Guide to the Red Wine Spectrum
Ever been told to bring a bottle of red wine to a party, and be flabergasted when looking at the wine aisle in a specialty store or supermarket? Well, you're not alone, and to be honest it's not easy to seek out the "right" bottle.
There are tonnes of different red grape varietals out there, but the easiest way to categorise them would be based on whether the wine is light, medium or full bodied.
Wine becomes red because of the grape skins. Almost all wine juice is clear if there is not contact with skins. When fermentation occurs with red grape skins, the contact between dark skins & fermenting juice creates color. This also give it it's tannin, or siapness.
The 3 key factors that affect the body of the wine would be ripeness, tannin & alcohol content; ripeness is dependent on climate & when winemakers harvest the grapes, while tannin is dependent on the grape varietal as well as how much skin contact there is during the initial alcoholic fermentation process before pressing (fun fact: for white wines, pressing is usually done before fermentation). Alcohol content is controlled by the length of fermentation.
LIGHT BODIED RED WINE
Often called the "gateway reds" or like we like to call them "conversation reds", these reds are light & refreshing. These wines are highly drinkable, and can be drunk alone or paired well with food.
Higher in acidity, and big on aromatics, this grape is grown everywhere. Typically dry, red-fruit forward with earthy & herby notes, it is a terroir expressive grape - meaning it's profile changes quite a bit based on where the grapes are grown. An interesting fact is that you can often find it where Chardonnay is grown, because Pinot Noir is a parent grape to Chardonnay!
Noteable Regions: Burgundy, Sonoma, Willamette Valley, Germany (Called Spatburgunder)
When most people hear Gamay, they think of Beaujolais; and rightly so, because that's where it originated. Meant to be drunk young & fresh, this cousin of Pinot Noir shares many of it's characteristics, but tends to be slightly lighter & has a slightly "gamey" aroma. When pairing Gamay, try to pair it with dishes with fennel or mustard in them, as those pair exceptionally well.
Noteable Regions: Beaujolais, Canada, Oregon, New Zealand
This underrated red hails from Austria. It's a darker & punchier version of a Pinot Noir, with notes of cherries & baking spices.
Noteable Regions: Austria
One of the more aromatic grapes in this category, it's aromas tend to remind you of cotton candy, roses & strawberries. Despite these aromas, it's usually a dry style wine, and goes under various names in different regions around the Alps. A good choice if you tend not to like the earthiness of the previous grape varietals
Noteable Regions: Alto Adige, Germany (Often called Grauvernatsch, Kleinvernatsch or Grossvernatsch)
MEDIUM BODIED RED WINE
Often called "food wines", they offer a good balance of fresh aromas & zesty acidity, allowing them to match with a variety of foods. There's a wide variety of wines here, as there's quite a spectrum of "medium bodied red wines".
Fruit-forward red fruit wine, with baking spices like cinnamin, it's a savory wine that goes beautifully with food. Think dried cranberries, raspberry, with smoky tobacco & cured meat notes- the perfect Thanksgiving wine. Mostly grown in Southern France, it's a value grape that sometimes can smell meaty, best from old vines. Best paired with white meats & dishes with cinnamon.
Fun Fact: For a long time it had a bad rep as they were often used as table wine in the French Languedoc-Roussillon region, France's apex of volume production wine.
Notable Regions: Southern France, Chile, Northern Spain, Sardinia
One of the "green" grapes, it's the parent to both Merlot & Cabernet Sauvignon. Strong acidity & aromas of raspberry, bramble & bell peppers makes this a good pairing for tomato based dishes. A "grape expressive" varietal, Cabernet Franc has a consistent profile across the various regions it's grown in, changing mainly between sweeter roasted pepper notes from warmer climates, to raw bell pepper in cooler climates.
Notable Regions: Bordeaux, Loire Valley, Ontario, Bolgheri, California
Expect herbasceous capsicum, peppercorn-like flavors in Carmenere. This savory wine will have notes of raspberry, plum, and an interesting paprika note. Try roast meats & cumin spiced dishes when pairing this Chilean wine. It actually originated in Bordeaux, but now is only grown in Chile. It has similarities with Merlot, except with a heightened "green" taste to it.
Note: Most highly rated Carmenere wines are usually blended with other black fruit wines, outperforming the single varietal makes.
Notable Regions: Maipo Valley, Colchagua Valley
Another "terroir expressive" varietal, Sangiovese is Italy's most planted wine variety & the pride & joy of Chianti, a Tuscan sub-region. It's a savory wine & it's typical profile will have notes of cherry, roasted tomatoes, together with balsamic & oregano notes. Depending on where it's grown, the earthy notes may or may not overpower the red fruit notes, but will become more pronounced as the wine opens up. Try pairing with pizza or sausages!
Notable Regions: Chianti, Brunello, Corsica, Mendoza
Primitivo or Zinfandel is renowned for its jammy, candied fruit flavors and spiced tobacco finish. While made popular in the US, it's actually a Croatian grape. With mid-range tannins and high acidity (plus high alcohol content) it’s bold without being heavy. A perfect BBQ pairing, as sweet & savory dishes go best with Primitivo.
Notable Regions: California, Puglia
A Spanish origin, but shot to fame by Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Tell-tale candied fruit & cinnamon flavors give Grenache away, wint aromas of orange rinds & oregano or tobacco. It's a high intensity wine that pairs well with roast meats, and grilled vegetables, especially with dishes that utilise cumin & Asian 5-spice. Medium-full bodied, with medium tannins & acidity, it's usually a dry style that is often blend with the peppery Syrah & Mourvedre to create the famed GMS blend, of which French Rhone Valley & Australian wines are a big promoter of.
Notable Regions: Spain, Rhone Valley, Australia
Barbera is one of those underrated wines from a famous region. The "lesser" wine of Piedmont to Nebbiolo, it's a great everyday drinking wine that's meant to drink young, it pairs particularly well with Indian curry dishes, or those with sage, anise, cinnamon & white pepper. It's one of those wines with both red & black fruit notes, making it a juicy "light but full" wine
Notable Regions: Piedmont, California
A grape often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, it boasts big black cherry & plum flavors, smooth tannins & a chocolate vanilla finish. It's a great wine to play with as there's a big range of flavors depending on whether or not it's blended, and from a cool or warm climate. Merlot is a first class wine with a tainted reputation due to it having been used as a cheap table wine. It's smoothness is what puts it in this group, and it's also a "terroir expressive" varietal
Notable Cool Climate Regions: Bordeux, Tuscany, Chile
Notable Warm Climate Regions: California, Australia, Argentina
On it's own, it produces a light to medium bodied wine with floral red fruits & savory cherry/plum, comparable to Beaujolais Gamay. However, Corvina is often used as a blending grape with Rondinella and Molinara for Valpolicella and Amarone in Veneto, Italy. It’s a fairly thick-skinned grape, which certainly adds to the heft for which Amarone is known.
Notable Regions: Veneto
FULL BODIED RED WINE
Deep, dark & tannic. While tannin doesn't usually sound nice, it's actually something awesome as it has a palate-cleansing effect, making them pair amazingly with heavy, fatty foods like a steak, or many dishes in Peranakan cuisine. They also are beautiful as a cocktail wine, usually best enjoyed after a meal.
It makes some of the darkest red wines, and will give you a punch of flavor that finishes slowly into a spicy peppery note. The only unfortunate thing is that Syrah (Shiraz) doesn't have a long finish, which is usually blended to balance it out. If you're looking for something more fruit driven, look for Australian or US, and France or Italy for something more earthy & hearbasceous. Try it with dishes cooked with Asian 5 Spice, or Anise.
Notable Regions: Barossa Valley, Rhone Valley, Tuscany, California
Loved for it's high intensity & body, the age worthy Cabernet Sauvignon is undoubtably the world’s most popular red wine grape. Grown all over the world, it inevitably has a variety of profiles, performing best on regions with gravel soils. Expect loads of black fruit with pepper & green notes
Notable Regions: Bordeaux, California, Coonawarra, Chile
Originating in France, but made popular by Argentina, Malbec wines are loved for their rich dark fruit flavors & smooth chocolately finish. It a red that doesn't have a particularly long finish, making it a great choice with leaner red meats & heavier cheeses like blue cheese.
Notable Regions: Mendoza, Cahors
A cross between Cinsault & Pinot Noir, it's bolder than both it's parents, with notes of plum, dried fig, blackberry, cocoa, and oddly enough, the smokyness of roasted meats. Tasting closer to a Shiraz, Pinotage is a BBQ-friendly wine that's dark, bold and high tannin that has become South Africa's second most planted grape.
Notable Regions: South Africa
Made famous by Rioja, Tempranillo has a simple classification system based on how long they age in oak. This dry, medium full body wine is full of cherry & savory dried fig flavors, as well as earthy flavors like tobacco & dill. While it does not get as rich as Cabernet Sauvignon, it is a very complex wine with layers start to finish.
Notable Regions: Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Portugal
It's Sicily's most important red varietal, with bold notes of black cherry & tobacco. It's a great wine to try if you enjoy Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon. A classic pairing would be a beef stew, but why not try it with a hamburger!
Note: Depending on the winemaking style, it can be either zippy red cherry driven, or jammy black fruit driven.
Notable Regions: Sicily, California, Australia
One of Italy's most important varietals, made famous by Barolo, Piedmonte, Nebbiolo's delicate aromas are contrasted by strong tannins, making it a much heavier wine that it seems to be. Expect notes of cherry, rose, leather & anise. The interesting this that contrasts this grape from the rest is the pronounced acidity & translucent color, making it seem like a much lighter wine than it really is. Something to try for those who enjoy cool climate Pinot Noir or Sangiovese
Noteable Regions: Barolo, Barbaresco, Langhe, Lombardy (Appassimento style make called Sforzato)
Bold & smoky, The Monastrell is one of 3 grapes in the famed GSM blend. Big black fruit flavors, with cocoa & tobacco notes, this tannic wine is a perfect pairing for smoked meats & barbecue, as the layers of black fruit & chocolate are revealed from the wine's gamy flavors. Originating in France, it's one of the major grapes of Rhone, along with Grenache & Syrah, and is an ideal grape for warm climates.
Notable Regions: Jumilla, Alicante, Rhone Valley, Australia, Washington
Hailing from Georgia, this ancient varietal creates beautifully complex wines with soft aromatics. It's one of few grapes that have a dark flesh, and grows will in warm & cold regions. Popular in blends due to it's high acidity & inky dark color, it's single varietals are getting more common.
Notable Regions: Georgia, Australia, China
Genetically linked to the Valpolicella grapes, it's found in Italy & Slovenia, as well as neighboring Eastern European countries. You'll find dark concentrated notes of dried cherry & herbs, as well as anise & coffee notes, with high acidity
Notable Regions: Slovenia, Croatia, Northern Italy
A well loved grape varietal in Puglia & almost nowhere else, Negroamaro has got a distinct dried thyme finish that pairs well with caramelised foods, as it brings out the black fruit sweetness of the wine
Notable Regions: Puglia
An important varietal from Portugal, it was originally soley used to make Port wines, but has found it's way into single varietals & red blends. It has elegant floral aromas & big tannins that make it best enjoyed with something fatty; think steaks with butter or blue cheese.
Notable Regions: Duoro Valley
PETIT SYRAH (DURIF)
Despite the popularity of Petit Syrah, t's actually an exceptionally rare grape grown mainly in California. An offspring of Syrah, it's full bodied & big tannin structure, it has notes of blueberry, chocolate, plums & black pepper. Age worthy, it's called Durif because the scientist that created the grape was a botanist named Francois Durif.
Notable Regions: California
Tannat is an up & coming varietal mainly planted in Uruguay, with some of the most antioxidants of all red wines. Expect strong licorice, cardamom & smoke notes with blackcurrant & plum. Best enjoyed with some marinated BBQ meats & vegetables.
Notable Regions: Uruguay