Anyone that’s walked the bottle-lined walls of a liquor store or specialty wine shop for the first time knows how expansive and intimidating the red genre can be. Not to fear! Truly knowing red wine comes from tasting a lot of different types (that’s the fun part) and with this list, you’ll know exactly where to start.
PICKING A RED WINE
Red wines can be broken down by grape and region, but focusing on the general type of red wine is easiest and most helpful when choosing a bottle at the store. That’s because each type of red wine has a different “body.” Body refers to the heaviness of the vino in the mouth, and can make a big difference in your overall drinking (and eating) experience.
Body is especially important when it comes to choosing wine for appetizers or the main meal. It’s true that a bold red wine will completely overpower a salad, and a bottle on the lighter side could taste weak (translation: lame) next to a big juicy steak. So once you can expect what body a bottle of wine will have, you are well on your way to choosing the perfect type of red wine for any meal or special occasion.
MAIN TYPES OF RED WINE
This wine is considered one of the lightest and most delicate of the red wines. It’s great during transition seasons, like the beginning of fall or early days of springtime where a white still seems too summery, and doesn’t have the dense mouthfeel characteristic of other reds. Pinot Noir pairs best with chicken, salmon, pasta and vegetable dishes.
Tasting Tip: This wine is one of the most polarizing among red-wine enthusiasts because a good bottle can stand next to the top wines in the world, while a bad bottle will taste bland and disappointing. Look up reviews prior to purchasing if you want to make sure the bottle you picked is a good buy, or seek advice at the store.
This medium-bodied wine is beloved for its soft mouthfeel and velvety finish, and is considered one of the smoothest red wines without the density of a Cab. It’s also a fun wine to pair with a meal because it works with almost anything that has some substance, including pastas, chicken in cream sauce, and rustic vegetarian dishes with fresh herbs.
Tasting Tip: If Merlot is your new favorite, branch out to a Tempranillo from Spain or Portugal. This wine is one of the most popular in the world, and quality bottles can be found at a reasonable price.
Considered one of the best value wines, Malbec can taste just as robust as a Cabernet Sauvignon, but is usually priced for less. Many quality Malbecs come from Argentina and France, and pair best with red meat and funky-flavored foods like garlic, mushrooms, and blue cheese, which is exactly why fall is the perfect time of year to give this red wine a try.
Tasting Tip: Impress your friends when you can point out this wine’s signature magenta hue. Generally, it will appear more purple than red, and taste similar to a Cab but with a shorter finish.
There’s a reason people stick to Cabernet Sauvignon on wine lists at restaurants — these bottles are reliably smooth and expressive, carry big punches of dried fruit flavor, and please almost any winos palate! Simply put, Cab is a crowd pleaser. If offering multiple options at a gathering such as a wedding or holiday party during the colder months, definitely include Cabernet Sauvignon in the lineup.
Tasting Tip: This wine doesn’t work very well as a stand-alone beverage due to its heaviness, so be sure to set it aside during cocktail hour and save it for the big meal instead.
This wine takes up a significant amount of space in California vineyards and is characterized by jammy, fruit-forward flavors. Zinfandel is a higher alcohol wine at a whopping 14-16% ABV, and is best accompanied by red meats, spicy foods (due to its subtle sweetness), and hard cheeses.
Tasting Tip: Look for Zins coming out of California, specifically in Napa Valley and Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma. These areas are known for their smooth-drinking and big-bodied wines.
QUICK TRICKS FOR CHOOSING RED WINE
If you’re unsure how heavy a wine will taste, take a peek at the ABV (almost always located on the back of the bottle). A red wine between 12-13% will generally taste lighter than a more robust wine at 14%. And if a wine has an ABV of 15%? Count on big flavor … and a big buzz.
Of course, it’s always beneficial to write down or snap a photo of a wine you really like with the focus on the front and back labels. This is where the winemaker might describe the wine, list the grapes, and where you can find the name of the importer. Most importers carry a hallmark style, so knowing an importer you like can help when picking out bottles in the future.
Finally, don’t focus on the price. Just because a wine is more expensive than the others on the shelf, doesn’t mean it tastes better. Pricing wines involves a variety of elements, and should never be the deciding factor when looking at the best flavor for your dollar.
Red wine is best served between 60-68 degrees, so make sure to store your wine in a dry, cool place where it’s unlikely to exceed these temperatures. A basement, pantry, or dark closet will do the trick, but if you’re lucky enough to own a wine fridge, set it to 55 degrees fahrenheit for the best possible results.
AFTER OPENINGTo decant, or not to decant, that is always the question when it comes to red wine. Almost all red wines will benefit from a little bit of air-time prior to serving, but before you buy an expensive crystal swan decanter, consider simply opening the bottle an hour or two before serving. This will “let the wine breathe” and bring out the best of any non-sparkling red wine, whether you bought it for $10 or $30. The same goes for canned wine — simply pouring into a glass will change the flavor profile considerably, and will draw out all of the delicious complexities for the best flavor.
Erin Hooker is a writer with experience creating wine, food, and interior design content. She began contributing to Graham + Fisk’s blog in 2021.