Everything You Need To Know About Red Wine

Marianna Gould
·6-min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Delish

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

How many times have you found yourself mindlessly reading through a wine menu with a slight sweat appearing on your brow? The vast variety of wines and grapes you’ve never heard of before dancing across the page like a secret code.

What actually is a Sangiovese? Or a Nebbiolo? Wait, are Shiraz and Syrah the same thing?

I hear ya. I love wine, but I struggle to talk about it in fear of sounding like an idiot. But why should it be that way?

That’s why I’ve sought the help of expert wine writer and co-founder of LITTLEWINE, Christina Rasmussen, to get the low-down on all things red wine.

How Is Red Wine Made?

When it comes to making red wine, there are many things that come into play. But one of the most important factors is something called the maceration process. This is basically the process of how long the juice of the grapes stays in contact with the skins.

Rasmussen says, “Think of it like tea — the longer you leave your tea bag in the cup, the darker and more intense your tea will become. The more you squeeze the tea bag, the more tannins you’ll release into the tea, and that’s exactly the same for wine. It’s as if the fermentation vessel for red wine is a giant mug, and the grapes are loads of tea bags.”

The maceration period can last anywhere between 10 and 40 days, and it helps define the structure of the wine.

Wait! What does that mean?!

Well, look at it like this. A well-structured wine will have a balance of fruit, alcohol and tannins, and just enough acidity to make you crave another sip. Whereas a wine that lacks structure, may be more acidic, or taste a little too boozy. It’s basically about the relationship and balance between the different ingredients.

Rasmussen tells us that the structure is also dependent on how often the wine is moved around or ‘extracted’ during maceration. She says, “this can be done via several methods such as foot stomping or mechanical punch downs, which releases tannin, or ‘pump overs’ (moving the juice from the bottom of the vat back to the top).”

Tannins In Wine: What Are They And Where Do They Come From?

The all-important question. Tannins are bitter chemical compounds that live in nature. You’ll find them in everything from wood, to plants, walnuts, to grapes.

In wine, tannins come from the grape skins, pips (seeds), stems, or even the wood barrels that are used during aging. And they’re what gives wine its texture.

“Tannis are the textural, almost dusty or gritty element of a wine that you can feel on the inside of your mouth,” explains Christina.

Some wines will have less tannins than others. For example, white wine tends to have less tannins than red. This is because the wine-making process is different for each style of wine. During red wine production, there’s a great deal of contact between the juice and the crushed grape skins and seeds (remember the maceration process?). But for white wine, the juice is separated from the grape skins and seeds immediately after the grapes are crushed, which means less tannins are released.

What Are Eight Most Common Types Of Red Wine?

“Taste is inextricably linked to our own personal memories, so don’t be intimidated by wine tasting notes, but rather embrace your own feelings, memories and culture,” recommends Christina. “Perhaps a wine reminds you of your grandmother’s perfume, or maybe it tastes like a certain spice you use in cooking. Wine language should be celebrated for its individuality and uniqueness.”

But the world of wine is vast; over 1,000 grape varieties are used for the production of wine, and as you might have already guessed, we’re not going to list every single wine variety (c’mon, that would be absurd).

Instead, here’s eight increasingly popular varieties of red wine, you may or may not have heard of before.

Malbec

Malbec is a dry and full-bodied red mostly produced in Argentina. Made using oak barrels, it has toasty, deep chocolate notes alongside dark fruit flavours like plum and blackberry.

Best paired with any sweet and spicy food. Especially BBQ, pulled pork or brisket.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Did you know this is the world’s most planted grape variety? Varying in flavour depending on where it’s grown (US Cab Savs tend to be fruitier than their French counterpart), this grape variety is often bursting with rich berry notes, along with woodsy flavours like cedar, oak and herbs.

Best paired with red meat, especially steak.


Merlot

Merlot is one of the most versatile grapes as it adapts and changes to the region it’s grown. It can be anything from rich and oaty, to velvety and plummy. For example, an Old World Bordeaux Merlot can range from simple and fruity up to the complex, aged (and expensive) Merlots found in Saint-Emilion. New World Merlots from Chile tend to be spicier and plummy, while Australian Merlot grown in the cooler climates of Margaret River are medium-bodied and more acidic.

Best paired with chicken and other white meats, along with lightly spiced dark meats and vegetables.

Pinot Noir

Generally light to medium-bodied, Pinot Noir is often described as fruit-forward, with its dark cherry and red currant flavours. This wine is wonderful as it changes with age, starting with fruity flavours of raspberry and cherry, all the way up to rich and gamey.

Did you know pinot noir is also one of the key grapes in Champagne? Paired with Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, it adds depth and complexity.

Best paired with fatty fish (salmon), roasted chicken or pasta dishes.


Syrah/Shiraz

Syrah and Shiraz are two different names for the same grape. Syrah is what it’s called in the Rhône region of France, and Shiraz is its name in Australia. But like all wines, they take on different characteristics depending on where they’re grown. Syrah tends to be bold and full-bodied, dark and age-worthy wines, while Shiraz is often a little crisper and fruiter.

Best paired with spicier foods.


Zinfandel

Zinfandel is light-bodied and is often jammy, tasting of candied fruits. It’s actually a great option for first-time red wine drinkers!

Zinfandel can actually produce pretty robust red wines, but it’s probably most known for its semi-sweet rosé White Zinfandels from the USA.

Best paired with red meats like pork, beef and lamb.


Sangiovese

Sangiovese can be anything from earthy and rustic, to round and fruit-forward. It’s often subtler than its meatier counterparts like Pinot Noir and Cab Sav. Sangiovese is best known in the Tuscany regions of Italy, and is the primary grape in Chianti.

Best paired with tomato-based dishes, chicken and mushrooms.


Nebbiolo

Nebbiolo is often a powerful red wine due to its high levels of acid, alcohol and tannins. Alongside this, its flavours are usually earthy and rustic, quite the contrast to its light-bodied colour. Most famously it goes into making Barbaresco and Barolo.

Best paired with heavy meats, tomato-based sauces and vegetables.

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