Your Wine IQ

Red Wine

International Varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon   Merlot   Pinot Noir   Syrah

Major Varieties: Cabernet Franc    Grenache    Malbec    Nebbiolo    Sangiovese    Tempranillo    Zinfandel

Regional Varieties:   Baga    Barbera    Blaufränkisch    Brachetto    Carignan    Carménère    Cinsaut    Dolcetto    Gamay    Graciano    Lagrein    Malvasia Nera    Marzemino    Montepulciano    Mourvèdre    Nero d'Avola    Petit Verdot    Petite Sirah    Pinot Meunier    Pinotage    Touriga Nacional

Red wine

Red wine in a glass.
Photo by André Karwath
Licensed under Creative
Commons SA 2.5

Red wine is the world's most popular choice of wine. The great red grapes of the world make the wines that will age best and, with the exception of Sauternes and Riesling, the majority of wine collectibles are red. Red wine is heavier than white wine, although it does not always contain more alcohol.

Red wine in moderation is good for health. Resveratrol, a natural component of red wine, appears to contribute to a reduction in the risk for heart disease, cancer, and certain other diseases. Perhaps this is why the toast "to your health" is used worldwide when drinking wine.

The color of red wine comes from either red or purple grapes. Red wine can also be produced from white grapes. Red wines contain tannins, which provide the characteristic bitter flavor. The more tannins, the more bitter the wine. Cabernet Sauvignon, the strongest-flavored red grape, is high in tannins. The tannins serve as a natural preservative, which explains why red wine ages so well and can be stored for many years without spoiling.

Malbec grapes

Malbec grapes on the vine in Argentina.
Photo by Micah MacAllen.
Licensed under Creative Commons SA 2.

Red wines are best served in a thicker glass with a wide bowl to allow the wine to breathe before drinking. It is best to store reds at 60-65 degrees. An over-refrigerated wine will taste too bitter and some flavors will be masked, while the alcohol will be exaggerated. When red wine is served too warm, it can have a "baked" taste. In general, the more powerful the wine, the warmer it can be served.

The body of wine is used to describe the amount of tannins--in combination with the depth, complexity, and strength of the flavors. Being called "light-bodied" is not necessarily an insult. The great Gamay wines are light-bodied, as are some Pinot Noirs. Merlot, Syrah, and Chianti are usually medium-bodied. The fullest-bodied wines are Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux, and Italy's Super-Tuscans.

The flavors of red wine vary greatly. Common flavors include cherry, plum, strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, currant, raisin, fig, pepper, cinnamon, tobacco, leather, and violet. Oak aging tends to introduce a vanilla character and sometimes a slight woody flavor.

Red wine is made in every single winemaking country in the world. The most famous red wine regions are Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Rhône in France; Piedmont and Tuscany in Italy; the Barossa Valley in Australia; and California's Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley.

International Varieties

Unanimously recognized varieties of red wine grapes planted in all the significant wine countries are called international varieties. Here are four international varieties you should know.

Cabernet Sauvignon

The rock that the other grape varieties dash themselves against, Cabernet Sauvignon--or Cab--continues to dominate the wine market, as it has for many centuries. Grown all over the world in climates warm and cool, Cabernet is easy to grow and will grow well. From $4 table wines to exquisite $1,000 offerings from Bordeaux, Cabernet wine is diverse and fascinating. When winemaking and wine drinking surged in popularity during the 1960s and 1970s, the versatile Cabernet grape leaped to the forefront of the red wine movement. As the ante is upped by more modern, less overpriced offerings from all over the world, Bordeaux remains triumphant by continuing to improve the quality of their Cab-based wine. Read more about the king of grapes.


Photo by Kassander der Minoer
on Wikipedia. Licensed under
Creative Commons SA 3


Merlot is light and smooth, in many ways the opposite of Cabernet Sauvignon. The entire Right Bank of Bordeaux is devoted to Merlot-based wines, such as Château Pétrus, which is usually over 90% Merlot. The Merlot grape offers great flavors without the uncompromising bitterness of Cabernet, and for this reason is often blended with it. But Merlot is great on its own, and Napa Valley is a prominent Merlot producer. France often uses the Merlot grown there in blends. Read more about the most drinkable red grape.

Pinot Noir grapes

Pinot grapes.
This photo is in the public domain.

Pinot Noir

Whereas Cab is easily cultivated and made into good wine, Pinot Noir is extremely finicky. The celebrated wines of Burgundy, where Pinot Noir originated and still is widely grown, offer some of the most unique and enchanting flavors of the wine world. Although the critics seem to think that Cabernet is just as good in California as it is in Bordeaux, no other wine region can challenge Burgundy's mastery of Pinot Noir. Burgundy produces some of the most expensive wines in the world, with one vintage of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti selling for $35,000 a bottle! In the United States, Oregon and Washington have made inroads with Pinot Noir. Read more about Pinot Noir's legacy.


The new kid on the block among international grapes, Syrah's explosive popularity has been spurred by increasingly good Australian offerings. Australian Syrah, called Shiraz, is an inexpensive wine full of spicy, earthy flavors. High in alcohol and peppery in flavor, Syrah is a delectable wine. The grape originated in the Rhône, where classicists still think it is at its best. The global interest in Shiraz has driven American producers to enter the Syrah market, and their success has been impressive. Read more about how Syrah has taken the wine world by storm.

Major Varieties

The major varieties represent good grapes that are important in winemaking primarily in one region.

Chateau Cheval BlancBaroloChianti glass and bottleTempranillo bottle and glass

From left to right: the Château Cheval Blanc, a legendary winehouse with wine that is 60% Cabernet Franc; a glass and bottle of distinctive ruby-red Barolo made from Nebbiolo; a dark glass of the Sangiovese-based Chianti; varietal Tempranillo with glass.

Photos left to right: Gérard Janot; Biskuit on Flickr; Kohei Matsuoka; Mick Stephenson.

Licensing left to right: Creative Commons SA 3; Creative Commons SA 2.0 Generic; Creative Commons SA 2.0 Generic; Creative Commons SA 3.0 Unported

Cabernet Franc

Lighter and easier to drink than its cousin Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc wine is among the underestimated wines in the world. Cab Franc can be great as a sole varietal, and Bordeaux houses such as Ausone and Cheval Blanc appreciate its greatness by using more than 50% in their blends. This grape also thrives in the Loire. Read more about how this grape is overlooked.


A Rhône grape and a crucial ingredient in GSM (Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre) blends, Grenache is an important variety that is very popular in both France and Spain. It makes a spicy wine similar to Syrah, but higher in alcohol. Grenache was rediscovered in the 20th century after slumping in popularity, and is now being busily planted around the world. Read more about this fine grape.


Malbec originated in France, was popular centuries ago, but fell out of favor due to a preference for Cab and Merlot. The grape was believed to be extinct, only to appear recently--and flourish--in Argentina. Often excellent and underpriced, Argentine Malbec has quickly become the country's flagship wine. Read more about Malbec's rediscovery and what it means for the wine world.


The famous wines of Barolo and Barbaresco are produced from the Nebbiolo grape. A subzone of Piedmont, Italy, Barolo makes ruby-red wines that are expensive, ageable, and offer an exclusively distinct bouquet of changing flavors. The foggy, cool hills of Barolo--and, to a lesser extent, Barbaresco--offer Nebbiolo a place to thrive. Nebbiolo is a finicky grape, perhaps even more so than Pinot Noir. This picky grape is rarely grown in other regions. Read more to find out why.


Sangiovese is grown in many regions in Italy, notably in Tuscany. Chianti and the more expensive Brunello di Montalcino are made from the Sangiovese grape. While Chianti is sometimes a delicate wine, more often it is big, bold, and high in alcohol, tannins, and acidity. While not as finicky as Nebbiolo, Sangiovese is rarely grown outside Italy. Read more to find out about Sangiovese.


The flagship grape of Spain is Tempranillo. Rioja, the bold Spanish wine, is made from the black Tempranillo grape. Noble but enjoyable, the great wines of Rioja sometimes show aging potential to rival any dry red wine. Read more to find out about this Spanish grape.


California has only one native grape: Zinfandel. A powerful, lush grape, the California grape was misused for many years in unimpressive white Zinfandel. At long last, this fine grape has found its true calling in red Zinfandel. The flavors are complex, but the wine is best opened when young. Read more about Zinfandel, including the Italian version called Primitivo.

Regional Varieties

Regional varieties are lesser-known varietals that are mainly found in certain, usually small, geographic regions. While not tremendously popular, these grapes are part of a large supporting cast that can often turn out wine equal or superior in quality to the more common grapes.