A Comprehensive Guide to Red Wine

Wine has been produced for thousands of years, whether for religious purposes, celebrations, or even just for the purpose of enjoying a great meal. Red wines can be tricky to differentiate from one another aside from the name on the label, but what is going on with the palate and smell (nose) of the wine that causes certain wines to be so different?

In this guide we dive in to the distinct flavor profiles associated with each popular type of red wine, so the next time you place an order for wine, you’ll be both confident you know what you’re getting and educated on the terroir and grape that the wine comes from. With wine, education and the history behind the bottle only enhance the experience you get consuming it. You can check out our other guides on white wine, as well, if you are looking to learn more.

How is Red Wine Made?

Red wines get their color from grape skins. Surprisingly, all wine juice is clear, but the color comes from the skins of the grapes. Fermentation occurs with the grape skins, giving the wine its color. While white wine can be made with red or white grapes, red wine can only be made from red grapes.

The Process of Making Red Wine

  1. Grow grapes: The quality of the grapes determines the quality of the wine more than anything else.
  2. Harvest the grapes: Typically from early September until early November in the northern hemisphere and mid-February until mid-March in the southern hemisphere. This is done by hand or with mechanical harvesters (large tractors).
  3. Alcoholic fermentation: Sugar and yeast combine to make alcohol and CO2.
  4. Pressing: Some winemakers do this while others don’t. Pressing is exactly what it sounds like--applying pressure to the grapes to separate the juice from the skins. Some winemakers don’t do this and instead crush the grapes to produce what is called “free-run juice.” Typically, the quality of wine is higher but 15-30% of total juice volume can be lost.
  5. Aging: There are 4 main vessels used for aging wine: Amphora, iNOX, Oak and Concrete.
  6. Malolactic Conversion: This improves the taste of wine, especially if it has higher levels of malic acid, because this can cause a harsh and bitter taste to develop in the wine. In the conversion process, lactic acid and C02 are produced, allowing for a more appealing taste. The wine’s pH levels are closely monitored during the process.
  7. Racking/Fining: Removing the clear wine from the sediment. In addition, fining agents are used to remove tannins, and particles that cloud the wines. Fining agents vary significantly depending on the grapes of that particular year.
  8. Preservatives: Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is normally added as a preservative to wine in order to prevent bacterial spoilage. Recently, some winemakers have begun practicing natural wine-making in which no preservative is added.
  9. Filtration: Pass the wine through filters to remove any remaining sediment.
  10. Bottling: The wine is now sent to the bottling line where it will be packed and then stored until it can be delivered straight to you!

Interesting Fact: For white wines, as a rule, typically steps #3 and #4 above are reversed. Winemakers will press first and then ferment in barrels or tanks.

Red Wine Varietals

From Lightest to Full-bodied Bold

Gamay

  • Notable Regions Grown: Willamette Valley, Loire Valley, Beaujolais, Niagara Peninsula
  • Origin: France
  • Sweetness: Dry
  • Flavors: Black currant, cherry, raspberry, violet, soil, bananas

Gamay is the lightest wine on our list, and is a purple-colored grape variety used to make red wine. Gamay is a cousin of Pinot Noir and tastes very similar to its fellow light-bodied counterpart.

Food Pairing with Gamay

Gamay is a red wine that is typically served at the beginning of dinner. As such, there are better red wines to use to pair with your traditional steaks, however, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other great dishes to pair a good bottle of Gamay with! These are our favorite foods to pair with Gamay:

  • Meat: Roasted or grilled chicken.
  • Seafood: Crab (as well as other shellfish) and Salmon.
  • Cheese: Brie
  • Vegetable: Spinach, beets, and acorn squash.

Pinot Noir

  • Notable Regions Grown: Oregon, Tasmania, Russian River Valley, Burgundy
  • Origin: France
  • Sweetness: Dry
  • Flavors: Cherry, raspberry, mushroom, vanilla, hibiscus

Derived from the French words for pine and black, pinot noir refers to wines made 100% from pinot noir, but it can also refer to blended wines that consists predominantly of Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir is hands down the world’s most popular light-bodied red wine, beloved for its spicy aromas accentuated by a smooth finish.

Food Pairing with Pinot Noir

The high acidity and low tannin profile of Pinot Noir lends itself to pair well with just about any type of food. This makes it a highly versatile wine. That being said, these are our favorite foods to pair with Pinot Noir:

  • Meat: Duck, pork, and game birds.
  • Seafood: Salmon or any other fatty fish.
  • Pasta: Any kind of pasta, however, we prefer a red sauce base.
  • Cheese: Gruyere.
  • Vegetable: Mushrooms.

Our Selection of Pinot Noir

  • California: 2017 Lone Cardinal Pinot Noir - A customer favorite, this award-winning Pinot Noir shows why Lodi, California was the Wine Enthusiast 2015 Wine Region of the Year.
  • France: 2017 Racine Pinot Noir Pays D’Oc - A lighter-alcohol Pinot Noir from the South of France. Go for this bottle if you’re looking for traditional French Pinot Noir.
  • New Zealand: 2017 Duck Point Pinot Noir - From New Zealand’s dry and sunny Marlborough region, Duck Point is a platinum-medal winner and pairs fantastically with lamb or a mildly spicy pasta.

Grenache/Garnacha

  • Notable Regions Grown: Sardinia, Rioja, Rhône, Languedoc
  • Origin: Spain
  • Sweetness: Dry to medium-dry
  • Flavors: Leather, grilled plum, strawberry

Most notably produced in the Southern Rhône region of France, this grape actually calls Spain its home. Easily identified by its slight taste of leather, grenache is one of the most widely planted red wine grapes in the world and prefers hot and dry conditions.

Food Pairing with Grenache/Garnacha

Grenache can withstand hearty dishes, like cassoulet, so don’t be afraid to pair this wine with heavier meals. These are our favorite foods to pair with Grenache:

  • Meat: Braised beef and veal.
  • Seafood: Not an ideal wine for seafood, but oil-poached tuna or swordfish can work well.
  • Pasta: High acidity red sauce dishes with meat and/or cream.
  • Cheese: Camembert.
  • Vegetable: Vegetables spiced with cumin.

Our Selection of Grenache/Garnacha

  • Spanish: 2016 Nebla Old Vine Garnacha - Featured in our Martha Stewart collection, this gold-medal winner is similar in style to Spain’s signature tempranillo but with added notes of plum.
  • France: 2017 Roche Grenache Noir - Another selection in the Martha Stewart collection, this Grenache Noir is 100% Grenache, meaning it is not a blended wine, from 30-year veteran winemaker Cyrille Roche.

Cabernet Franc

  • Notable Regions Grown: Bordeaux, Loire Valley
  • Origin: France
  • Sweetness: Dry
  • Flavors: Strawberry, roasted pepper, crushed gravel

Mainly produced in France, specifically Bordeaux, you’ll typically find Cabernet Franc in famous Bordeaux blends more than you will by itself. Cabernet Franc is actually the parent grape of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and has a blue-black berry skin.

Food Pairing with Cabernet Franc

Cabernet Franc’s higher acidity level makes it the perfect pairing for tomato-based dishes (looking at you, pasta), but these are our favorites:

  • Meat: Roasted pork and beef burgers.
  • Seafood: Crispy skin trout.
  • Pasta: Meatballs in tomato sauce.
  • Cheese: Goat and Feta.
  • Vegetable: Red Bean, Roasted Red Pepper, Tomato, Spinach.

Sangiovese

  • Notable Regions Grown: Tuscany (Toscana), Umbria, Campania
  • Origin: Italy
  • Sweetness: Dry, semi-sweet
  • Flavors: Tart cherry, oregano, thyme, red plum

Outside of Italy, Sangiovese production is almost non-existent, but within Italy’s borders you can find Sangiovese grapes from Tuscany to Campania and everywhere in between. It’s actually the most widely planted grape variety in Italy!

Food Pairing with Sangiovese

This tannin powerhouse works best with fatty, rich dishes with little sugar. These are some of our favorites:

  • Meat: Cured sausage.
  • Seafood: Branzino.
  • Pasta: Seafood pasta.
  • Cheese: Parmesan.
  • Vegetable: Roasted brussels sprouts and mushrooms.

Our Selection of Sangiovese

  • California: 2015 Sierra Trails Lodi Sangiovese - Our Californian take on an Italian classic, this wine has a big fruit taste and smooth finish with an Italian nose.
  • Italy: Villa Amoroso Toscana Rosso I.G.T. - In the heart of Tuscany, Villa Amoroso is crafted, vine by vine, to produce this gold-medal winning Sangiovese blend.
  • Italy - Chianti: 2016 Due Mari Chianti D.O.C.G. - In the heavily protected Chianti region, a Chianti must be produced in the region and be made from at least 80% Sangiovese grapes. This food friendly Italian red from Castellani Winery is the perfect pairing for the rich tomato sauce found on all your favorite pizzas, pastas, and stuffed peppers.

Barbera

  • Notable Regions Grown: Alba, Puglia, Monferrato, Central Valley
  • Origin: Italy, Monferrato
  • Sweetness: Dry
  • Flavors: Violet, Vanilla, Nutmeg, Sour Cherry, Blackberry

Known for its deep color and full body, Barbera’s are typically low in tannins with high levels of acidity. A noir colored berry skin contributes to the beautiful color Barbera wines have. The high level of acidity imparts a “freshness” into the wine and makes it well-liked amongst wine drinkers.

Food Pairing with Barbera

With it’s high acidity, Barbera wines typically work well with high tannin or fatty dishes to almost “complete” the dish. These are our favorites:

  • Meat: Guinea Fowl.
  • Seafood: Salt cod and bacalà.
  • Pasta: Tajarin Pasta.
  • Cheese: Blue cheese.
  • Vegetable: Mushrooms, root vegetables, and roasted peppers.

Our Selection of Barbera

Merlot

  • Notable Regions Grown: Bordeaux, Toscana (Tuscany), California
  • Origin: France
  • Sweetness: Dry
  • Flavors: Black cherry, plum, cedar, tobacco,

Often compared to the more popular Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot gets a bad rep from the mass-produced California wines of the 1990’s that were artificially sweetened. It’s unfortunate because, left untouched, Merlot is one of the most easily approachable red wines and is recommended for those who are just starting to drink red wine.

Food Pairing with Merlot

Merlot matches with a variety of foods, and actually goes really well by itself, but if you’re looking to pair it with food these are our favorites:

  • Meat: Steak with chimichurri sauce, meatloaf, and shepherd’s pie.
  • Seafood: Shellfish.
  • Pasta: Penne with tomato sauce and pancetta.
  • Cheese: Aged goat cheese.
  • Vegetable: Roasted squash, roasted red peppers, and beets.

Our Selection of Merlot

  • France: 2017 Georges Vigouroux Hommage Merlot - From a fourth generation winemaker, this elegant Merlot is made with grapes grown near the Mediterranean sea. If you’ve never tried Merlot before, you should start here.
  • Spain: 2015 Finca Del Mar Merlot Crianza - Though French in origin, this famous grape has adapted well to Spain’s hot climate and produced this powerful and dark Spanish Merlot.
  • Chile: 2018 Killari Merlot - Cremaschi Furlotti is a fifth-generation Chilean winery, and boy do they know Merlot. Hints of black pepper and chocolate are present throughout this bottle.
  • California: 2016 Fair Oaks Ranch Merlot - One of our most popular wines to date, this versatile red pleases almost any drinker’s palate.
  • Australia: 2017 Paperbark Red Blend - A lovely red blend made of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from a fifth-generation winemaking family in the historic Barossa Valley region.

Montepulciano

  • Notable Regions Grown: Abruzzo
  • Origin: Italy
  • Sweetness: Dry
  • Flavors: Pepper, spice, black berry

Not to be confused with the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a Tuscan wine made from primarily Sangiovese grapes, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is one of the most widely exported DOC wines in Italy. You’ve probably had Montepulciano if you have ever ordered red wine at your favorite Italian pizza spot! Under Italian wine laws, a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo must have at least 85% Montepulciano and can not be lower than 12% in alcohol.

Food Pairing with Montepulciano

Typically consumed young, Montepulciano wine has soft tannins and is known for going extremely well with pizza.

  • Meat: Beef brisket.
  • Seafood: Salmon and swordfish with basil.
  • Pasta: Beef bolognese.
  • Cheese: Aged cheddar and parmesan.
  • Vegetable: Baked potato, collard greens, winter farro and sunchokes.
  • Any pizza and preferably Neapolitan style, of course.

Our Selection of Montepulciano

Zinfandel

  • Notable Regions Grown: California, Puglia
  • Origin: Croatia
  • Sweetness: Dry-sweet
  • Flavors: Berry jam, black pepper, anise, cinnamon

Close to 85% of total Zinfandel production is for white zinfandel! While most wine connoisseurs bash white zin, red zinfandel actually offers a complex and sophisticated palate that is unusually different than most reds. Though lighter in color than Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, its higher tannin and very high acidity make red zin a bold and powerful wine. On the lower end, Zinfandels will have 14% ABV, but some can reach 17% or more.

Food Pairing with Zinfandel

Zinfandel’s higher tannin, more full body, and sweeter profile than most red wine lends itself well to barbecue and curry dishes. Our favorites:

  • Meat: Pork tonkatsu and barbecued red meat.
  • Seafood: Seared or grilled tuna.
  • Pasta: Lasagna.
  • Cheese: Manchego.
  • Vegetable: Roasted tomato, caramelized onion, peach, and cranberry.

Our Selection of Zinfandel

Tempranillo

  • Notable Regions Grown: Rioja, Ribera del Duero
  • Origin: Spain
  • Sweetness: Dry
  • Flavors: Berry, plum, vanilla, herbs

Tempranillo is the third most widely planted wine grape variety in the world, and 88% of this production comes from Spain. Its name is the diminutive of “temprano”, meaning "early" in Spanish, a reference to the fact that it ripens several weeks earlier than most Spanish red grapes. A high quality and versatile grape, when in doubt, choose a Tempranillo.

Food Pairing with Tempranillo

Famous for its beautiful pairing with traditional Spanish cuisine, Tempranillo is a versatile wine that pairs well even with Mexican food. These are our favorites:

  • Meat: Spanish ham (Jamón ibérico pata negra), barbecued meats and tacos.
  • Seafood: Salmon or swordfish with pepper.
  • Pasta: Jambalaya Pasta.
  • Cheese: Menchego.
  • Vegetable: Corn or any grilled vegetable.

Our Selection of Tempranillo

Nebbiolo

  • Notable Regions Grown: Piedmont, Italy
  • Origin: Italy
  • Sweetness: Dry
  • Flavors: Rose, violet, tar, cherry, leather, clay pot

The Piedmont region where Nebbiolo was born is famous for its Barolo and Barbaresco wine, but many don’t realize that Nebbiolo is the only grape used to make these high-end wines. Generally, the grapes grown to make Barolo and Barbaresco are within feet of those used to make Nebbiolo, but the classifications in Italy make it so that only a few villages in the region of Piedmont can label it as Barolo and Barbaresco. One of the unique aspects of Nebbiolo is its nose, or scent--the wine smells like roses.

Food Pairing with Nebbiolo

Unforgivingly tannic, Nebbiolo is a powerful, full-bodied wine that visually appears to be light and delicate by its color. Don’t be fooled, this wine needs to be paired with something that has substance and fat. These are our favorites:

  • Meat: Prime rib roast.
  • Seafood: Herring.
  • Pasta: Buttered noodles with truffles.
  • Cheese: Robiolo.
  • Vegetable: Roasted garlic, truffle, mushrooms, olive, caper, and leeks.

Nero d'Avola

  • Notable Regions Grown: Sicily
  • Origin: Sicily, Italy
  • Sweetness: Dry
  • Flavors: Black cherry, licorice, chili pepper, plum

Nero d’Avola is almost entirely produced in Sicily, and loves an arid climate. It’s known for its intense fruit flavor and full-body (think Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah-level body).

Food Pairing with Nero d'Avola

With its bold fruit flavors, you will typically want to go with a rich meat to match its intensity. Some of our favorite pairings are:

  • Meat: Umami burger and oxtail.
  • Seafood: Palermo-style tuna.
  • Pasta: Beef and pork ragù.
  • Cheese: Raclette.
  • Vegetable: Shiitake mushrooms.

Our Selection of Nero d'Avola

  • Italy: Villa Amoroso Nero d’Avola I.G.T. - As Cabernet Sauvignon is to California, Nero d’Avola is to Sicily. Part of our Martha Stewart Collection, this 4-medal-winner goes well with or without food.

Malbec

  • Notable Regions Grown: Cahors (France), Chile, Argentina
  • Origin: France
  • Sweetness: Dry
  • Flavors: Dark fruit, smoke, raisin, chocolate

Malbec is used often in blends, from the Right Bank in Bordeaux to Argentina. However, a 100% Malbec wine is extremely full-bodied and has a nice, short and sweet finish. Malbec varies substantially between France and Argentina. Argentinian Malbec is highlighted by dark fruits and nuanced by chocolate flavors. French Malbec is leathery, with a savory bitterness due to its higher acidity that comes out as black pepper.

Food Pairing with Malbec

Medium in tannin and acidity, Malbec is a crowd-pleaser with or without food. These are our favorites:

  • Meat: Leaner meats.
  • Seafood: Halibut.
  • Pasta: Pesto pasta.
  • Cheese: Blue cheese.
  • Vegetable: Black beans, arugula, kale, green and red bell peppers.

Our Selection of Malbec

  • France: 2016 Château Leret Malbec - From Cahors in the Southwest of France, the Wine Enthusiast 2017 Region of the Year, this dark, fruity, and delicious red has just the right balance of tannins.
  • Argentina: 2018 Tasca Reserve Malbec - This special reserve Malbec from Mendoza is a gold medal-winner that demonstrates the depth and complexity of Argentinian wine.

Cabernet Sauvignon

  • Notable Regions Grown: Everywhere!
  • Origin: France
  • Sweetness: Dry
  • Flavors: Jam, black pepper, green bell pepper, asparagus, cedar, black cherry

Cabernet Sauvignon’s popularity began through Bordeaux blends with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. From there, it has spread across the world, now being grown in almost every major wine producing country from cold climates to warm. Cabernet Sauvignon is universally recognized for its jammy, dense, dark and tannic profile. Fun fact, Cabernet Sauvignon is actually the child of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc.

Food Pairing with Cabernet Sauvignon

Its rich flavor and high tannin content make Cabernet Sauvignon perfect for meats. By itself, Cabernet Sauvignon can sometimes be overwhelming, so here are some of our favorite pairings to try:

  • Meat: Steak - ribeye, new york, porterhouse, and filet.
  • Seafood: Not a great match.
  • Pasta: Heavy, red-sauce based pasta.
  • Cheese: Aged cheddar and aged gouda.
  • Vegetable: Mushrooms, eggplant and roasted tomato.

Our Selection of Cabernet Sauvignon

Syrah/Shiraz

  • Notable Regions Grown: Rhône (France), Barossa Valley (Australia)
  • Origin: France
  • Sweetness: Dry
  • Flavors: Blackberry, blueberry, plum, mint, rosemary, herbs

Syrah is the only red wine grape planted in Northern Rhone and it is heavily planted in France. In addition, it is actually the most planted grape in Australia. Here, they call it Shiraz. Syrah is a punch of flavor in the mouth at first taste but slowly tapers off with spicy herbs.

Food Pairing with Syrah/Shiraz

Full-bodied, high in tannins, and medium in acidity make Syrah a companion for the darker meats. These are our favorite pairings:

  • Meat: Cassoulet and lamb.
  • Seafood: Tuna tartare.
  • Pasta: Lamb ragu pasta.
  • Cheese: Cheddar and Camembert.
  • Vegetable: grilled vegetables and roasted lentils.

Our Selection of Syrah/Shiraz

  • Chile: 2017 Tres Arboles Reserve Syrah - This staff favorite blends European winemaking traditions with the lovely Central Valley Climate of Chile to create an excellent Reserve Syrah.
  • California: 2018 River’s End Syrah - California Syrah at its finest.
  • Australia: 2018 Cocoparra Shiraz - This 100% Shiraz is dark, intense and a perfect representation of traditional Australian Shiraz.

Bordeaux Blend

  • Notable Regions Grown: Bordeaux
  • Origin: Bordeaux
  • Sweetness: Usually dry
  • Flavors: Cassis, black currant, cedar, plum, oak, coffee bean

Food Pairing with Bordeaux Blends

This tannin powerhouse works best with fatty, rich dishes with little sugar. These are our favorites:

  • Meat: Filet Mignon, venison and pot roast.
  • Seafood: Mackerel.
  • Pasta: Baked rigatoni with beef.
  • Cheese: Brie and Camembert.
  • Vegetable: Roasted potatoes, mushrooms, onion and chestnut.

Our Selection of Bordeaux Blends

  • France: 2015 Secrets De Bordeaux Rouge - From our Martha Stewart Collection, this smooth, Cabernet Sauvignon-based Bordeaux is beautifully balanced with 30% Merlot.
  • France: 2017 Château Roux de Beauces Red Bordeaux - This Merlot-dominant Bordeaux from the Roux Family, winemakers for five generations, uses grapes grown in clay and limestone soils to produce a vibrant, lively finish indicative of Bordeaux blends.

Other Red Blends

Red blends are winemakers’ way of ensuring quality and bringing their unique visions to life. Sometimes two, three, or even four grapes allow a winemakers artistic expression to shine and truly bring the quality of the grapes out from one another. While the red Bordeaux blends are typically composed of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, red blends are created throughout the world from hundreds of different kinds of grapes.

Our Selection of Red Blends

  • Italy: 2014 Montostoli 1926 Maremma Toscana D.O.C.- Located in the heart of Tuscany, this family-run farm has been producing the best of Italian wines since 1926. The 2014 Montostoli is no different.
  • Italy: Freschello Max Cuveé Rossa - A light red blend that is always fresh in your glass, go for this Freschello if you’re looking for something approachable.
  • Spain: 2016 El Miracle ART Red Blend - This red blend from Spain is a big wine you’ll want to break out the decanter for. After a decant, this wine truly opens up to reveal a smoky bouquet that is perfect for pairing with red meat dishes.
  • Argentina: 2018 Tasca Malbec/Bonarda - Interested in trying something off the beaten path? Bonarda is grown almost exclusively in Argentina alongside Malbec, and produces a lovely berry palate.

Red Wine in a Nutshell

There’s a vast selection of red wine varietals in the world and this guide by no means covers them all. That said, it should give you a solid foundation of wine knowledge that you can use to select your next red wine. As always, listen to your palate, and if we tell you something is supposed to taste like black cherries but you taste vanilla, then your opinion is the one that matters! Above all, wine is meant to be enjoyed.