Popular Red Wine Varietals
Welcome back! Yesterday, we learned a little about the history of red wine. Today, we’ll take a look at the most popular red wine grape varietals.
This is the king of the red grapes. Ideally, it should grow on well-drained gravel soil in a reasonably warm region—i.e., the Médoc in France. There, it produces some of the world’s most expensive dry, full wines, tasting both of blackcurrants and cedar wood with a hard tannic edge. All New World winemakers in the United States, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand want to succeed with it. Their wines range from intense, dark, blackcurrant jam flavors in hot California, to smoky sweetness in nearly-as-hot South Africa, to fragrant mint and blackcurrant styles in the cooler parts of Australia and light, green-grassy dry reds in cool New Zealand. Italy and Bulgaria are now making Cabernet Sauvignon too.
Cabernet Franc is a similar grape, also popular, and in the Loire and Northern Italy, it has a grassy taste in light but good reds.
It used to be only in Burgundy that this grape regularly delivered the goods. It’s probably the world’s most sulky, infuriating grape but can make a marvelous light-bodied, medium-colored red, which tastes of strawberries when young and then deepens to an intense “chocolate and something almost gamey” taste as it gets older. California tries hard with it and often succeeds, as do Australia and New Zealand. In Germany and Switzerland, it makes very light, almost rosé wines, which are soft, not quite dry, and faintly strawberry-ish.
Gamay is Beaujolais. How it is that it can be delicious in the Beaujolais hills south of Burgundy and flat and soupy elsewhere, no one is quite sure. But in Beaujolais, Gamay produces exquisite wines of depth and character. Like Pinot Noir, Gamay is a grape that strongly expresses its terroir, so its wines reflect a wide range of characteristics based on their sub-appellations. The reputation of Gamay has been recovering from the phenomenon of Nouveau Beaujolais (a fruit-driven wine released to celebrate the harvest each year). Nouveau wines are not what Gamay Beaujolais is about.
Syrah is a black tannic wine, smoky tasting, and beneath which lurks a deep, sweet raspberry richness, needing age to show itself. In the Rhône, it makes Hermitage, and elsewhere in Southern France, it’s used to provide color and hardness to dull, soft reds. In Australia, they call it Shiraz, and to some, the creosote component seems more like a sweaty saddle!
With the Cinsault grape, Grenache provides the big, soft, easy reds and rosés of the south of France. It has a slightly peppery, rather dusty taste, but it’s got sweet fruit too, a bit like strawberry fruit gum. It’s also grown in Spain as Garnacha, where it has rather more “pepper” and less “fruit gum.”
Nebbiolo is Italy’s answer to Syrah. Usually found in tremendously black, dry, hard wines from the Piedmont hills, they are normally just too harsh to enjoy much. But sometimes, they bring out a chocolate prune-y sweetness, rather like long-forgotten homemade jam.
Often used with Cabernet Sauvignon to soften Bordeaux blends, Merlot wine is mid-red, soft, buttery, and honey-ish—sometimes slightly minty too. It dominates the Saint-Émilion and Pomerol regions of Bordeaux. Elsewhere, it is usually lighter in character than Cabernet Sauvignon, although Bulgaria and California make some fairly “solid” versions. Italy veers between pale, off-dry Merlot reds in the Veneto to very good Cabernet look-alikes in Friuli.
A pale-ish, soft grape, Tempranillo, when aged in new oak barrels, gives the vanilla-soft red wine of Rioja. It’s grown all over Spain under a variety of names and is the source of the soft, relatively light, toffee-ish taste of much Spanish red.
Now you’ve learned something about each of the most popular red wines on the market worldwide. Next time, we’ll look at how red wine is actually made.
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