Where to Start When I Know Nothing About Red Wine

I was there once, about 20 years ago. Wine can be quite intimidating when you are just starting out. Just like golf, you can enjoy wine much into your later years. But let’s get you along on that journey of learning what types of red wine are out there.

Different Types of Red Wine

Winemakers may have their own style, however red wines are can be classified by body type: light, medium or full-bodied.

A light-bodied wine will have fewer tannins and will be light on the palate. That is fine you say, but what the heck are tannins?

According to my friends over at VinePair, tannins are naturally occurring compounds (or polyphenols) that are in grape skins, seeds and stems. After the grapes have been pressed, these polyphenols are released from the skins, seeds and stems as they soak in the pressed grape juice. The more tannins that are present, the more dryness you may feel in your mouth after drinking a glass of wine.

Good examples of these types of wines that pair quite easily with a variety of food dishes include Zinfandel, Grenache, Beaujolais, and of course, most Pinot Noirs.

A medium-bodied wine will have more tannins than a light-bodied wine but less than a Cabernet Sauvignon. Examples of this type of wine are Merlot, Syrah and perhaps Chianti.

A full-bodied red wine will have a higher level of tannins and often times, alcohol. Good examples of this type Cabernet Sauvignon. Bordeaux from France which is a Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot blend, Super Tuscans from Italy.

What Does Wine Varietal Mean?

The word varietal refers to the type of grape that is used in making a wine. There are five or six main varietals that I will cover in this article. Some varietals are just better by themselves or used in a blend with another varietal.

1. Cabernet Sauvignon – This wine is probably the most common wine of casual wine drinkers and is the most often seen on wine menus at restaurants. It is the most planted variety grape planted in the world. It can be bold, high in acidity, savory and nice to drink.

While often not a great sipping wine by itself, this wine pairs very well with red meat and heavy pasta dishes. With its high tannin content, it may leave your mouth feeling dry after drinking.

While you will find many 100% Cabernet Sauvignon wines, this grape is the most often used in blends in any combination with Merlot, Cabernet Franc (Bordeaux), Malbec and Petite Verdot.

2. Pinot Noir – This is a very complex grape varietal that is very easy to drink. Pinot Noir has much less tannins than a good Cabernet and pairs very well with a barbecue-glazed salmon. If you don’t like salmon, like my wife, serve it with light pasta dishes, chicken and shrimp or scallop dishes.

This is one red wine that can be sipped and does not have to be served with food to enjoy. While I like the big, bold reds, I do love a very nice full-bodied Pinot Noir, unlike some of those wimpy Pinots from Oregon.

OK…, that might be a little harsh. I know there are some excellent Pinots from Oregon, I just have not found any under $20 that I like and I don’t want to spend over $40 for a Pinot when I can get several medium to full-bodied California Pinots for less than $20. I will get more into that in future posts.

3. Syrah/Shiraz – Syrah is more typically associated with France while Shiraz more so with Australia, but it is the same grape varietal. This is one of my favorite wines to drink with food (not a great sipping wine by itself). These tannin ladden wines are typically big, bold, peppery with spice and smoke.

Syrahs with fruit forward are often described as jammy. Syrahs are great with barbecue beef, steaks and spicier foods and are a great crowd pleaser at parties. I will delve more into this wine type in future posts.

4. Zinfandel – Primarily grown in the US, it is fruity, with a high amount of spice and often high in alcohol content. Many Zinfandels have a cherry or strawberry fruitiness with a fuller, smoky body which makes it quite easy to drink with pizza, pasta and other foods with tart sauces. Not a great sipping wine and is much better served with food.

5. Malbec – While this grape originated in Bordeaux and is primarily used for blending, this varietal is the primary grape grown in Argentina where it is almost never blended with other grapes. Other producers of this medium to full-bodied wine are the US, Australia, South America and Chile.

Malbec grapes typically are an inky purple and produce a dry wine high in tannins. The fruit forward flavor of plums, black cherry and blackberry provide a jammy taste. Malbecs pair well with beef, barbecue, chili, pastas with sausage, and heavier fish dishes.

6. Merlot – Despite Miles’s distaste for Merlot in the Movie Sideways, Merlot is still a very popular red wine in America and around the world.

Merlot is a medium to full-bodied dry red wine with moderate acidity and smooth velvety tannins. Flavors range from herbs and blackberries to black cherries, plums and cocoa. Some Merlots can have flavors of vanilla, clove and cedar if the wine has been aged in oak.

Because Merlot is so versatile, it can be paired well with a variety of food. If it is fruity and light, serve it with turkey, chicken, pork, or light pasta dishes, pizza and burgers.

If the Merlot is more full-bodied, serve it with heartier foods like beef and lamb.


There are many other types of red wine, but this is a good starting point. I will do a deeper dive into red wines and white wines in later posts.

Most red wines, with the exception of Pinot Noir, taste better with food and should be served below room temperture  at around 60 – 65 degrees.


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