Ask any wine expert what’s the best way to learn about wine, and they’ll tell you to taste as much as you can. But, with main five types of wine (red, white, rose, sparkling, and dessert wine) and millions of different producers the world over, where do you start? And more importantly, where do you finish? Even if you have unlimited time and resources, there’s simply not enough time in the world that would allow you to taste every bottle on the open market.
So what you need is a game plan; something to get you started on your wine tasting journey (which will hopefully lead to your wine investment journey). Even if you’re a gazillionaire with a ton of spare time, tasting more than a tiny fraction of what’s available clearly is not an option. To save you from getting completely overwhelmed, we have prepared a small guide to help you discover your favourite wines.
Like videos of puppies on youtube, the smell of freshly cut grass and a mug of hot chocolate on a cold day, red wine is somehtibng that everyone universally enjoys. But it’s hard to universally understand it – the subject is a minefield of tastes, flavours, ageing ability, varietals and well, yes, let’s face it, snobbery. Red wine’s supposed superiority can be offputting to many – God forbid if you don’t know your malbec from your merlot.
Don’t worry, help is at hand. We’re here to give you a judgment-free, non-pretentious explainer on every major red wine varietal. Read on and you’ll never be embarrassed with your wine tasting terms in company again.
How To Discover Your Favourite Red Wine
First of all you’ll need to try a (good) bottle of each of the different types to discover the notes that red wine has. The styles fall into three main categories – light, medium and full bodied. Once you have ascertained your ideal style of body (we’re talking wine body here please, nothing else).
Red Wines From Lightest to Boldest
Light bodied wines (Pinot Noir, Gamay, Nebbiolo) have fewer tannins and thus lack the strong punchy taste that many people associate with red wine. Medium bodied wines such as Merlot and Shiraz are higher in alcohol and linger longer on the palette. Full bodied wines – Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel are those that have that “drying” mouthfeel and are rich and bold in intensity and flavour. These are the best wines for ageing if you are thinking of investing. The aforementioned mouthfeel is down the the tannin level found in many red wines. Over time, the tannins will begin to form long chains with one another on a molecular level, and help the wine evolve in harmony.
This Italo-German grape variety is found in the north of its home countries. While it might have a reputation as the “candy floss wine,” because of its sweetness Schiava’s (skee-ah-vah) flavours are far less sugary than you might think.Dominant flavours include fruity red berries (raspberry and strawberry) plus hints of flowery tastes like rose.
Carignan hasn’t always had the best reputation. For many years it was overproduced and thus fell out of favour with the wine world. Fortunately, that’s no longer the case; modern Carignan is often used for blending, because of its dry, fruity, taste and high tannins. Look for this when looking at blended Grenache, Mourvedre, and Syrah.
Tannat still flies a little under the radar, but this grape variety is producing brilliant red wines from south-west France to Uruguay. The wine it delivers is a classic red, deep-hued and intense with primary flavours of black fruit (plums, black cherry and cassis). Quite high in tannin, which can vary from bold to fine-grained. Silky and supple.
Popular Single-Varietal Red Wines
The incredibly popular Cab Sav is perhaps the worlds most famous grape. The main flavor profile here is one of dark fruit – black cherry, blackberry, black currant. Next come spicy secondary flavors – anise, clove, and nutmeg. Because of Cabernet Sauvignon’s ability to absorb the flavours of the barrels in which it is aged (notably in new oak), the wines can also smell and taste cedar, cigar boxes, and, sometimes, tobacco.
Merlot can be velvety and plummy, or rich and oaky. The grape is a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. It has a deep ruby colour with notes of blackberry, plum, spice, cedar and vanilla. You’ll also find tastes like cherries and chocolate.
A great Pinot Noir will have complexity, elaborate aromas, refined texture, freshness, silky tannins, and finesse. Burgundy and the Cote d’Or are of course the Holy Grail of Pinot Noir, producing wines that are filled with bright acidity, silky tannins and a high ABV (alcohol by volume) that ranges between 12–15%. Think complex flavours that include cherry, raspberry, mushroom and forest floor.
Syrah – or Shiraz if you are in Australia – is a fruit forward wine with great bursts of blackberry, boysenberry, plum, pepper and clove. The grape is famous full body, high tannins and high alcohol ABV (which can go up to 15%). Syrah grapes are renown for their incredibly thick skins, so much so that producers often soak the grapes in order to reduce the highly tannic flavor.
Red zinfandel (it comes in white too) is the American name for the Italian grape Primitivo. Zinfandel is phenomenaly popular stateside, and has been grown on the California coast for around a century. Tastewise you should expect notes of spices and pepper, as well as jammy red berries and distinct flavours of black fruits and spices. Lookswise a red zinfandels is characterised by its dark colour. Tannins are medium to high, giving he wine ageing ability and structure.
Sangiovese is the most popular grape varietal in Italy, responsible for blends such as Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino and Supertuscan. The taste is far more delicate than more well-known grape varieties such as pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon, but its great verisitilty mans that it can take on flavouts of the tgerroir where it is grown, therefore, this is a grape that is hard to define: it is however, known for its thick skin, light colour, fine tannins and medium-high ABV (typically between 13-14% ABV). Flavours include cherry, anise and tobacco leaf.
Grown in the cloud shrouded mountains of Piemonte, nebbiolo is one of the most interesting grapes for the fine wine investor. It is responsible for mammoth wines such as Barolos and Barbarescos and is powerful and intense, giving wines both character and depth. It is delicate but bold in flavours (cehrry, raspberry) and delivers wine that can age for decades.
Found mostly in Australian and New World wines as a blending varietal, Grenache – or Garnacha is beginning to come into its own as a single varietal. It is medium in body and tannin, with a similar weight and structure to Shiraz, Grenache is light on the palate with flavours of pomegranate, wild strawberries, violet, red fruits, spice and cherry.
Malbec is the Goldilocks of red wine: not too cabernet, not too merlot, it’s just right. The full bodied red wine grows mostly in Argentina, although some North American and a few French producers have taken to growing a small percentage of it on their terroir. Malbec is tangier and fruitier than merlot and enjoys flavours like sour cherry and spice. It aslo has a “thinner” taste. High in tannin and ABV, particularly if its a quality bottle from Argentina.
Carmenere is one of the world’s most underrated grapes. It originates from Bordeaux but is today considered as a Chilean wine. Carmenere is medium-bodied, supple with very distinctive red and black berry flavours (similar to Merlot). Don’t be surprised to find a delicious smokey / spiciness too.
Barbera wines embody the dolce vita for which Italy is so famous. It’s enormously popular and makes wines that are full of light-hearted, light-bodied, juicy promise. Barbera-based wines are meant for everyday drinking – flavours of sour cherry, strawberry and raspberry dominate, while the low tannins make for pleasant mouthfeel.
A great favourite in Bordeaux for blending, Cabernet Franc is smooth, versatile, delicate and aromatic. The flavour profile is defined by a balance between red fruits, herbs, and peppery earthiness; think violet, blueberry, earth, black olive and coffee. The medium-to-high acidity makes it refreshingly easy-to-drink.
If you want to learn more about the variety of wine tasting, check out our guide on how to tell the different wine flavours!