There are hundreds of different types of red wine, and it can be overwhelming when trying to learn about each varietal and selecting the right bottles try. This guide will help you learn about the most common types and the differences between each. The main difference between white wine and red wine, is that red wine is fermented with the skins of the black grapes, but for white wine, the grapes are pressed and the skins are discarded before fermentation. The skins give the wine the color and the tannins in the wine.
Red Wine Principal Varieties
There are 4 main principal red wine varieties that are well-known around the world, and make up a majority of the red wine grown and produced. These are also most often used in red wine blends because they are readily available in most regions. The 4 main varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir & Syrah/Shiraz.
Cabernet is the most common type of wine available, and most common red wine consumed in the United States. This wine is high in tannins and acidity. It can be medium-to-full-bodied. The wine will often have notes of black fruit like blackcurrant and black cherry, green bell pepper and mint. Cabernet is also matured in oak which can give it notes of cedar and vanilla. Pair cabernet with red meat like a filet mignon or a ribeye.
Merlot has recently eclipsed Cabernet Sauvignon as the world’s most widely planted grape. Its popularity stems from its voluptuous and smooth palate that lacks the harsh tannins of the Cabernet Sauvignon. It is, for these very reasons, a perfect blending partner of Cabernet Sauvignon. With nose and palate of plums and soft fruit, the velvety nature of a good Merlot (one from Pomerol or St Emilion, perhaps) can be mesmeric at best, or quaffable table wine at worst. In the New World, California set American markets ablaze when it debuted the Merlot. Nowadays, Chile produces some lip smacking Merlots as well.
The Pinot Noir is responsible for etching many happy memories in stone. This extremely popular grape variety is, however, notoriously difficult to grow. While Burgundy continues to produce outstanding Pinot Noirs (better known as red Burgundy), only New Zealand has successfully taken up the mantle in the New World. Pinot Noir is also – along with Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay – an integral part of champagne’s triumvirate. With its light distinctive colour and aromatic profile of chocolate, berries, beetroots and roses with smooth tannins on the palate, this wine can become highly complex and multifaceted with age. It can thus command exorbitant prices, yet still provide enjoyable entry-level wines.
Called Syrah in France and Shiraz almost everywhere else, this grape variety is known to local wine lovers, being ubiquitous in most Indian vineyards. Its hardiness means that it can be grown easily in warm climates. Exceptional Syrah is produced in France from the Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie appellations. In Australia, Penfolds Grange’s name has become synonymous with the world’s finest Shiraz. Shiraz is quickly developing followers worldwide, and with outstanding aromas of black fruit, dark chocolate, black pepper, leather and spice, it’s not hard to see why, especially as it partners spicy Indian food so brilliantly.
Dry Red Wine Varietals
All 4 of the principal red wine varieties are considered dry. Dry red wine is the most popular group of wine there is. Once wine enthusiasts start to drink more and more wine, they will typically move from a sweeter wine to drier wines.
Dry red wines will fall under 3 sections; full bodied, medium bodied, light bodied. This describes how strong & complex the flavor is. A light bodied wine like a pinot noir is usually easier to drink, especially for beginners. A full bodied wine like a cabernet sauvignon is the kind of dry wine most enthusiasts start with and is one of the commonly available in restaurants, bars, and events. Also, it is important to know that there can be variations on this list based on the specific wine, but this will serve as a good guide to start with.
Full Bodied Red Wine Types
Full bodied red wine typically has black fruit flavors and the grapes were grown in a warmer climate. These wines usually have more tannin and therefore higher alcohol content. Here is a list of common full bodied wines.
Tannat – this wine is mostly known for its high levels of tannin, and often mixed with other wines like Cabernet to soften the taste and make it more approachable. The color is a deep purple, and carries a very bold taste. It has flavors like black licorice, black plums, dark chocolate, and smoke.
Sagrantino – is a deep red dry wine with high tannic levels. The flavors are mostly black cherry & ripe blackberry. These are produced in Umbria, Italy and more recently grown in Australia as well.
Petite Sirah– is a popular but rare grape variety originating from France, with only 10,000 acres growing, but primarily in California. The flavors are blueberry, chocolate, plums & black pepper. It is a full bodied wine with deep red colors. It has medium acidity, high flavor profile and a high alcohol content. This is a different grape than just Syrah (more info on Syrah below).
Touriga Nacional – this wine is from Portugal, and very similar to Cabernet. It is a full bodied red wine with flavors of violet, blueberry, plum & mint. It is also used to blend in Port wines, but is a fantastic bold flavored red wine at a great value on its own.
Mourvèdre – this is grown in Spain, France, United States & Australia. It is a unique wine that most cabernet lovers will also enjoy. It has flavors of blueberry, blackberry, plum, violet, rose, & smoke. It can also actually have a very unique gamey meat taste.
Petit Verdot – this type of wine is most known for its bold floral flavors like lilac, violet, plum & sage. It is often used in blends because of that. Pair with lamb, pork and beef ribs.
Pinotage – the 2nd most planted grape in South Africa has extremely dark red color with high tannins and acidity. It has flavors of plum, tobacco, blackberry, tar & licorice. This complex wine is easy to mess up when producing it, so be careful not to drink a bad bottle!
Bordeaux – this famous wine was named from the origin of the wine – Bordeaux, France. Bordeaux is typically a mix of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines age very well, and there are certain years (or vintages) you should try to find (2010, 2014, 2015). This is all dependent on the weather and growing conditions of those specific years. Although, if you cannot find those specific years, other years are still fantastic to drink, with medium-high bodied flavors.
Malbec – Malbec is a type of wine, popularized in Argentina, that has a deep-red color. Commonly found in France and the United States, it is the third most popular wine in the world. Malbec is known for its deep red color and its ability to have an intense flavor with a dry and fruity finish. It also has hints of black pepper, cherry or blueberry flavors with some low tannins.
The grapes are usually harvested during the first week of October after they have been left on the vine for three weeks or more to get just enough sugar which gives it its typical flavor.
Aglianico – Aglianico is a type of wine that is made from the Aglianico grape in Italy. Aglianico wines are typically dark-colored and black in their youth, becoming darker as they age. They are typically full-bodied, with a noticeable tannin presence. They also have moderate acidity, alcohol levels, and a noticeable flavor of plum or dark fruit.
Aglianico wines can be aged for up to 20 years and longer when stored properly in cool cellars with low humidity. The wines from this area often have complex flavors, sometimes having flavors reminiscent of chocolate and coffee when young.
Nero d’Avola – Nero d’Avola wine is the dark red grape that originates from Italy. It is a popular variety in central-eastern Sicily and is used to make wines of medium body and rich flavors. The Nero d’Avola grape has a thick skin that doesn’t break easily, which enables it to survive long distances before reaching its destination. This makes it the perfect grape for wine production on a grand scale, as it’s able to be transported across large distances without breaking up. Nero d’Avola wine has a deep color, with notes of cherry, plum, and tobacco.
Nebbiolo – Nebbiolo wine is a type of wine that is grown in the northern Italian region of Piedmont. It is known for being the most prestigious red wine in Italy. Nebbiolo wines are usually lighter and more delicate than other types of wines such as Barbera and Dolcetto. They are made with Nebbiolo grapes which gives them a fruity aroma with hints of roses, violets, and black cherries. Nebbiolo wines have a deep ruby color.
The Italian DOC regions where Nebbiolo grapes are grown include Langhe, Monferrato, Roero, Piedmont, and Asti. These regions produce some of the best Nebbiolo wines Italy has to offer.
Tempranillo – Tempranillo is one of the most popular grapes used in Spanish red wines. It is native to Spain and Portugal, and widely planted in the Americas, especially in Chile. Tempranillo is a purple grape with high polyphenols. This makes it resistant to oxidation during wine making. The grape traditionally produces wine with a high tannin content with a full bodied texture.
Pair tempranillo with examples of meat and cheese.
Medium Bodied Red Wine Types
These wines contain almost no sugar, but their fruity aromas of cherries, raspberries, or plums make the wine seem sweeter than other full bodied wines.
Zinfandel – Zinfandel wine is a variety of red wine that varies in taste depending on the grape varieties used. It is grown in California, France, and Hungary. It is considered one of the most widely planted grapes in the world.
Zinfandel comes from Croatia and was originally known as Primitivo. The grape is also found in other parts of Eastern Europe and Italy but it’s not as widespread. Zinfandel’s popularity has only risen since the 1980s when new production techniques changed its character to be more fruit-forward and sweet.
Montepulciano – Montepulciano wine is a type of wine from the central region of Tuscany. It is typically a blend of Sangiovese, Canaiolo, and Malvasia wines. This type of wine is perfect for people that are looking for an alternative to the popular red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, that are usually dry and full-bodied. Montepulciano wines are typically sweet and fruity in taste with citrus notes.
Barbera – Barbera, the wine, is a great choice for a relatively inexpensive red wine. It pairs well with some of the most popular types of food like pizza and burgers.
Barbera is an Italian type of grape that was grown in Italy’s Piedmont region. This type of grape has been grown for centuries and has a history that goes back to the late 1500s. Barbera wines are known for being inexpensive and go well with many types of dishes like pizza or hamburgers.
Rhône – Rhone wine is a type of wine that is produced in the area of Rhône Valley in France. It is usually a blend, so it is not exactly a single grape variety. Rhone wines are usually light bodied and fruity. They like to have flavors of fruit like cherries or strawberries. There are some reds as well as whites that are produced, but the most popular ones are the reds. There might be some spicy flavors as well with this wine type, but they come from herbs and spices rather than pepper or other spices that you would find in other types of wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Grigio.
Negroamaro – Negroamaro is a wine grape that originates from the Puglia region of Italy. It has been grown in Puglia for centuries, and many people believe Negroamaro wines to be some of the best in the world.
Blending: The grapes are usually blended with other grapes like Primitivo, Montepulciano or Sangiovese to create a more balanced wine.
Boscoop’s Method: Boscoop’s method is the practice of harvesting grapes by hand instead of using machines to do so. This practice is done for both aesthetic and gastronomical purposes.
Negroamaro Grape Varieties: There are four main grape varieties that make up Negroamaro wines – Grillo, Pignatello, Uva di Troia and Mal.
Sangiovese – As Italy’s most widely planted grape, the Sangiovese varietal was in danger of being demoted to the category of inferior grape types of poor quality. It was subject to many decades of bad winemaking, but was rescued in the nick of time by some of Italy’s greatest wines. Its essence was first captured and then immortalized by the world famous wines from Chianti and Montalcino. With spice and cherry on the palate, Sangiovese ages gracefully in barrels and produces delicious award-winning numbers.
Mencia – Mencia wine is a type of red wine that has a deep, red color with an alcohol content of 16-17%. Mencia wines are usually aged in oak barrels for about 18 months before they are released. The grapes used to produce Mencia wines are usually grown in the northern regions of Spain, including the Basque Country, Galicia and Asturias.
Cabernet Franc – Cabernet Franc is a dark-colored wine with fruity, vinous and spicy aromas. It is less tannic than Cabernet Sauvignon and usually has lighter body, flavors of strawberry or plum, and a hint of vanilla from the oak barrels
Grenache / Garnacha
Light Bodied Red Wine Types
Wines that are lighter usually have red fruit flavors and the grapes were grown in a colder climate. Light bodied red wines tend to have less tannin & alcohol content than a full bodied wine. These wines also have a higher acidity to them. Here is a list of common light bodied red wines that are very approachable.
Dry Red Wine Flavors
Common red wine flavor profiles can come from the fruits introduced during the wine making process, or other spices and ingredients added. The wine barrel will also provide a distinct flavor to the wine. These bold and savory wines have more tannins which are bitter.
These are the most common flavors that you may encounter while drinking dry red wine.
Fruits – cherry, plum, strawberry, blackberry, raspberry, currant, gooseberry, boysenberry, raisin, fig.
Other flavors – white & black pepper, clove, cinnamon, coffee, cocoa, mocha, tobacco, leather, licorice, toast, smoke, violet.
Sweet Red Wine Varietals
Sweet red wines can also be categorized by the body of the wine; full, medium, and light bodied. In most cases, but not all, sweet wines have less alcohol than dry wines. That is due to the fermentation process. For sweet wines, the process is stopped early before all of the sugar is turned into alcohol, which gives the sweet flavor. Sweet wine also tends to have less tannins, which provide a bitter taste to drier wines.
Light and Fizzy Sweet Red Wines
Brachetto d’Acqui – also known as DOCG, this type of wine is made exclusively in Piedmont, Italy. It has a light ruby red color, with flavors of strawberry, cherry, raspberry and rose candy. There are 3 main types; Rosso, Spumante and Passito.
Lambrusco – this is a fruity red wine made in Emilia-Romagna. This city is also well known for making Parmesan Reggiano cheese. Lambrusco has a light alcohol content around 11% ABV. Lambrusco is a group of about 10 different grape varieties. It will have flavors of violets, roses, red currants, blueberries, raspberries, boysenberries, blackberries, black cherry, and green almond.
Medium Bodied Sweet Red Wines
Dornfelder – this is a popular German red wine that is difficult to find in the United States. It has flavors and aromas of cherries, blackberries, and spiced herbs.
Schiava – from northern Italy and has flavors of rose, cotton candy, sweet cherry sauce & cinnamon. It is hard to find in the USA, but these have high reviews.
Recioto della Valpolicella – this wine is known to be aged for a long time. Up to 20 year! The flavors will include a combination of black cherry, cranberry, vanilla, cinnamon & chocolate. As the wine ages, it will gain flavors of fig, sassafras, and coffee.
Red blends are wines that are not made from a specific grape variety. Red blends are the 2nd most popular type of red wine behind cabernet sauvignon. That is because most wines are actually a blend. California law only states that 75% of a wine needs to be from a specific grape type in order to categorize it. So a bargain bottle of merlot may actually include 10% of pinot noir mixed in with it.
Winemakers blend grapes because it allows them to design a wine unlike any other wines out there. It opens up more options to experiment with. A merlot can help soften the taste of a cabernet. A syrah can provide more boldness to a pinot noir.
The sweetness in wine is determined during the wine making process. As the grape juice ferments, the sugar is turning into alcohol. So as the fermentation process happens, the sweetness will be determined by when in the process fermentation is stopped. That is why drier wines have a higher alcohol content than sweet wines. Because the leftover sugar hasn’t been converted into alcohol!