Now with White Wine 101 under your belt, and your vino confidence increased, get ready to tackle reds! Red wine season is here, and you’ll need to arm yourself with the ability to navigate those wine lists and store shelves, sniffing out the bargains that are right for you. Here is your tour of the most common red grape varietals.
The king of red grapes, this tiny berry with a thick skin produces wine of great intensity, weight, and longevity. Although the greatest bottlings come from Napa and Sonoma, Cabernet is grown worldwide, with examples from Argentina and Australia mimicking the flavor profile of California at a savings. If you enjoy Left Bank Bordeaux (composed predominately of Cabernet), look to Long Island or southern France for reasonably priced copycats. A note on pairing Cab with food: Think rich and fatty, as fat tames Cabernet’s impressive tannins.
In contrast to the other noble red grape, Pinot Noir is thin-skinned. This translates to less tannic wine, allowing Pinot Noir to be paired successfully with “meaty” fish preparations as well as poultry, game, and lean beef. While many Pinots are quite expensive, values can be found in village Burgundies, as well as from Chile, Italy, and New Zealand.
When I say Syrah and you say Shiraz, we’re both talking about the same grape. However, there are some implied differences in the name. The affordable Shiraz, generally found in Australia, is a rich, luscious fruit-bomb. High in alcohol, Aussie Shiraz cries out for rich, big foods. Many other new-world Syrahs follow Shiraz’s lead. By contrast, old-world Syrah (from Europe) is earthier and more forgiving when paired with leaner food. Often expensive and worth it, many steals can be found in the country wine designations of the Rhone.
This is the regal grape found in Italy’s Barolo and Barbaresco. While these two village-designates can be off-the-charts expensive, Nebbiolo is also bottled as Lange Rosso and as Nebbiolo d’Alba, which tend to have modest price tags. No matter the price, this juice is alluring, with aromas of rose, licorice, and cedar, and has structural attributes that marry well with most food.
The baby brother of Nebbiolo, Barbera is bright in acidity and low in tannins, which translates to a good choice when it comes to pairing with all but the heaviest and lightest of dishes. Often labeled by place, Barbera d’Asti tends to be bright and elegant, while Barbera d’Alba lands on the more rustic side of the scale. These wines represent top values on wine lists.
The most widely-planted grape in Italy, Sangiovese is known through many guises. Besides being the main component of Chianti, Sangiovese is also cloaked as, among two-dozen other names, Brunello, Uva Tosca, and Prugnolo Gentile. Price and style vary as widely as the name, but when looking for a versatile food-wine at great value, Tuscany’s Rosso di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano offer soulful, young Sangiovese character.
Spain’s most famous indigenous grape is now grown internationally, but nowhere else does it shine like in the regions of Rioja and Ribero Del Duero. This varietal is elegant and rich at the same time. Richness can result from American oak aging, while elegance arrives with age—and it does age gracefully! Look for great values in lesser-known Spanish regions like Penedes, La Mancha, and Valdepeñas, and enjoy with pork or lamb.
The Spanish are quite territorial about their indigenous Garnacha. In fact, Grenache is one of the most widely planted grapes on the planet, and yields wine that is spicy, soft in tannin, and higher in alcohol. This is a grape that plays well with others, and is the main character in Cotes-du-Rhone. The other venue where Grenache takes center stage is in Australia’s GSMs: Grenache/Shiraz/Mourvedre blends. Whether from Europe or the southern hemisphere, Grenache blends can compliment “cold weather” dishes, but come with a warm and fuzzy price tag.
Often the hidden gem on a wine list, Cab Franc is a wine geek’s best friend. Pricing is illogically-reasonable, as this red stands sturdy and proud from Loire and the Finger Lakes alike. As with many French varietals, Cabernet Franc is often not mentioned on the label. So look for Loire village names including Chinon, Anjou, and Bourgueil. I consume Cab Franc more often than any other red grape, as it offers the single best bang for your buck!
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