"He who aspires to be a serious wine drinker must drink claret.” — Samuel Johnson
What makes red wine red? Great question. Red wine gets its colour and much of its strong flavours from the skin of dark grapes. The colour of red wines can vary from bright crimson, for young wines, to brick red, for mature, aged wines. The grapes themselves vary in colour from a light red to almost black.
On the spectrum of red, rosé, and white, red will typically have more tannins, tannic acid, that gives the wine a strong flavour. Tannins give wine that ‘pucker’ that many non-wine drinkers associate with a glass of “the fruit of the vine”.
The flavours in red wines can range from peppery to chocolate, fruity to herbaceous. There are dozens of varieties of red wines, but this short list will give you a sense of flavour variation that you can find:
Zinfandel – Known most often in its rosé form, zinfandel grapes offer big fruity flavours: blackberry, black cherry, raisin, prune, and raspberry. It tends to be quite tannic and can sometimes be very strong.
Syrah/Shiraz – This grape has become the national grape of Australia where they produce some highly drinkable wines. The syrah is profoundly complex. Each place it is grown has a very different flavour. Boysenberry, cherry, plum, pepper and clove are common. In other places, flavours like wild spices and leather can be found in this amazing grape.
Nebbiolo – A red grape that is primarily produced in the Piedmont region of Italy, it produces flavours that are reminiscent of plum, sweet cherry, and tar. It is very difficult to grow anywhere else, so this great grape is little known outside of Italy.
Pinot Noir – This is one of the global favourites. With flavours that range from cola to beet root, it can provide some outstanding wines that go well with almost everything.
Merlot – A standard in every wine cabinet, merlots tend to be sweet and fruity. Plum, cherry, watermelon, and strawberry are a few of the delicious flavours that show up in your glass with these wines.
Mourvèdre/Mataro – This is a wine that is mostly found along the Mediterranean regions of France and Spain. It is a spicy wine that blends well with other grapes.
Grenache/Garnacha – Spain and Australia are the most popular planting sites for these grapes. Spice and cherry are the dominant flavours in these wines.
Gamay – Sweet and delicious, gamays tend to have berry flavours and low tannins. Young gamays have a little bit of an effervescence and smell a bit of bananas.
Cabernet Sauvignon – This might be the most popular red wine in the world. Bell pepper, cassis, and black pepper are only a few of the flavours that this wine presents. These grapes work well in blends with other grapes and are legendary in the classic Bordeaux wines.
Cabernet Franc – Also part of the Bordeaux blends, this is the more tannic cousin to the Sauvignon. The cabernet franc has lots of earthy flavours, like coffee, black olive, and blueberry.
And there you have it, a quick crash course guide to red wine and grapes.