How to Select Red Wine


malbec, UC Davis

Question from Lindsay: Everytime I go to the store to buy wine for a gift or a party, I’m overwhelmed by the choices.  I know there are Merlots, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and a few other types, but I have absolutely no idea what the difference between all of them are.  To me, they are all red. Can you give a brief overview of the general differences. 

Reply: Hi, Lindsay. Thanks for writing! This is another good question that lots of other people have. A few weeks ago I decided to write about a different grape variety every week, so soon there will be fairly detailed info on the most popular varieties available on the blog. Just do a search by variety. In the meantime, a broad-brush stroke for these reds is a great idea and will be this week’s grape(s) of the week 😉

Disclaimer 😉

Characteristics vary, a little or a lot, depending upon where the wine is grown and how it was made.
Here we go:

Cabernet Sauvignon:

Weight: Full bodied – big – substantial. And deeply colored. If you’re not sure what I mean by weight, you might compare it to the way milk feels on your palate: Light bodied = skim milk; Medium bodied = whole milk; Full-bodied = cream.

Flavor profile: Black fruit such as blackberry, black cherry, black currant; it may show earth, cedar, bell pepper, green olive or any number of other descriptors, depending, again, on where it’s grown and how the wine is made. When the winemaker chooses new barrels for aging the wood may add vanilla, spice, smoke, grilled bread, mocha, nutty character or a sense of toastiness.

Pucker factor (Tannin): Very noticeable. Tannin runs around your mouth seeking out protein and then clings to it. That’s what accounts for the drying, gripping sensation. Cab has thick skins and the skins are the source of the color and most of the tannin. 

If you sometimes think you’re drinking Merlot and it turns out to be a Cab – or vice versa – there’s a good reason. These grapes are similar. Take Cabernet back a notch and it begins to look more like Merlot.

Weight: Medium to full bodied

Flavor profile: Merlot often shows red fruit intermingled with black: Currant, black cherry, plum, violet, herb-like, earthy; Oak will add some of the woody characteristics described for the Cab.

Pucker factor: Usually noticeable, but softer than Cab. Merlot can leave a fleshy impression where Cabernet comes off as more structured.

Shiraz (Syrah):
This variety is a real trickster, in terms of knowing what to expect. Moderately priced Aussi Shiraz tends to be big, round, very fruity and sweet-ish. From the northern Rhone, its homeland, it’s deep, dark, meaty, smoky, brawny… But you can count on it as making a big statement.

Weight: Full bodied

Flavor profile: Dense black fruit, white pepper, smoke, spice, meat

Pucker power: Very noticeable

Pinot Noir:
Waaay lighter than the above. Smooth and elegant, Pinot is a seductress!

Weight: Very light to medium bodied –  usually light and fairly light in color

Flavor profile: Red fruity with an earthy component: cherry, strawberry, raspberry, rose petal, mushroom, forest floor, violet, barnyard, green tea

Pucker factor: Smooth as silk. Pinot Noir has a thin skin

You didn’t ask for Zinfandel, but us Californians love our Zin!

So very fruity and spicy! It might remind you of the smell of wild berries when you go hiking!

Weight: Medium to full bodied. Check the alcohol before you buy! It can really be up there! If you like a heavy Zin, those with high alcohol are the weighty ones.

Flavor profile:  Very ripe to dried red fruit: Raspberry, strawberry, bramble, spicy, jammy (literally like raspberry or strawberry jam), some are port-like;  Bramble is what gives away that it’s Zin as opposed to Merlot or some other medium bodied red.

Pucker factor: Not much – goes down easy as long as the alcohol doesn’t burn your throat.

A once obscure variety has been made famous and wildly popular by Argentina!

Weight: Full bodied

Flavor profile: Rustic black fruit: plummy, earthy, spicy, tobacco leaf

Pucker factor: Noticeable. Argentinian examples have ripe tannins that aren’t too brutal. Malbec from the south of France (Cahors) is usually very tannic.

That covers the most popular reds. I hope it makes your shopping a little easier, Lindsay! Cheers!

Send me your wine question  I’ll get back to you in a jiffy!

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4 responses to “How to Select Red Wine

  1. Steve

    Thank you for spelling out the basics of red wines. As a beer drinker (usually) I am always confused about differences in wines. Most sites don’t do an apples to apples comparison of the varieties, in one they will talk about body in the next it will be something else.

  2. Sanga

    Hey thanks for schooling us,I see a lot of information about Pinot Noir and it happens almost all the time I try searching for Pinotage.What is Pinotage wines,what’s the the difference between the two if any ?

    • My pleasure. Thanks for the thanks! Pinotage is a hybrid grape, a crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsaut (A Rhone variety that has been called Hermitage). The reason Pinot Noir always shows up on your search is that so little Pinotage is produced. The wine is almost completely exclusive to South Africa, where the hybrid was first made in 1925. Pinot Noir can be a fuss budget in the vineyard and the Cinsaut crossing was intended to make it easier to grow. Of course, it changes the character of the wine. Are you a fan?

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