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How to Choose a Good Red Wine: Main Grape Varieties
Even for the most regular wine drinkers, choosing a good red wine can be a daunting task. There’s a lot to consider, from finding your favourite varieties to knowing the specialities of each region.
To make it easier, we’re running a red wine series on our blog that covers all the need-to-know and didn’t-know-I-didn’t-know info. This week, we’re looking at some of the most popular red wine varieties: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Pinot Noir.
Think of Merlot as a happy-go-lucky friend who is not too demanding and can generally be relied on for a decent, cheap night out. With plums, blackberries and red fruit notes on the nose, Merlot sometimes has a touch of oak and velvety richness on the palate of those wines at the higher end of the market.
Merlot has become almost synonymous with entry-level, easy-to-enjoy wines that go pretty well with food dishes that aren’t too complex. It’s often fresh, reasonably light in the mouth, plump and juicy. But beware of its flip side – bland, slightly thin and unripe reds that flood the bottom end of the market.
Best countries to look to for decent Merlot? Try Chile as your first port of call. Of course, Merlot’s fame in the wine constellation comes principally from its use as a grape that enhances blends, particularly those of Bordeaux, where it is paired primarily with the might of Cabernet Sauvignon.
If Merlot is easy-going, a little lightweight and a touch unreliable, then Cabernet Sauvignon at its best is the very antithesis – noble, refined, a touch austere. It could fairly be viewed as the king of red grapes. As mentioned above, it forms the backbone of one of the most revered styles of wine in the world – the great reds of Bordeaux. It has the ability to deliver marvellous intensity of flavour and a heap of ageing potential, making it a favourite grape for thousands of vineyards across the globe. As it loves spending time in oak barrels, don’t be surprised to taste a lovely, rounded oaky edge to many Cab Sauvs.
Where to go for your Cabernet Sauvignon? Well, clearly Bordeaux is a great place to start for Cab Sauv in a blend (it is usually the dominant partner in percentage terms), but you could also try some of the brilliant Cabernets from Australia. For a really big wine, look for Cab Sauv in a blend with Shiraz – a fantastic and conscious coupling of complex brilliance.
And don’t overlook USA, particularly the smart set wines of California. New Zealand’s Cabernet Sauvignons are also right up there, as are the wines of South Africa.
If you like big, full-flavoured reds, Shiraz may be a grape variety you enjoy. In terms of flavour, think blackcurrant/blackberry, with peppery and spicy notes.
Do not expect to find a great deal of subtlety every time! Whilst the grape can produce wines that are a little oafish and muscle bound, getting to the top of the Syrah tree gives you a wine perspective that is unique. Head for the Northern Rhône Valley in France – the true home of the grape known here as Syrah – and splash out some worthwhile cash on the stellar wines of Côte-Rôtie or Hermitage.
In Australia, Shiraz is something of a bedrock in the wine world, and it is Aussie Shiraz wines you are most likely to come across when you go looking for your wine in the major retailers. Shiraz loves a hot climate, the sun intensifying its flavour profile and alcohol punch. Also look out for decent Shiraz from Chile, South Africa and California. Remember that a grape will deliver different flavours depending on a wide range of factors, the foremost of which is perhaps climate.
Alluring, charming and a little unpredictable, it is hard to resist the draw of this enigmatic grape variety, particularly in the wonderful red wines of Burgundy. Wild strawberries, juicy red plums, violets and redcurrant flavours entice the nose, with a lovely palate of dark cherry to follow. Pinot Noir has driven winemakers to the edge of reason for years as it can be a real challenge to ripen, but when it comes good, well, there is really nothing quite like it.
Ever tried one of the truly brilliant Burgundies? France is Pinot Noir’s home and it is in Burgundy that the grape delivers the elegance and power that turns wine drinkers into wine lovers.
You may also be surprised to learn that Pinot Noir is one of the main three grapes in Champagne, because the juice is colourless (the red colour comes from the skin). For other regions producing good wines from this grape, have a look at the Loire and the South of France.
What’s your go-to red wine? Do you prefer to stick to what you know, or mix it up?