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Red wine: the beginner's guide

Learn what the heck a tannin is, read about popular red wine varieties, get answers to FAQs and have new varieties delivered to you.

Learn what the heck a tannin is, read about popular red wine varieties, get answers to FAQs and have new varieties delivered to you.

Figuring out what kind of red wine you like can be a bit of a maze. With there being hundreds of varieties, each unique, it's hard to keep track. What even is the difference between a wine being jammy or fruity? Why is it considered "earthy?" It's easy to get a little discouraged and make a blanket statement that you just don't like red wine. But it may not necessarily be true. Here, we'll go over the basics of red wine to help you discover the flavors, bodies and varieties that may be for you.

How is red wine made?

Basically, red wine is made when grapes get harvested, smashed and fermented. In reality it's a little more complicated than that but you get the concept. After fermentation, the wine is pressed, aged and filtered before it's bottled. You may be wondering how red wine gets its color. The answer is its skin. Like we said, the grape juice is fermented with their skins, unlike white wine which is fermented without skins. When this happens, the juice leeches color from the skins. The longer the juice spends with the skins, the darker the color of the wine. This fermentation with skins is a big difference between red and white wine, as white wine is not fermented with their skins.

What are tannins?

Like we just talked about, red wine is fermented with its grape skins. When this happens, these things called tannins are released from the grape's skins, seeds and stems. Tannins create a feeling of drying in the mouth. It’s what makes you make that face when you drink wine sometimes. You know the face. Similar to the color of your red wine, tannin levels of your wine will depend on how long the wine spent in their skins and with their seeds. Tannins also work as an anti-oxidant and help the wine age.

Tannins are in most red wines, but they're not always noticeable. So if you think you don't like red wine because of that drying feeling, try a wine with lower tannins. 

The bodies of wine

Before we talk about the most beloved reds, one more thing to go over. You'll often hear wines referred to as having "body". It's not a personification thing - it refers to the way the wine tastes. Light bodied reds are more fruity and fresh; medium bodied reds are more fruit forward and have a spice; full bodied red are bold and full of tannins.

Popular red wines

Pinot noir

Pinot noir is considered the world's most popular light bodied wine. It's fruity and flowery with a spicy aroma. It's grown in France, California, Oregon, New Zealand, Italy, Australia, Chile, Argentina, Germany and South Africa. So, pretty much everywhere that can have seasons with a  cooler climate, as these grapes are difficult to grow and thrive most in cooler areas.

You'll notice fruity flavor notes of raspberry, cranberry and cherry. There's also hints of cloves, mushrooms and licorice. This wine is typically low in tannins, but is considered medium-high acidity. Pinot noirs typically have an ABV between 11.5 and 13.5%.

Since it's a higher acidity, low tannin wine, pinot noir is considered a versatile wine for food pairings. It's light enough to pair with salmon, but also pairs well with chicken, pork or duck.

Serve pinot noir at room temperature between 55-60 degrees in an aroma collector glass.

Merlot

Merlot, the second most popular wine grape in the US is a soft, lush easy drinking red. It's fruit forward, has balanced acidity and moderate tannin levels. Merlot is a fruit forward red wine that is medium bodied, has balanced acidity and low sweetness.

 It's often found in the Bordeaux region. That's kind of an understatement because it's actually the most planted variety in the Bordeaux region of France. It also has some powerful presents in the North coast AVA (American Viticultural Area) in California and Washington.

As we talked about, Merlot is a fruit forward wine. So you'll taste hints of black cherry and plum. Other than the fruit flavors though, you'll find notes of dried herbs and even chocolate.

Merlot is a smooth red wine that pairs well with most foods. Try it with turkey, pork, stews or roasted vegetables. We'd recommend veering away from pairing it with fish or spicy foods because it'll be A LOT. Serve at around 65 degrees, or after it’s been refrigerated for about 15 minutes (if your home is over 70 degrees.)

Cabernet sauvignon

Cabernet sauvignon is one the most recognized wine grapes, and is grown in almost every wine producing country. This grape is actually a natural cross between two other beloved wine grapes; cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc. So it was basically born for the fame life.

Cabernet sauvignon is a thicker skinned red grape, which makes it grow a bit better in warmer climates where it can ripen. A few big places this grape grows is France, California, Chile, Australia, Argentina and New Zealand. So it's worldly to say the least.

Cabernet sauvignon is a full bodied wine with high tannins. Flavor profile can range a bit. From black current to black cherry, all the way to cedar and baking spices - or even vanilla. Cabernet Sauvignon typically has an ABV between 13.5 and 15%.

Since it has medium-high tannins and a rich flavor, it's a great pair with grilled meats, and other dishes with big flavors.  Pro tip: don't pair with anything that also has high acidity. For example, anything with tomato sauce is no friend to cabernet sauvignon. It will make your wine taste like metallic. No one needs that.

Serve at room temperature, usually around 60 to 68 degrees in an oversized wine glass.

Syrah

Syrah is a full-bodied, dry red wine with medium tannin and acidity levels. It's found in the Rhone blends of France, California, Australia, Spain, Chile, Argentina and Italy. You'll notice flavors of pepper, blackberries, vanilla, chocolate and herbs. Syrah ABV tends to change depending on where the grapes were grown. For example, syrah from France, or other colder climates, have about 13-14% ABV, while can be up to 14.5-15.5% from more tropical climates.

As we said, Syrah is a full-bodied red wine. When you sip it, you'll get hit with a bunch of flavors that then taper off as the spice notes arrive.

Since syrah has a full-bodied taste, it pairs well with bold foods. Pair it with grilled meats, or anything at a barbecue. Serve between 60-65 degrees, or after it’s chilled for about 15 minutes.

Grenache

Grenache is a widely planted grape, and an ingredient in some of the world's most famous wines (helloooo, Rhone blends.) It's planted in Spain, California, Washington and Australia, among other regions. Ever heard of GSM blends? Grenache is featured there as well (its longer, actual name is grenache-syrah-mourvedre).

Grenache has tastes ranging from strawberry, black cherry and raspberry, but also has flavors of tobacco, anise and cinnamon. The taste really depends where it is grown, whether it is a cool, warm or hot region.  You'll find that the region will change the wine's body, too. It ranges from medium to full-bodied with medium to low tannins and medium acidity.

Pair grenache with roasted foods like lamb, prime rib or even roasted vegetables. Serve grenache a little cooler than other red wines, at around 45-50 degrees. By serving it chilly, you reduce the burn from it’s higher ABV.

Top questions about red wine

Is red zinfandel dry or sweet?

Most zinfandels are considered dry because they contain just a little bit of residual sugar. Though low on sugar, red zin’s primary flavors are very fruity. Think jam, cherries, plums, and blueberries.

How many calories are in a glass of red wine?

This will depend on the wine variety and the pour, but generally a 5oz pour of wine is about 125 calories.

Is cabernet sauvignon a dry red wine?

Yes, cabernet sauvignon is actually one of the driest varieties. If it’s still a little too sweet for your taste, try something like sangiovese or tempranillo. If it’s too try, bump up the sweetness with a pinot noir or syrah.