California's Red Varietal Wines - dummies

California’s Red Varietal Wines

By Ed McCarthy, Mary Ewing-Mulligan

The most popular red varietal wines in California include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Zinfandel (a red wine and also a pink wine). Pinot Noir and Syrah/Shiraz are also fairly popular red varietal wines.

Varietal wines are named after their sole or dominant grape variety. U.S. federal regulations dictate that a wine must derive at least 75 percent from the grape variety that’s named on the label.

Cabernet Sauvignon

The Cabernet Sauvignon grape variety is California’s most-planted red wine grape, representing about 23 percent of California’s red wine production. It grows well in most parts of the state, with the exception of the very coolest regions, such as many coastal areas.

At the least expensive end, Cabernet Sauvignon wines are fruity, medium-bodied, flavorful wines that have a bit of sweetness. At medium to high price levels, Cabernet Sauvignon wines are fairly full-bodied with firm tannin and are often capable of aging for a few years after you purchase them.

Cabernet Sauvignon wines have aromas and flavors of black currants or other small black berries, sometimes a minty or other herbal note, and often toasty, smoky, or vanilla-like suggestions from the oak that’s used in making the wine.


Zinfandel wines are a special case because the majority of them are not red wines but sweetish pink wines, labeled as White Zinfandel. The grape itself is red, and the Zinfandel wines that aren’t labeled as “white” are in fact usually very hefty red wines.

Zinfandels have rich flavors of berry fruit, particularly blackberries and loganberries. The wines are medium-bodied or full-bodied and very fruity. They tend to be even higher in alcohol than other red wines. The less expensive Zinfandels are generally moderate in tannin and meant for drinking young, whereas the pricier Zinfandels have a firm tannin backbone that enables them to age.


The Merlot grape is California’s third most popular red grape variety, after Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. The Merlot grape doesn’t grow well just anywhere, however, and the quality and taste of Merlot wines can vary quite a lot depending on whether the grapes grew in an area that’s more or less suitable for this variety.

Merlot wines are generally full-bodied and have aromas and flavors of plums, other dark fruits, and sometimes tea or chocolate. Because the Merlot grape has less tannin than the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, Merlot wines tend to be a bit softer in texture than Cabernet Sauvignon.

Other California Red Varietals

Other red varietal wines that you might encounter in the California section of your wine shop include the following:

  • Pinot Noir: The Pinot Noir grape grows at its best only in certain vineyard areas; it doesn’t do well in warm conditions. Plenty good-quality Pinot Noirs exist, mainly from cool coastal vineyards. Two key characteristics of Pinot Noir wines are their abundance of fruity aromas and flavors and their relatively low amount of tannin. The wines are usually fairly full-bodied and high in alcohol.

  • Syrah/Shiraz: The Syrah grape has grown in California for decades, but varietal Syrah wine has really taken off only recently. Syrah or Shiraz varietal wines are generally moderate in tannin and full of berry flavors — sometimes with nuances of spiciness (such as black pepper), earthy notes, or smoked meat flavors, but more often than not, just juicy fruitiness.

  • Cabernet Franc: This red grape is, as the name suggests, related to Cabernet Sauvignon, and it’s used in many varietal Cabernet Sauvignons, some varietal Merlots, and many red Meritage blends. As a varietal wine in its own right, it tends to have notes of red fruits rather than the black-fruit character common in Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It’s somewhat less tannic and firm and is somewhat fruitier than comparably priced Cabernet Sauvignons.

  • Grenache: This red grape variety is common in blended Rhône-style red wines. On its own, it makes full-bodied red wines that are high in alcohol and not very tannic, unless they have tannin from aging in oak barrels.

  • Petite Sirah: This grape variety is an old-timer and something of an original in California. The French know it as the Durif variety, and it’s fairly obscure. But it has a loyal following in California among some winemakers and some wine drinkers. The wines are deeply colored, full-bodied, tannic, and powerful, with aromas and flavors of dark fruits and black pepper.

  • Sangiovese: Some winemakers once had big plans for varietal Sangiovese wines in California — and some still pride themselves in this wine, although it has proven to be challenging to make. Sangiovese is Italy’s major red grape, particularly famous in wines from the region of Tuscany, such as Chianti. In California, the wines are fairly full-bodied and firm in tannin.