Other than the fact that wine is basically alcoholic grape juice, how much do you actually know about wine? Can you differentiate between each type and get down with wine lingo?
You’ve probably learned a thing or two at your friends dinner party or the local pub but still struggle to get your head around it all. The good news is that although there’s a lot of wine snobbery out there, you don’t need to be a wine connoisseur to love wine, and starting with the fundamentals is a great way to get things going.
In this guide, we’re going to delve into the ins and outs of the most common red wines in the hopes that you gain some useful wine knowledge and can order confidently the next time you’re eating out or picking up a bottle at your local liquor store.
THE BASICS – HOW IT’S MADE
As you may have already guessed, red wines are fermented with darker purple grapes – skin, seeds and all. This gives red wine its rich, dark-red hues and tannins…
But what are tannins you might ask? Take note of this word, as you’ll be hearing it a lot in wine lingo. To put it simply, tannins are a group of bitter astringent compounds that give wine its structure, complexity and depth of flavor.
The next time you take a sip of wine you might notice your lips puckering up – that my friend is caused by tannin. The longer the skin, seeds and stems soak in the juice, the more tannin there will be in the wine.
(White wines are less tannic because they’re generally made with white grapes and the skins, seeds and stems are separated from the juice before fermentation begins.)
Wines can be classified primarily by a wine’s body type, the grape variety used to make the wine as well as the region where the grapes are grown.
Let’s start with a wine’s body; light, medium or full-bodied; this is determined by the wine’s texture, the wine’s feel in your mouth and it’s alcohol content.
Light-bodied wines like Pinot Noir have less tannin and are delicate in nature. These wines are often lighter in color and have lower alcohol content.
Medium-bodied wines such as Merlot or Shiraz will have a higher tannin volume and have a more intense flavor but not as intense as a full-bodied wine like a Bordeaux which has an even higher tannin content. Full-bodied wines are also darker in color than both medium and light-bodied wines.
CLASSIC EXAMPLES – 6 MOST POPULAR REDS
There are over 15 grape varietals used to make the most popular reds, these are the top 6:
Cabernet Sauvignon, the most popular of the reds! Named after the cabernet sauvignon grape, it’s typically a medium to full-bodied wine high in tannin with a bold dark red hue practically impermeable by light. Cab Savs pair best with red meat such as lamb or prime rib.
Pinot Noir is a red grape species producing a light colored and light-bodied wine with subtle nuanced flavors making for a great beginner red. It’s a versatile and food friendly wine that compliments a variety of foods and flavors including salmon or other fatty fish, poultry such as duck and even pasta dishes.
Syrah or Shiraz, another great easy drinking, entry-level wine! Syrah and Shiraz are two names for the same grape and two different names for the same wine. Syrah is typically a bold full-bodied wine that originated in France. As a general rule Syrah (Shiraz) pairs best with grilled meats, vegetables and wild game.
Merlot, French for “the little black bird” referring to the grapes is used to make merlot wine. It also happens to be the most popular grape planted in France. It produces a full-bodied wine that is notably velvety and plummy, or rich and oaky. Merlot goes particularly well with grilled or roast chicken or beef, blue cheese, red fruit sauces and pork loin.
Malbec grapes are thick skinned, creating a full-bodied wine. Although it originated in France, Argentina’s Malbecs have become the crowd favorite. Malbecs have a distinct dark purple hue and subtle fruit profiles most commonly associated with plum and blackberry. Malbec wine is happiest when paired with grilled meats, stewed dishes, cured meats and dry cheeses.
Zinfandel (Primitivo), most famously from California, is a grape that produces a lighter colored, sweetish red wine. With Zinfandel wine you’ll have hints of blackberry or raspberry aromas and even a jammy flavor. Zinfandel pairs well with tomato based dishes, grilled meats and even burgers.
These are the most common six reds and general suggestions for food pairings but the list goes on, and taste is subjective so developing your palate and varying your options is key to discovering what suits you.
RED WINE GLASSWARE
The shape of a wine glass can affect the wine’s taste but as a casual wine drinker, there’s no need to overcomplicate things, the shape of your glassware really isn’t something to worry about. You can however take notes for the optimal wine experience.
Firstly a wine’s serving temperature is important, especially with expensive wine. This is why wine glasses have stems allowing you to hold the glass without touching the bowl of the glass. Holding the stem prevents the heat that’s radiating off your hands from warming the glass and its contents.
And secondly, red wine glasses typically have a larger bowl allowing aromas to collect at the top of the glass so you can pick up a wine’s scent before drinking it.
In addition a larger bowl helps in mitigating the bitterness of tannin and spicy flavors.
LETTING A WINE BREATHE
It’s often recommended that red wine is served at room temperature, don’t be fooled by this misleading concept. In fact, serving a chilled bottle, just under room temperature, is the best way to enjoy it. Pop it in the refrigerator an hour before opening the wine and let it sit out and slowly cool after its been opened, this also allows for oxygenation which helps to bring out a wine’s flavors.
You can use a wine decanter to speed up the oxygenation process. In wine lingo, this is called letting a wine “breathe.”
HOW TO DRINK RED WINE FOR BEGINNERS
Pour, swirl, take a sniff and sip. Pour and swirl your wine and take note of the color so you can determine what body type the wine is. Ask yourself how dense does it look, how opaque it is and what you expect it to taste like when you sip it.
Next you can smell the wine to identify its aromas. You can try to associate the different aroma with fruits, herbs or even pepper.
Finally, try a sip of the wine and let it sit on your tongue so you can take in all of its flavors. Does it taste sweet? Does it have a lot of tannins?
There’s no right way or wrong way to taste wine and if you choose to drink wine out of a mug and you enjoy the experience, then keep it up! You can still appreciate its aromas, flavors and taste no matter what vessel you choose to drink out of.
There’s a lot to learn in the world of wine and best of all, wine’s subjective. It’s a matter of taste, and since tasting is key to discovery try your best to avoid sweeping judgments and assumptions along the way. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your food pairing and the most important of all, have fun while you’re at it!