Red wine is produced, drunk and enjoyed by millions across the globe. But how many people really understand what they’re drinking? Whether you’re looking to build your knowledge of wine from scratch or hoping to improve your repertoire for future occasions, we've put together The Red Wine Guide to help you on your way.
Red Wine Regions
For centuries, the European nations dominated winemaking. Nations like France, Italy and Spain had long-standing traditions of producing and creating excellent wines and were long considered the experts. Then, in the 1970s, New World countries began to challenge the established Old World regions in the art of winemaking. The USA and Australia brought new, fresh and innovative ideas to the field on a larger scale than ever before. New Zealand, Argentina and South Africa soon followed. Today, the world’s wine regions are diverse and complex – each with its own characteristics, attitudes and traditions.
Red Wine Grape Varieties
Merlot, like the Cabernets, is widely grown in south-west France. Northern Italy and warmer areas of southern Switzerland also produce significant quantities of the grape.
Merlot has become known as the most important member of the Bordeaux blend, after it was formally labelled as a key ingredient by French winemakers in the 1600s. In the Bordeux blend, Merlot complements Cabernet Sauvignon beautifully – though wines are also increasingly being made with 100% Merlot.
Merlot is famously a smooth, velvety wine and it is often the texture of Merlot that is commented upon, rather than taste. The grape can produce soft, medium or full-bodied wines. As is often the case, the wines vary greatly depending on the climate in which the Merlot grape is cultivated.
With plummy and chocolatey notes, it is an easy-drinking red and often recommended for red wine beginners. A great all-rounder.
Unlike Cabernets, Merlot works well alongside Italian dishes, particularly tomato based meals. Merlot can also be enjoyed with lighter dishes. Try:
- Pizza and pasta
- Tomato and pancetta based sauces
Although the Malbec grape originated in France, today it is associated primarily with Argentina. Why? In France, the grape struggles to cope with erratic seasons and pesticides. Argentina, on the other hand, has a warm sunny days, high altitudes and cool nights – perfect conditions for the thin-skinned Malbec grape to thrive. Argentina has now adopted Malbec as its principal red grape variety.
Malbec wine is a black and blue grape variety, and the wine it produces is a deep purple-red.
Malbec is a full-bodied, deep inky coloured wine with relatively high alcohol content. Watch out for the magenta rim left in the wine glass with Malbec wines. Aromas of dark berries are commonly associated with Malbec – dark cherries, plums or blueberries are predictable.
Note that there is a marked difference in taste between Old World and New World produced Malbecs. Argentinian (New World) wines evoke the fruity flavours mentioned above, while Old World Malbec is often described as leathery, with a more savoury edge.
Malbec is best paired with:
- Lean meats
- Spicy Middle-Eastern inspired dishes
- Barbecued pork
The Nebbiolo grape has found its home in the northern Italy region of Piedmont. It is rarely grown outside of this area, due to its sensitivity to altitude and weather conditions. Nebbiolo is thought to have been named after the Italian word for fog, ‘nebbia’ either due to the foggy conditions of its October harvest or thanks to the milky film that covers the grapes as they mature.
Nebbiolo is the sole grape used to make the famous, and expensive, Barolo and Barbaresco wines. In other less pricey wines, different grape varieties are often blended with Nebbiolo to detract from its high tannins and high acidity levels.
Nebbiolo is a beautifully scented wine. It is intensely fragrant with aromas of roses, woodsmoke and tar. It is also highly acidic and, due to its lengthy ageing process, can taste particularly strong.
Flavours of Nebbiolo are often described as earthy or like liquorice, which lends itself well to wine blends.
As a particularly strong tasting wine, Nebbiolo can sometimes be tricky to pair with foods. Try it with strong, rich flavours and hearty dishes:
- Lamb or beef stews
- Strong cheeses
The Pinot Noir grape has long been a tricky fruit to master. It does not grow well in excessive heat and its thin-skinned grapes are particularly susceptible to frosts and disease. Despite this, the Pinot Noir grape is one of the most desirable in the world and it is grown in all the main wine producing regions.
Pinot Noir grapes are small and tightly-bunched and produce a highly desirable flavour. As a result, Pinot Noir wines today are growing in both popularity and price.
The wine produced from Pinot Noir grapes is light-bodied, delicate and pale – borderline translucent – in colour. Younger varieties of the wine present flavours of raspberry, cherry and strawberry. Older, more mature wines are slightly darker in colour and earthier to the taste.
Due to its delicate nature, Pinot Noir benefits from being served at 15-16°c. It should be cool to touch.
Pinot Noir wines are light and silky, making them beautifully easy to pair with a wide range of foods:
- Fruitier versions work well with seafood, particularly salmon
Cabernet Franc is one of the most important grape varieties. It is grown across many of the wine producing nations, with France’s Bordeaux and Loire regions producing the greatest amount. It is a blue-black grape primarily used for blending with other red wine grapes in the famous Bordeaux-blend, though single-varietal wines do exist.
Although the origins of Cabernet Franc are somewhat unclear, it is likely the grape originated in the French Basque Country during the 17th century.
As a varietal wine, Cabernet Franc is medium-bodied and its aromas are often associated with green peppers or roasted peppers. Other oft-noted aromas include berries, particularly strawberries and raspberries.
Cabernet Franc is frequently compared to Cabernet Sauvignon – though it is in fact a fruitier version of its cousin with a slightly lower acidity and is lighter in colour.
Cabernet Franc wines make excellent food pairings thanks to their naturally high acidity levels. Blends of the grape pair beautifully with:
- Grilled steaks and chops
- Mushrooms and peppers
- Lighter versions pair well with white fish, chicken and quiches.
A serendipitous breeding between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes brought Cabernet Sauvignon into being in the 17th century in France. It is now grown across the world in a diverse array of regions, thanks to its ability to adapt and flourish within a great range of soils and climates.
Today, it is arguably the most famous grape variety in the world. Its popularity has exploded in recent years. 300,000 hectares of the grape were planted in 2010, a 200% increase from the ten years previous and it is now the most widely drunk wine across America.
As a wine, Cabernet Sauvignon is full-bodied and dark. Given that the grape is produced across multiple wine countries and regions, taste notes are often complex and differ greatly. Generally speaking, tasters can be reminded of green bell peppers and other subtle vegetable flavours.
Deep, rich flavours such as blackberries, black cherries, chocolate and tobacco can also come through.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a complex wine and consequently can be layered with many flavours. The classic pairing is a lamb dish but why not try:
- Goats cheese
The Pinotage grape is South African born and bred. In 1925 scientist Abraham Perold set to out artificially breed a grape similar to the highly desirable Pinot Noir, but that did not struggle to grow in South Africa’s warm climate. Perold crossed the Pinot Noir grape with the robust Cinsault grape (then known as Hermitage) to create Pinotage.
In many ways, Perold achieved his aims. Thanks to its Cinsault parentage, the Pinotage grape was refreshingly easy to grow in comparison to Pinot Noir. The wine produced, however, lacks many of the coveted qualities of a Pinot Noir wine. Instead, Pinotage is often a dark, deep colour with a distinctive taste.
Pinotage is a dense wine, with strong colours and bold flavours. As a single varietal, the wine is distinctive. It has notes of cherry, plum, tobacco and tar and can be quite bitter. Young Pinotage wines are often more palatable and easier to drink than older varieties.
A word of warning – the volatile nature of Pinotage can mean it occasionally develops an unpleasantly acidic taste, similar to acetone. Aim for a high quality Pinotage to ensure the taste is perfect.
Thanks to its mixed heritage, Pinotage works well with a range of dishes. It pairs well against strong flavours such as:
- Smoked duck
- Pulled pork
- Sharper cheeses like Cheddar and aged Gouda
The Syrah grape variety originated in France, but was renamed as Shiraz by the Australians. Whatever its name, it is considered one of the great noble dark grape varieties and the wine it produces is full-bodied, intense and extremely dark.
Today, Syrah is grown most famously in France’s Rhône Valley and Shiraz is extremely popular in Australia, where it is the country’s most widely available grape variety. The grape thrives in nearly every region it is planted. Other regions refer to the wine as either Syrah or Shiraz.
Syrah/Shiraz wines are rich, spicy, intensely flavoured and dark in colour. The wines are full-bodied and dry. French Syrah tends to border on smoky, herby and is higher in acidity. New World style Shiraz wines from Australia and USA tend to be richer, softer with notes of chocolate or occasionally leather.
Syrah/Shiraz is a strong wine that can be paired with some strong, powerful flavours. Try it with:
- Barbecued meats
- Peppery foods
- Strong cheeses
Grenache is the most widely planted red grape in the world. Although its origins are somewhat disputed, it is believed to have sprung from the Aragon region of northern Spain. Indeed today, Spain, along with France, is a top producer of the grape.
Grenache produces sweet and light wines that work well in blends. It is often used to lighten or brighten a heavy and powerful Syrah/Shiraz. Its light nature means that, on its own, Grenache grapes produce a good quality, heady rosé.
Grenache grapes produce wines that are highly alcoholic, with a pale or semi-translucent colour. It is a medium-bodied wine, with sweet and fruity flavours coming through particularly strongly.
Hints of light spices and pepper are common, making it an easy wine to pair with foods.
Thanks to the versatility of Grenache, its wines are easily paired with a range of foods:
- Braised meats
- Asian dishes
For many, the Zinfandel grape is so closely associated with California that it is difficult to imagine it originated anywhere else. Indeed, until recently, it was assumed that Zinfandel was indigenous to California. However its origins were traced back to Croatia by a scientist in the 1960s. It was discovered that the grape made its way from Croatia to California during the Gold Rush, and has thrived there ever since.
Today the popularity of Zinfandel grapes continues to grow. They can be used to produce a sweet, rose-tinted white wine or a spicy, dry red wine.
Red Zinfandel wines are light in colour and body, though the higher the alcohol content the more intense and bold the flavour. Zinfandel wine is often described as jammy, sweet and easy to drink.
Other aromas include liquorice, blueberries and spices. Look out for grapes that have been cultivated at higher elevations, as these will guarantee a stronger, richer flavour.
Zinfandel is a sweet wine, so counteract this with plenty of spice and flavouring in your foods. Try:
- Spiced barbecue dishes
- Strong flavoured vegetables such as caramelized onions, red peppers or roasted tomato.
How to Taste Red Wine
'Don’t be afraid to experiment with taste. Once you have found a style that you like, be that heavy tannic reds, light, fruity or spicy reds, then look around for similar styles of wine from other parts of the world or even the same wine region. Don’t be afraid to ask your wine merchant for advice. The wine growing world is getting ever bigger and is a fun place to explore and taste different red wine styles.' Matt Knight, Riedel
‘We taste wine initially with our eyes so start with a good quality glass’, explains Matt Knight, wine expert from glass specialists Riedel. ‘It really does make the world of difference; try the same wine from a plastic cup and also from a Riedel glass then compare the difference in aromas and taste.’ Once you’ve selected your glass, hold it by the stem only to avoid the heat from your hand affecting the liquid. Pour an inch or less of wine into your glass.
Next, look at the wine. Tilt the glass against a white background and admire the range of colours. The wine might be clear or cloudy, raspberry red or mahogany brown – these observations can tell you a lot about the age and type of the wine you are about to try.
Give the wine a good swirl to aerate the wine. Allowing oxygen to penetrate the liquid is helpful in releasing locked-in aromas. Then, stick your nose into the glass and inhale steadily and gently. Scent is such an important aspect of wine tasting – both your nose and mouth share the same types of chemical receptors – so take your time over this stage.
Which aromas do you notice? It is unlikely you will be able to put a name to everything you smell, but which scents stand out the most? Important aromas to look out for include:
- Fruity aromas
- Floral aromas
- Herbaceous or vegetal aromas
- Wine barrel aromas such as oak, smoke, toast or espresso
- Musty, damp or vinegary scents might indicate your wine is off or spoiled.
Now it’s finally time to taste the wine! Unlike simply drinking wine, to taste wine most effectively you will need to keep the liquid in your mouth for much longer. With wine in your mouth, purse your lips as if you were about to whistle, and draw air through your mouth. This helps to separate the aromas from the liquid and allows the flavours to begin to shine through.
Allow the wine to hit all areas of your mouth. This is important as the tongue can only detect basic flavour elements at specific points (sweet at the tip, acidity at the sides). Again, your mouth and nose work as perfect partners when it comes to tasting, so be sure to use them both!
The best way to improve your wine tasting skills is to keep a record of what you tasted, when you tasted it and your thoughts on the wine. Jot down any initial impressions, and then build on your descriptions once the wine has been in your mouth for a touch longer.
Look out for sweetness, acidity, bitterness, flavour notes and texture. Most of the time, a few words is all that is needed to remind you for future occasions. Above all, have fun and enjoy the experience of tasting wine.
How to Drink Red Wine
'Epicurus said that to be happy, one only needs food (+ wine), friends and freedom. Drinking wine is far more fun than tasting wine, which can become an academic exercise, and should ideally be done in good company.' Daniel Primack, Winerackd Ltd.
Storing & Temperature
There are many wines produced to be drunk young, within 1 year of bottling, yet there are a great many wines that benefit from some bottle age. So if you have a bottle with a few years under its belt, do check the wine has been stored properly between 10°c-15°c and away from bright lights. The worst place for a wine rack is in the kitchen.
Temperature is also an important ingredient in serving red wine properly. The characteristics of the wine and the drinkers perception of the wine change quite dramatically with every 1°c. As red wine gets warmer the alcohol content comes to the fore, hiding the wines fruit and vibrancy. The term ‘room temperature’ was valid in Victorian times at about 18°c but today’s rooms at 20-22°c are too warm. If the bottle has been sitting out, it’s a good idea to pop it in the fridge door for 20 minutes to put the freshness back. The lighter the wine style the fresher it should be. There are various thermometers available to tell you the temperature of your wine before pouring.
If the wine has some sediment, pour it into a carafe first – leaving the sediment behind will help keep the wine nice and clear. The shape of the decanter does not affect the way the wine is aerated. It is the pouring of the wine that aerates the wine. Choose a carafe or decanter that suits the occasion, the size of the table, that is easy to pour, store and clean. Often simplest is best.
Corkscrews come in as many different shapes and styles of wine. Most professionals use the traditional waiters friend often with a 2 step lever, meaning you lift the cork in 2 easy movements. Better quality ones don’t come apart after a few uses. The larger but easier lever models from various manufacturers which clamp round the bottle and lift the cork out are a useful addition to any household.
Almost no one drinks from the bottle and so the wine glass choice is vital. The shape of any vessel affects the perception of flavour and any wine glass should be tapered inwards at the top to hold in the flavour. Goblets, which are wider at the top than further down are the worst shape for transmitting flavour. The thinner the glass the less of a barrier you place in your mouth and again the better the flavour.
Do not overfill a glass as pour level affects flavour. You will get a better return on your investment by pouring a little and refilling often. If the widest point of the glass is a third of the way up, this is where you fill to. If the widest point is at the opening, change the glass…
Food & Wines
Food and wine matching is a regularly discussed topic and you should be able to trust a good restaurant to come up with some perfect matches. To keep it simple, for red wine there are only a few rules. Avoid vinegared/acidified food with red wine. It changes the flavour dramatically. Tannic (drying/pithy) red wines do not go well with seafood. You cannot taste the subtlety of the food and the wine can taste ‘metallic’. There are red wines described as food friendly. These tend to be lighter, more complex, a little higher in acidity and less fruity.