Red Wine 101: Everything You Need to Know

Rachel Von Sturmer is back this week with tips on drinking red wine! Don’t miss her white wine guide from last week or her free wine course!

There’s nothing like popping a bottle of red wine as you get ready for a dinner party, or to cozy up with by the fire while catching up with friends.

Here’s an introduction to some of the classic red wine grapes and where they’re grown, along with some handy serving tips.

Types of red wine

Pinot Noir

You might recall this red grape as the star of the movie Sideways. Pinot’s giveaways are its intoxicating perfume and pale ruby color.

It can be juicy with red fruit like strawberries, cherries, and raspberries in youth, and as it ages, can become delightfully earthy. Think a forest floor after it rains, leather, spices, and you’re on the right track.

Pinot is often called the ‘Heartbreak Grape’ because it can be a bit tricky to grow. That being said, it’s planted in some of the most famous regions in the world, like Burgundy (when the label says red Burgundy, it’s made from Pinot Noir).

Key regions for Pinot Noir: Burgundy, France | Oregon | California | New Zealand | Australia

Merlot

I don’t know why this grape isn’t more popular among wine drinkers. Maybe it’s because it’s too easy a wine to like — it’s plush, silky, and can have a lovely velvety texture. It has a medium to full body with tasty plum and mocha notes.

Merlot is one of the most widely grown grapes in the world and is often blended with varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon to soften them up (this blend is called ‘Meritage’ in North America {rhymes with ‘heritage’} and a ‘Bordeaux blend’ in France).

Key regions for Merlot: Bordeaux, France | California | Australia | Chile

Cabernet Sauvignon

This a powerhouse, sometimes known as the ‘King of Grapes’. Expect a medium to full body, firm grippy tannins, and a good amount of acidity on the palate.

Fruit-wise, you’ll find black fruit like blackberries and blackcurrants. I taste mint and eucalyptus in Cabs from hotter parts of the world like California and Australia, and sometimes you can even pick up a hint of pencil shavings. Cab Sauv tends to be an inky dark purple in the glass (and on your teeth!).

Key regions for Cabernet Sauvignon: Australia | Bordeaux | California

Syrah/Shiraz

This is one grape that is labeled two ways. It can range from elegant and austere, to peppery, dark and jammy with black fruit — depending on where it’s grown.

In cooler regions, it can be paler in the glass, with chewy or even gritty tannins. From hotter places, it can be powerfully ripe, soft, and plush with spicy notes.

Look for wines labeled Syrah to be more elegant, and richer, plummier examples labeled as Shiraz. Syrah is a key component of blends from the Southern Rhone Valley in France (along with Grenache and Mourvedre).

Key regions for Syrah/Shiraz: Washington | California | Australia | Rhone Valley, France

Serving Temperature

The ideal serving temperature for most red wines is just a few degrees below room temp. If a red wine is served warm, it really emphasizes the alcohol and can make it taste imbalanced. A few minutes of chilling in the fridge will do wonders.

Other Serving Tips

The ideal glass for red wine has a nice wide bowl that narrows at the top, which lends itself nicely to swirling.

To get the most out of your red, pour to just below the widest part of your glass, that way you can swirl with abandon without worrying about sloshing things everywhere. The swirling will also get you more perfume in the glass, as the aromas are captured in a vortex wafting up to your nose.

If the wine is tasting a little hard, aerating it might help. Pour the bottle into another vessel, then back again through a funnel. This can soften an affordable but tannic wine that needs a little help, but is not recommended for your finer bottles!

You can also try mixing it into a cocktail like this pomegranate port wine cocktail or making a big batch of mulled wine at the holidays.


RACHEL VON STURMER 

Rachel von Sturmer is a Vancouver-based wine and spirits writer and classically-trained chef. Check out her site for a free email wine course. When she’s not tasting and reviewing wine, she’s channeling her love of food, wine and travel into a guide to British Columbia’s wine country and completing the WSET Diploma. Follow her on Instagram at @rachelvonsturmer.

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