Wine starts with the grapes; red wines get their character from the grapes used to make them. The nature of the grapes defines how the wine will be. To make red wine, the skins are almost as important as the juicy grape pulp. Skins and stems add color and tannins to the wine.
Most notable red grape varieties
Barbera – This variety is most popular in northern Italy –Alba, Asti- and Argentina. Wines made from Barbera grapes are medium to full bodied, with tannins on the light side, therefore easy to drink. You can expect a sweet fruit flavor, reminiscent of red berries and spice. Grown mainly in Italy -Alba, Asti.
Cabernet Franc – Expect flavors of blackberries, red currants and herbs. Cabernet Franc is mainly grown in Bordeaux, where it is used for blending with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and the Loira Valley, where it is cultivated for varietals it is the only grape used in some high quality wines. This grape is the origin of lighter red wines than those made from Cabernet Sauvignon, a very close variety. Cabernet Franc wines have more to them that Merlot wines.
Cabernet Sauvignon – Top red grape variety; the bold Cabernet Sauvignon is the starting point for more quality wines than any other variety. Cabernet Sauvignon wines are medium to full bodied, fruity, with an aroma of black currant and cassis, with a hint occasional mint or green pepper flavors and, when matured in oak, some vanilla and wood flavors. The best wines are rich, firm, deep and have the characteristic Cabernet flavor and aroma. These wines age well. Cabernet Sauvignon is often blended with other grapes, Merlot, with less tannin, is often the preferred partner. This variety originated in Bordeaux but it grows well in any soil as long as it is relatively warm. Cabernet Sauvignon grows successfully in many regions in the five continents.
Carignan – This variety grows in the south of France, Spain and parts of California. Carignan produces fairly tannic, full bodied wines with profound color and uncomplicated berry flavors.
Cinsaut – Widely grown in the south of France and Corsica. This is a pale colored grape with a sweet, spicy aroma. Though mainly used in blends it produces a varietal rosé worthy of note.
Dolcetto – Dolcetto origins are in the Italian Piedmont. Dolcetto wines are charmingly easy to drink, bringing flavors of cherries, almond and red fruit and deep color. Wines made from Dolcetto grapes are best when young.
Gamay – A grape with dazzling cherry flavors and colorful pink-purple tint. It makes low tannin, very drinkable wines. Gamay grows in many areas of France and Europe, but shines in Beaujolais.
Grenache – A grape from Spanish origins, where it is known as Garnacha, producer of moist, pale, very alcoholic, cherry and pepper flavored wines. In the right conditions the wines can be deep colored, full of fruity aromas and flavors with a hint of raspberries. This variety is mostly used in blends. There is some in Argentina, but it grows mainly in Spain –Rioja, Priorato- France –Cahors, Bordeaux.
Malbec – A vigorous red grape variety full of piquant red berry flavors. Cultivated in France and more widely in Argentina, where it makes of deep colored wines with powerful tannins.
Merlot – This soft and juicy grape is producer of medium to full bodied, low tannin, high alcohol, and soft tasting wines with flavors of plum, blackberry or tea leaves, and suggestive of chocolate; if matured in oak, Merlot wines may have velvety vanilla flavors. Merlot originated in Bordeaux where it gives the wine an unmistakable earthy character. In Bordeaux, usually blended with Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc, produces wines capable of long and gracious aging. The soft ad juicy traits of this grape show up in Californian Merlot wines, though some of the best examples have the potential to age. In Chile, Merlo produces light and easy to drink wines.
Mourvèdre – Grown in Spain as Monastrell, and southern France; usually blended with other grapes. It has also cultivated in California, where it has been named Mataro. This grape variety has a powerful flavor and a profound velvety purple color. It is now gaining adepts for the dense color and licorice character it imprints in the wines made with it.
Nebbiolo – This is the grape variety used in Barolo and Barbaresco, Piedmont, Italy, making a classic wine, full bodied and powerful. Expect a complex bouquet of berries, flowers, herbs and wood; a deep color when young that gets orange tints with age –Barolo and Barbaresco are wines that should be at least eight years old before drinking. Nebbiolo grapes are high in tannins and acid; they also have enough alcohol to balance this character. It is here where Nebbiolo achieves greatness, because out of this region, Nebbiolo does not make outstanding wines. There are some light wines made from Nebbiolo designed to be drunk when young: Nebbiolo d’Alba or Roero, to name some.
Pinotage – Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, totally a 20th century variety. Pinotage keeps the berry sweet flavor from Pinot and gets the fruity spiciness from Cinsaut. It is widely cultivated in South Africa but it has not yet taken out of that region.
Pinot Noir – the grape of Burgundy - is the maker of some of the greatest wines in the world. It is a troublesome grape needing cool climates, low yields and a lot of care in the vineyard, but a great Pinot Noir can be one of the most fantastic wines to drink ever. Pinot Noir wine is Burgundy red, a lighter color than Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot wines, moderately high alcohol, medium to high acidity and medium to low tannin. A Pinot Noir can be soft and silky, full of fruity flavors when young developing a creamy vanilla texture and higher tannin when matured in oak. With age, game and truffle flavors will come out. Pinot Noir may also be earthy and woodsy, depending on where the grapes grew and the winemaking process. Pinot Noir is rarely blended with other grapes, but it is also used in champagne and other sparkling wines. Pinot Noir wines from Oregon or New Zealand are more dependable, though some say they still have some caching up to do with Burgundy.
Sangiovese – This is an Italian grape grown in Tuscany, especially in the Brunello de Montalcino and Chianti regions. Sangiovese produces medium to full bodied reds with high acidity and plenty of tannin to give a sour cherry, plum, and dried herbs flavors, often with a nutty character and sometimes with a hint of flowers. This grape is also very popular in California.
Syrah or Shiraz – Cultivated in the Rhône Valley, France, where it yields highly aromatic wines with a full body, firm tannins and complex aromas and flavors. Expect powerful wines with a deep red color and tastes from black cherries to burnt rubber. It is also grown in the south of France, where is often blended with Grenache, though Syrah does not need other grapes to complement it. In the new world of wine, it is known as Shiraz and it is the origin of some of the most remarkable Australian wines. The warmer Australian climate creates riper and more powerful Shiraz wines. In Australia, Shiraz is also blended with Cabernet Sauvignon.
Tempranillo – top quality Spanish grape – Tempranillo has its finest expression in the wines of Ribera del Duero and Rioja. Tempranillo wines may have medium to full body, powerful tannins, low acidity and moderate alcohol. Expect flavors of raspberry and spice. Varietal wines achieve deep, vivid color not seen in Rioja wines, when Tempranillo is blended with Grenache.
Touriga National – used in Port and other Portuguese wines; it is a highly tannic and concentrated grape able to give a feeling of smooth velvet to its wines.
Zinfandel – This grape is known as Primitivo in the south of Italy. A very popular grape in California for white wines, zinfandel is nevertheless a red grape, Zinfandel reds are rich and dark, high in alcohol and low in tannin, full of berry flavors and aromas. Some Zinfandels are light reds or rosé and designed to be enjoyed young.