known for cherry, cranberry, orange peel and earthy notes. It carries naturally high acidity that makes it a wonderful match with food, in particular the classic dishes of its homeland.
Malbec Originally from southwest France, where it is included among the classic Bordeaux varietals but not used much in that region, Malbec has soared to international fame based on its prevalence in Argentina. Known for its full but soft mouthfeel, it delivers flavors of plum, black cherry, chocolate and mocha, with a structure that is more dependent on tannins than acid. Malbec is terrific with beef, lamb, pork and game meats like bison and venison.
Zinfandel In the 1990s Zinfandel was discovered to be the same as a Croatian grape with the tongue-twisting name of Crljenak Kaštelanski; in southern Italy the same grape is called Primitivo. California Zinfandel tends to be dark purple and bold, with ripe, jammy flavors of blueberry, blackberry and peach. Try it with barbecue, carne asada, beef stroganoff, and other rich meat dishes. (White Zinfandel is a semi-sweet blush wine made from this red wine variety).
Nebbiolo The most exalted red of Italy’s Piedmont region, Nebbiolo is not typically successfully produced anywhere else, though rare plantings in California and Mexico’s Guadalupe Valley are modest exceptions. It is the only grape used in the prestigious wines, Barolo and Barbaresco, which though often light in color tend to be enormously tannic. Aromas and flavors include red fruits, rose petals, licorice, earth, dark tar and mineral. These wines can be quite complex and can age for decades. Enjoy with fatty meats like duck, roasts and sausages.
Several other grapes bear mention, for their regional and/or worldwide importance in dry red winemaking. In alphabetical order:
Barbera Also from Italy’s Piedmont, Barbera produces reasonably priced reds that are bright, flavorful and food-friendly.
Cabernet Franc Often used in Bordeaux blends (as well as Bordeaux-style blends in California and elsewhere), Cabernet Franc produces the most important reds of France’s Loire Valley, like Chinon and Bourgeuil, which deliver red fruit, earth and herbal notes.
Carmenere Originally a Bordeaux variety that is now barely grown there, Carmenere is very important in Chile, where it goes into some of the country’s most famous wines. It is known for dark fruit, good structure and a pronounced herbal quality.
Gamay Though grown in Burgundy and the Loire, Gamay is virtually synonymous with the Beaujolais region. It can be fruity, grapey and soft-textured, especially in Beaujolais Nouveau. However, Gamay also produces well-structured wines from the region’s Villages appellations, the better sites among them known as crus.
Mourvedre Originally from Spain, where it is called Monastrell or Mataro, Mourvedre is a red is also grown in France’s Rhone Valley, California and Australia. With a dark and potent quality, it is often used in red wine blends, and occasionally made as a single red wine variety.
Sweet Red Wines
Of course, sweet red wines are also available, so let’s take a look at the most noteworthy of those, also in alphabetical order:
Brachetto d’Acqui From Italy’s Piedmont, this red wine is made from the grape called Brachetto and is usually light-bodied, effervescent, aromatic and somewhat sweet and fruity. It can be enjoyed on its own as an aperitif, or with spicy or slightly sweet foods.
Lambrusco Also Italian, Lambrusco is from Emilia-Romagna and is also a red sparkling wine. Though it can be dry, it often is lightly sweet, as well as fresh and fruity, with a pleasing touch of bitterness on the finish. It is terrific with sausages, cheeses, and cured meats.
Port Made in Portugal’s Douro Valley, Port is made in several different styles, all of which are fortified to a higher alcohol level (usually about 20%) and are quite sweet. These are full-bodied and flavorful wines that may be sipped on their own, with blue cheese or with rich desserts, like those with nutty or caramel essences.
In addition to these well-known examples, there are many fine red passito, Italian dessert wines, which are made from dried grapes, giving them a rich, concentrated sweetness. In California and elsewhere, many wineries produce late harvest dessert wines from grapes that have dried on the vines or on mats in the vineyards.
Whether your taste for red wine runs to dry or sweet, bold reds or light ones, there is a world of options for you to explore. As for which red wine is the smoothest, the tastiest, the best … that is a question of individual preference. So get busy and try some red wines!