At a basic level, wine can be broken into 5 categories:
From there, it breaks down into almost endless varieties – and that’s where people get confused. Let’s take a look at some of the varieties available.
Red wine is made from dark grapes, which may appear deep blue, deep red or deep blueish-purple in colour. The juice inside the grape is mostly colourless, so it is in pressing the grape with the dark skins, that the colour of the liquid produced changes.
- Tannins are a natural antioxidant that comes from the seeds, stems and skins of the grape, it’s also found in oak barrels. Tannins are what give wine that “astringency, or bitterness and leave your mouth feeling dry. Red wines tend to have a higher level of tannins due to the actual red wine making process. The more tannins, the better the wine will “age.”
- Red wine is generally aged in oak barrels, which not only imparts flavours to the wine, it also helps mellow the tannins somewhat.
- Red wines can be made from a single grape variety, or from a blend of varieties.
- Red wines may be labeled with the grape variety (in the case of a single variety), or the region the came from (such as Burgundy). They may also have names specific to their growing/production region but be called something different in other areas.
Some of the Popular Red Wine Varieties
A French, medium to full-bodied blended wine, made in the Bordeaux region of France. Like Champagne, Bordeaux is in the “Appellation of Origin” category, meaning there are rules applied to it’s production process, in order to be permitted to use the Bordeaux title. While several grape varieties are permitted to produce a Bordeaux (such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot), over 90% of Bordeaux blends are a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Decant Red Bordeaux for at least 30 minutes to mellow the tannins and serve at around 65° F / 18° C.
This Italian red is known for a single variety grape (Sangiovese) and must contain minimum 70% of this grape (although Colli Senesi requires 75% minimum), but may also have a small amount of other grape varieties added, including white grapes. Apellation rules for labeling are quite specific and dictate everything from what time of the year it’s released, to the amount of alcohol and vineyard yields. If Chianti is your jam, check this page out for a treasure trove of serious Chianti information. Decant for at least 30 minutes and serve at 60–65°F /15 – 18° C.
3.) Syrah / Shiraz
Pron: See-rah / Shee-rahz
Once known as “Hermitage,” Syrah is a richly coloured, red-skinned grape and one of the most planted varieties today. A distant relative to Pinot Noir, it produces a deep-coloured, full-bodied wine, rich in antioxidants. While traditionally from France, Syrah travelled the world to Australia where it morphed into Shiraz, a wine the country is becoming well known for. Some would say the difference in terrain and climate has resulted in a somewhat more complex and rich French Syrah, vs. the more crisp, and bold, berry flavoured Shiraz. Have you ever compared the two? What’s your preference? Best served at 60–65°F /15 – 18° C.
4.) Cabernet Sauvignon
Pron: Kab-berr-nay soh-vin-yohn
A happy cross-breeding accident in Bordeaux, France, between the red Cabernet Franc grape and a white Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon was at one point, the most-planted variety of grape in the world. Known for it’s dark colour, full-body and high alcohol content, it’s also known for being a somewhat “aggressive” wine, high in tannins and acidity. For that reason, it’s most often paired with food, rather than served as a sipping wine. Decant for at least 60 minutes to “mellow” the tannins and serve at 60–65°F /15 – 18° C.
5.) Pinot Noir / Red Burgundy
Pron: Pea-no n’war
A difficult grape to grow, Pinot Noir (also known around the world as “Red Burgundy” or “Bourgogne Rouge” due to it’s French origin) is available in smaller quantities than other reds and tends to illicit a fierce devotion from it’s fans. Did you know a Hollywood movie was produced about pining for the perfect Pinot Noir – and August 18th is Pinot Noir day! A light to medium-bodied wine, Pinot Noir has a notable red berry taste that pairs well with a wide variety of food (including those traditionally in the white wine domain) but is also light enough to enjoy on it’s own. Light in tannins, Pinot Noir/Red Burgundy is an excellent choice for introducing white wine aficionados to reds. This wine can be served with (20-30 minutes) or without decanting and is best served slightly chilled at about 55° F / 12° C
While the majority of Merlot vines are in France and Italy, today the grape is grown in many countries and is one of the most-planted grape varieties. It is also one of the varieties thriving in México. Merlot is another great wine to choose as an introduction to reds, with it’s similarity to Cabernet Sauvignon but with a lower tannin content and a stronger fruit profile. In comparison to European Merlots, a Merlot produced in warmer climates will also have a less structured taste and more mellow tannins, so a Mexican or Latin American produced wine should be definitely be considered when investigating Merlots. Decant from 30 – 60 minutes (preferably 60 minutes) and best served at 60–65°F /15 – 18° C.
Known as a predominantly South American wine, the original French Malbec grape variety made it’s way to Argentina, which is now the top Malbec producing country in the world, after France. Due to differences in growing conditions, Argentinian Malbecs are best drank young, as opposed to French Malbecs which fare better when allowed more aging to mellow the tannins and acidity. Malbec is a deeply coloured, robust wine with a slightly tangier and fruitier flavour than Merlot. Decant for 30 – 60 minutes and best served at 60–65°F /15 – 18° C.
8.) Red Zinfandel / Primitivo
Pron: Red Zin-fan-dell / Prim-eh-teevo
Red Zinfandel is a widely-planted, popular wine in California, so much so, people once thought it originated there. However, the grapes origin is actually Croatian. The grape is also grown in Italy, where it’s known as Primitivo. This grape produces a lighter coloured wine with mid to high tannins, therefore despite it’s appearance, it has a straight-forward, bold taste. “Old vine Zin” is Zinfandel made from California vines which are minimum 50 years old, these vines produce a “bigger,” more intense flavour and the bottles fetch a heftier price. Decant for 30 – 60 minutes and serve at 60–65°F /15 – 18° C.
Rioja is a Spanish wine, made from the “Old World” grape, Tempranillo. A young Rioja is high in tannins, similar to Cabernet Sauvignon but with a more fruit-forward flavour. Used in both Spanish and Portuguese wines, it is one of the top varieties used to produce Port in Portugal. There are actually 4 Rioja classifications, based on aging times and the growing season:
- Rioja – a very young wine with minimal aging
- Crianza – minimum 1 year in the cask and some months in the bottle
- Reserva – made from the best grapes and in the best growing seasons. Aged a minimum of 3 years (at least 1 year must be in the barrel)
- Gran Reserva – made only in exceptional growing seasons and with the very best grapes of that season. Aged in an oak barrel a minimum of 2 years and then at least 3 years in the bottle.
Decant a young Rioja or Crianza 1 – 2 hours. If serving a Gran Reserva (decant and serve). Serve at 60–65°F /15 – 18° C.
Want to learn more about serving your favourite wine?
For some great information on decanting, click here to be directed to Wine Folly’s, “Decanting Times! A Handy Guide For Best Practices.”
For serving temperatures and the ideal stemware for serving, click here to be directed to Wine Enthusiast’s, “Your Cheat Sheet to Serving Wine.”