The Most Popular Red Grape Varieties
The most popular red grape varieties today are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah/Shiraz, and Zinfandel. You’ll encounter these grapes in varietal wines and place-name wines. These red grape varieties can also be blending partners for other grapes, in wines made from multiple grape varieties.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a noble grape variety that grows well in just about any climate that isn’t very cool. It became famous through the red wines of the Médoc district of Bordeaux. Today, California is an equally important region for Cabernet Sauvignon — not to mention Washington state, southern France, Italy, Australia, South Africa, Chile, and Argentina.
The Cabernet Sauvignon grape makes wines that are high in tannin and are medium- to full-bodied. The descriptor for Cabernet Sauvignon’s aroma and flavor is blackcurrants or cassis; the grape can also contribute vegetal tones to a wine when or where the grapes are less than ideally ripe.
Because Cabernet Sauvignon is fairly tannic (and because of the blending precedent in Bordeaux), winemakers often blend it with other grapes; usually Merlot — being less tannic — is considered an ideal partner. Australian winemakers blend Cabernet Sauvignon with Syrah.
Cabernet Sauvignon often goes by just its first name, Cabernet (although it isn’t the only Cabernet) or even by its nickname, Cab.
Deep color, full body, high alcohol, and low tannin are the characteristics of wines made from the Merlot grape. The aromas and flavors can be plummy or sometimes chocolatey, or they can suggest tea leaves.
Some wine drinkers find Merlot easier to like than Cabernet Sauvignon because it’s less tannic. Other winemakers feel that Merlot isn’t satisfactory in its own right, and thus often blend it with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, or both. Merlot makes both inexpensive, simple wines and, when grown in the right conditions, very serious wines.
Merlot is actually the most-planted grape variety in Bordeaux, where it excels in the Right Bank districts of Pomerol and St. Emilion. Merlot is also important in Washington state, California, the Long Island district of New York, Northeastern Italy, and Chile.
The Pinot Noir grape variety is finicky, troublesome, enigmatic, and challenging. But a great Pinot Noir can be one of the greatest wines ever. The prototype for Pinot Noir wine is red Burgundy, from France, where tiny vineyard plots yield rare treasures of wine made entirely from Pinot Noir. Oregon, California, New Zealand, and parts of Australia and Chile also produce good Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir’s production is limited, because this variety is very particular about climate and soil.
Pinot Noir wine is lighter in color than Cabernet or Merlot. It has relatively high alcohol, medium-to-high acidity, and medium-to-low tannin (although oak barrels can contribute additional tannin to the wine). Its flavors and aromas can be very fruity or earthy and woodsy, depending on how it is grown and/or vinified. Pinot Noir is rarely blended with other grapes.
The northern part of France’s Rhône Valley is the classic home for great wines from the Syrah grape. Rhône wines such as Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie are the inspiration for Syrah’s dissemination to Australia, California, Washington state, Italy, and Spain.
Syrah produces deeply colored wines with full body, firm tannin, and aromas/flavors that can suggest berries, smoked meat, black pepper, tar, or even burnt rubber (believe it or not). In Australia, Syrah (called Shiraz) comes in several styles — some of them charming, medium-bodied, vibrantly fruity wines that are quite the opposite of the Northern Rhône’s powerful Syrahs.
Syrah doesn’t require any other grape to complement its flavors, although in Australia it is often blended with Cabernet, and in the Southern Rhône it is often part of a blended wine with Grenache and other varieties.
Zinfandel is one of the oldest grapes in California, and it therefore enjoys a certain stature there. For decades, wine authorities were uncertain of its origins. They have finally proven that Zinfandel’s origin is an obscure Croatian grape.
Zin — as lovers of Zinfandel call it — makes rich, dark wines that are high in alcohol and medium to high in tannin. They can have a blackberry or raspberry aroma and flavor, a spicy or tarry character, or even a jammy flavor. Some Zins are lighter than others and meant to be enjoyed young, and some are serious wines with a tannin structure that’s built for aging.
White Zinfandel is such a popular wine — and so much better known than the red style of Zinfandel — that its fans might argue that Zinfandel is a white grape. But it’s really red.