It can be intimidating to shop for red wine, or even talk about red wine if you're not familiar with the lingo. Words like sommelier, varietals, tannins and bouquets may not be in your everyday vernacular, but if you enjoy red wine, your taste buds are more important than your wine vocabulary.
In this guide, we'll go over the main types of red wine as well as the flavor profiles for each, so you can be confident the next time you need to pick out the perfect bottle.
What are the main types of red wine?
There are three key factors that affect a varietal of wine – the grapes, the climate and the soil. Depending on how each of those three factors are influenced, you'll get a different taste and aroma. Not to mention there's a whole lot of art, science and history that goes into the winemaking process. And if you really want to sound fancy, throw out the word “terroir" which is a French word referring to how a particular region's climate, soils and terrain affect the taste of wine. Some regions are said to have more terroir than others.
At a high level, red wine is often classified by something called “body type". This describes how heavy the wine feels in your mouth, sometimes called “mouth feel". There are three main body types.
Full bodied red wine
Full-bodied reds have the highest tannins and, in some cases, the highest alcohol content. Tannins are found in many places in nature and offer varying levels of bitterness and astringency. Aside from wine, you'll also find tannins in coffee, tea and dark chocolate.
Full bodied wines have a weightier feeling on your palette and tend to pair best with rich foods because they hit your tongue boldly. Think steaks, meat stews braised lamb.
Cabernet sauvignon is sometimes simply referred to as "cab" or the “red wine king." It's grown and enjoyed all over the world, but its two areas of primacy would be the Bordereaux region of France and California's Napa Valley. In fact, it's the most planted grape in the world. Cabernet is often considered the first choice of wine to accompany steak dinner.
The most common aromatic and flavor components are dark fruits like plum, black cherry, and blackberry, warm spice, vanilla, licorice, and black pepper, tobacco and leather.
Though it's French in origin, most of the world's Malbec is now produced in Argentina. It's considered an easy-to-drink wine, with a deep purple color and plum or cherry flavors, ending in a hint of smoke. It's been described as a full, rougher version of Merlot.
This red is grown mainly in California and very tannic red with flavors of blueberries, black pepper and cocoa. Some people enjoy decanting it for a few hours, letting the flavors and aromas evolve. This bottle pairs well with a bold recipe such as stuffed peppers.
Shiraz is a newer take on the old-world Syrah from France and is prized for the high level of tannins which help it age so well. In addition, it boasts as having one of the highest levels of antioxidants of any other wine. Bonus!
Medium bodied red wine
Medium reds are described as not too light, not too bold, they're just right. They don't have quite the level of complexity or intensity when it comes to flavor as full-bodied reds, which is why some people prefer it.
Merlot is the second-most planted grape in the world. It's very versatile and pairs well with almost any food and perfect for a weeknight dinner at home. Many consider it a good entry wine for someone trying to find their favorite because it's considered "easy" to drink. Dominant flavors include cherry and chocolate and its fruity overtones won't make your mouth pucker up with tannins.
From Northern Italy, Barbera is meant to be drunk early – it's not recommended that you age this one. You'll notice it has bright fruit flavors and a natural acidity that doesn't overpower. This red tends to be very affordable which means you can try many bottles to find your favorite.
Cabernet Franc comes from a black-skinned French grape. It embodies an herbaceous flavor with hints of green pepper. Its high acidity means it goes well with tomato sauces and pasta.
Zinfandel is known for its dark purple color, medium to high tannins, high alcohol content and medium acidity. You'll notice it has candied fruit flavors and spicy tobacco finish. This is the same grape as Primitivo, which is primarily grown in Italy. Aromas from Zinfandel include raspberry, blackberry, cherry, plums, cinnamon, black pepper, licorice and oak.
Light bodied red wine
Lightweight and refreshing, light bodied wines are perfect for white wine drinkers looking to add red wine to their list. These reds can be enjoyed all by themselves, but also pair well with food because of their lower tannins.
Pinot noir is considered the lightest and most delicate of the reds. The most refined (and expensive) version of Pinot Noir is found in the Burgundy region of France, and the Willamette Valley in Oregon is also known for its Pinot. You can expect a berry-based flavor which includes raspberry or cranberry.
From Austria, St. Laurent is described as a slightly darker and weightier version of Pinot Noir. Similar to a Pinot, you'll note flavors of berries and cherries. Try pairing a bottle of this with rich, smoky-sweet flavors, or sip a glass while you enjoy a cured meat and cheese platter.
Borne of the gamay grape and named after the region of France they come from, Beaujolais is packed with berry flavors and high acidity so it's best paired with any roasted meat dish or cheese board.
Originating in Italy, Lambrusco is usually bottled frizzante style, which means slightly fizzy, and has a sweetness to it. It's kind of like Prosecco or Cava but it's a red sparkling wine, which is rare. To balance out the sweetness and fizz, you'll enjoy sipping this one with heavier foods such as burgers, pulled pork or sausage.
Which red wine is the smoothest?
Everyone's palate is different, so it depends if you prefer sweetness, bitterness, acidity, etc. When it comes to a wine that is easiest to drink, aim for Shiraz, Zinfandel or Merlot, which tend to be described as some of the smoothest. They're not too tannic, acidic or overwhelming to the palate.
The best glassware for red wine
Glassware, also called stemware, can make a difference in the way you experience the taste and aroma, so don't take this decision lightly. The ideal red wine glass will hold between 10 to 22 ounces of liquid. The glass should allow enough room to swirl and a large surface area for allowing the wine to breathe.
When it comes to wine, oxygen equals flavor. For the best experience, let the wine unfurl in your glass and allow it to breathe. Of course, this practice of aeration takes some patience. Experts often recommend decanting a wine up to 30- 120 minutes before drinking, depending on age of wine. There are even specific decanters for aerating red wines depending on the kind you are preparing to drink.
Lastly, you'll want to use a glass that feels light in your hand and has a thin rim. The thinner the glass, the better the drinking experience. Chunkier glasses tend to take away from the wine's intended expression.
Red wine has a storied history and is meant to be sipped and savored. For many people, wine is a big part of culture—not just gastronomical culture. In western culture, wine is mentioned in mythical stories, it is consumed by kings and queens, and bottles of the good stuff can go for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
The good news is that you don't need to be a sommelier (a.k.a. a wine expert and steward) to find a bottle of your favorite. Understanding the basic types of wine and the factors that influence its flavors make it much easier to decide what to order the next time you're out to dinner or hanging with friends. No matter where you're popping that cork, be sure you indulge all your senses with each glass you pour. Cheers!