One of the things wine always reminds me of is the opening line of “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” by Billy Joel, which happens to be one of my favorite songs. I love the change of pace from opening to middle to end. That’s also one of the reasons we love wine…it is a nice change of pace every now and then. You do not have to be a wine fanatic to enjoy the occasional glass of wine. You all know that opening line of the Billy Joel song, right? “A bottle of red…a bottle of white…” So which one? Billy says it all depends upon your appetite. Is he right? In order to find out, first we have to know the difference, which goes beyond just color. So, lets learn a little bit about the reds.
Red wine is made from dark (black) grape varieties, and it is the pigments in the skin of those grapes that give red wine its characteristic color. You will usually want to pair red wines with red meats (now that should be easy to remember, right?). There are 6 common red wine varieties that we will discuss: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah/Shiraz, Malbec, and Zinfandel.
Cabernet Sauvignon: You’ve heard the name (doesn’t it sound sophisticated), but do you know what it is? Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are often called “King of the Red Wine Grapes.” These wines typically range from medium-bodied to full-bodied, and are characterized by a high tannin content. Tannins are a natural preservative in wines and can make wine un-drinkable if the wine is not aged sufficiently. Tannins give wines like Cabernet Sauvignons their characteristic mouth puckering and “furry tongue” characteristics. Cabernets have typical flavor profiles that can be described as plum, cherry, blackberry, warm spice, vanilla, tobacco (what?), and sometimes leather. You might want to read that last line again…those last two flavors are doozies. Cabernet Sauvignons pair well with fatty red meats (like lamb), red sauce pastas, strong flavored cheeses, and dark chocolate. These are not wines that a beginning wine drinker should start with.
Merlot: Merlots are typically soft, medium-bodied wines with juicy fruit flavors. That means they have plum, cherry, blueberry, and blackberry characteristics. They do not taste like Juicy Fruit Gum. If you’re drinking a wine that tastes like Juicy Fruit Gum, spit it out and get out of there — something strange is afoot. The Merlot grape is dark blue colored, and the word Merlot is thought to be based from the French word merle, which means “blackbird.” Merlots have a low tannin content, which makes them ideal for those just getting into red wines and a great wine to blend with a Cabernet to improve its drinkability. Merlots pair well with grilled meats, salmon, pasta, and salad greens.
Pinot Noir: The Pinot Noir grape is a black wine grape that gets its name from the French words for “pine” and “black,” alluding to the color of the grape and the pine cone shape of the grape clusters. This wine is also known as “Red Burgundy” and has a dry, lighter-medium body, fruity character. Pinot Noirs have light tannins and flavor profiles of strawberry, cherry, raspberry, and blackberry (yummy), as well as herbal, mushroom (what?), leather, and game-like qualities. I don’t know about you, but I’d shoot for one in that first group of flavors. Pinot Noirs pair well with smoked meats, creamy sauces, spicy seasonings. Pinot Noirs may be the most versatile food wines around.
Syrah/Shiraz: The name(s) for this genre of red wine come from the dark skinned grape from which it is made. These wines are characterized as spicy, big, and bold. The Syrah/Shiraz wines are medium to full bodied and have a high tannin content as well as high acidity. These wines are often blended with weaker wines to increase balance and create a “complete” wine. Syrah/Shiraz have flavor profiles of black cherry, blackberry, plum, bell pepper (ewww!), black pepper, clove, licorice, dark chocolate and smoked meat. They pair well with grilled meats.
Malbec: Malbec is a purple grape variety found primarily in Cahors in Southwest France. These wines are dry, medium to full-bodied with plenty of acidity and higher tannin and alcohol levels. Malbecs have flavor profiles of plums, black cherry and blackberry, smoke, earth, leather, wild game, tobacco, and white/black pepper. The flavor profile will vary depending on which region the wine is produced. So a Malbec produced in Cahors, France will have a high tannin content with tobacco and garlic notes, while a Malbec produced in Argentina will have a juicy fruit notes and plusher texture. Malbecs pair well with grilled steaks and barbecue sauces, spicy Mexican, Cajun, Indian, Thai or Italian — this definitely sounds like our type of wine.
Zinfandel: Zinfandel is a variety of red grape and is one of the most common grapes found in California vineyards. Zinfandels are robust and medium to full-bodied. These wines have medium to high tannin content and higher alcohol content. Because of the abundance of sugars in the Zinfandel grapes, these wines can be fermented with up to 15% alcohol content. Flavor profiles for Zinfandels consist of raspberry, blackberry, cherry, plums, raisins, spice, black pepper, and various intensities of oak. These wines pair well with red meats and grilled meats like brats and burgers, so don’t forget to whip out the bottle of Zinfandel at your next tailgate party (just don’t do it in front of the boys).