Love red wine? Learning the major red wine varietals and regions will help strengthen your understanding of the wine world. By expanding your knowledge, you just might find a new varietal or region you love.
Major Red Wine Varietals and Regions
Like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir gained its reputation from France’s Burgundy region. The two grapes grow well in very similar climates and soils, and you will often see that a winery which produces Pinot Noir will also produce Chardonnays. Of all the grapes, Pinot Noir seems to be one of the most complex, and for many different reasons, it can vary in flavor from vintage to vintage, as well as from year to year as it ages. It is known as a very difficult grape to grow: it needs a long, cool growing season, which cannot always be promised to growers, even in the Burgundy region. But when the climate is right, Pinots can be worth every penny of their often expensive price tag.
Pinots age quite complexly: when they’re young, they have very simple light fruit characteristics, like strawberry, cherries, plums, and raspberries. As they age, the flavors become much more complex, and you’ll find chocolate, game, figs, prunes, leather, and smoke.
Also like Chardonnay, there is a typical “French” style and then a bolder stereotypical “California” style Pinot Noir. French (or Burgundy) style Pinots are lighter, often have less alcohol, and less fruit. They are milder and pair well with many dishes. California-style Pinots, on the other hand, have bolder fruits and flavors. There are many areas in California which produce great Pinots, some of the more popular are the Carneros and Russian River Valleys, (both in Napa), and some up-and-coming areas are Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara. We also have some Oregon and Alexander Valley Pinots on the list: you’ll notice that each of these areas are coastal, which makes sense: the climates of each of these areas are ideal for growing Pinot Noir because the coastal fog gives the area the coolness needed to grow great Pinots.
The Sangiovese grape, according to Italian growing standards, is the dominant grape in all Chianti wines. The Sangiovese grape is the most popularly planted grape in Italy. I like to think of it as the ultimate table wine, because the mildness of the Sangiovese grape makes it a crowd pleaser. Most Sangiovese wines have medium alcohol levels, medium to high tannins, and high acidity. The acidity makes them pair really well with the acidity of tomato-based dishes. Sangiovese tends to have medium fruit levels as well. Think of it as an overall “medium” wine: if it had a personality, it would be level-headed and easy-going.
Zinfandel is the second most planted grape in California, (outgrown only by Cabernet Sauvignon), but because it is not found in many other places in the world, it is known as a mainly California grape. (In fact, it is the official “rustic” grape of California, but not “the” official grape: Cab producers would not allow Zinfandel to hold this title).
Zinfandel is a fun grape because it can vary so much in flavor and structure. Some Zins are light and fruity; others are very hearty, with big berry flavors and/or pepper, high tannins and alcohol, and a full body that places them in the realm of full-bodied wines like Cabernet Sauvignon. Just as California tends to make other wines with very big, bold flavors—like we saw with Chardonnays and Pinots—California Zins can often be very fruity and high in alcohol. On the nose, you can easily detect this alcohol: there is a “heat” in the aroma that is a tell-tale sign of a wine that is high in alcohol.
Photo by Jim Fischer.
The traditional Syrah gained its reputation in the Rhone region of France (note that this is the same region which the white grape Viognier gained its reputation: think of Syrah as Viognier’s red counterpart; and note that French vintners often add a little Viognier to their Syrah). The Rhone region also grows a few other grapes, and a combination of some or all of these are known as a Rhone blend.
When young, Syrah is tannic, very peppery, and can have tar and spice qualities. When aged, it matures into a wine with dark fruits like blackberries, plums and cherries, and tar flavors are replaced with subtle smokiness.
Syrah is the most widely planted grape in Australia, where they often label it “Shiraz.” It is technically the same grape, but be cautious: the grape is often vinified (another word for grown/produced) into a very different tasting wine. Australian wines are typically very fruity, (they have gained the nickname ”fruit bombs”).
There are actually both red and white Grenache grapes. The red Grenache’s formal name is “Grenache Noir,” but it is usually referred to as simply “Grenache,” while the white grape is distinguished by the title “Grenache Blanc.” We are focusing only on the characteristics of the red wine, or Grenache Noir.
Grenache grows well in hot climates. Hot climates usually mean wines with higher alcohol content. As the sun ripens the grapes, it converts the sugars, and in fermentation, the sugars are converted to alcohol. Therefore, higher sugar equals more alcohol, and Grenache grapes + hot climate = high alcohol wines.
By itself, Grenache is usually a lighter bodied wine. But, like every other wine, there are always exceptions to the rules. There are some heavier, more full-bodied Grenaches currently in production. Usually, they are sweet, fruity, and have minimal tannins.
Like Syrah, Mourvedre produces spicy, peppery wines. It can be a bit tannic, which is why it is often blended with other wines. Mourvedre adds body and a little bite to Rhone blends.
Poor Petite Syrah. For the longest time, no one knew of its origins. In fact, it has been confused with many other grapes. And because of the name, people have often grouped it with Syrah and assumed that Petite Syrah was simply a lighter version of its full bodied, peppery counterpart. These days, we know better. Through DNA testing, we now know that Petite Syrah is actually the offspring of Syrah: the Syrah grape was once crossed with another grape, called Peloursin, to create the grape that we know as Petite Syrah.
Its origins (and its name) should not fool you: just because the grape is called “petite” doesn’t mean that its flavor is small. In fact, Petite Syrah has the potential to be one of the most full bodied grapes. It’s dark color, (sometimes compared to ink), and its dark fruit, plus its bold tannins and pepper flavor, (which it probably gets from its Syrah father), gives the wine a unique and distinguished flavor.
QUICK NOTE: Rhone Reds
You may remember the Rhone region from the description of the white wine, Viognier. The Rhone is also known for its red wines, and the mixture of the wines grown in the Rhone region is known as a “Rhone blend.” The following wines: Grenache, Mourvedre, Counoise, and Terret Noir are all components of some Rhone blends.
The French use it as a blending grape, but Americans love it by itself. Merlot gained a bad reputation after the movie Sideways, but there are some producers that have mastered Merlot production, and produce high-quality Merlot wines. Of course, with wine, it’s all subjective.
Although it is one of the fuller-bodied wines, Merlot has lower tannins and higher sugar levels than its blending counterpart, Cabernet Sauvignon. They are rounder wines and much fruiter, with dark fruits like blackcurrant. While Cabernets age well, Merlots can be drank much younger.
Although its name is “petite,” Petite Verdot has very bold qualities: full-bodied, peppery, and spicy, with high alcohol and tannins, it adds flavor and a beautiful dark color to Bordeaux blends.
Dark, full-flavored and tannic, Malbec adds structure and body to Bordeaux wines. However, it is also grown by itself. Some California producers have begun producing 100% Malbecs. They are a fun alternative to other full bodied wines. Argentina has put itself on the map with these wines, which seem to thrive in the dry climate at the foot of the Andes mountain range.
Jim Fischer 2013.
Cabernet Franc possesses many of the same qualities as the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, but on a milder level. It is a little less full-bodied, has lower tannins and acids, but it also has a stronger aroma and more herbaceous qualities. It is rarely grown by itself but some producers do bottle predominantly Cabernet Franc wines. Generally, its blended with other Bordeaux grapes.
Here is a tidbit of information for you: here at UCDavis, the Viticulture and Enology department concluded, (through DNA analysis), that Cabernet Sauvignon is the offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. They think that this crossing occurred naturally. So now you know. J
Cabernet is one of the most popular grapes in the world. And it has most certainly put the Napa Valley on the map for wine growing. In fact, it is the most widely planted grape in California. It thrives in hot temperatures, which makes it a successful planting in many parts of the world, including Australia and Chile.
QUICK NOTE: Bordeaux Blends
There is one more important region/blend for you to learn about: the Bordeaux region, and its famous blends. Some of the most famous grapes come from this region: you will probably find many of the names very familiar.
Another reason that Cabernet Sauvignon is so successful is because it ages so well. Their high acidity and tannins help the aging process. Cabs really do get better with time, and after aging, can exhibit cherry, black cherry, currant, and raspberry fruits, with other interesting flavors like tobacco, mint, cedar, chocolate, and even bell pepper.
Now that you have learned about the world’s major red wine varietals and regions, check out our article Major White Wine Varietals and Regions and our articles on The History of Wine in the USA, The History of Wine in Italy, and The History of Wine in Australia. Tired of history? Learn all about how the French classify wines in our article, France’s AOC Wine Classification System.