When one thinks of wine, one thinks of red wine.
The sales figures paint a different story. In 2015, the UK drank nearly 3.5 million hectolitres of white wine – 5% more than it drank red. And yet, despite the numbers, red persists as king in the drinker’s consciousness. Perhaps this is because there’s something evocative about its deep, dark and brooding rubyness. Red is the colour of love and passion. For most of formative Western history, red wine was the blood of Christ. It’s the colour of the sea in the Iliad. It’s big and masculine and powerful; no one would think of a Roman sipping at a pretty glass of lemon-hued white. No, art from the Medieval to the Renaissance to the contemporary says that Caesar and his legions drank red, and red alone, even though research suggests they probably drank anything but.
Above all perhaps, it’s complex. The winemaking itself is white plus some. Juice must be fermented and macerated on the grape skins to draw out the colour pigments, and with these pigments comes tannins. Not normally present in white wines, tannins (astringent compounds drawn from the skins, stems and seeds) must be tamed and softened, and although this adds time and money to the process, it also opens a whole host of new possibilities. With the use of oak barrels and extended ageing comes the influence of new, secondary flavours. The red and black fruit qualities typical of red grapes can be sculpted and moulded into new, developed tastes, supported by complex, less primal flavours; vanilla from American oak, spices and earthiness from French oak, toast and butterscotch from malolactic fermentation and a plethora of others that emerge with time and technique. The resultant palate profile is extensive. Often rich and juicy, it works extremely well – perhaps better on the whole than white wine – with the meaty, herbal, savoury flavours of European influenced cuisine; the heartland of course, of where these wines are produced.
There are truly hundreds of varieties, but below is an overview of some of the more popular red grapes and their typical flavours, nuances and suggested food pairings.
The king of Burgundy, and commander of some of the highest prices of any grape in the world. It grows best in cooler climates, and produces lighter-bodied wines with bright raspberry and strawberry notes that can develop into complex, earthy wines with soft gamey nuances when matured skilfully in oak. Other notable growing regions include Chile, Oregon, and notably Central Otago in New Zealand, where the top wines have less earthiness and a more striking fruit presence. One of the three top grapes of Champagne. Famously low-yielding, famously tough to grow, famously good with a Burgundian beef stew.
Most people’s introduction to Italian wine, Sangiovese is the grape of Chianti. It has soft, juicy (sometimes tart) cherry and strawberry notes with a soft hint of spiciness, making it a perfect accompaniment to many of the tomato based dishes prevalent in Italian cuisine. The best Sangiovese is often considered to be Brunello di Montalcino, but it is also blended to great effect with the Bordeaux grapes in some of the ‘Super Tuscan’ wines of Bolgheri.
Merlot rules the Bordeaux right-bank, not to mention vast swathes of nearly every single wine growing country in the New World. In Saint-Emillion and Pomerol, Merlot is soft and textured with plum and raspberry notes, providing a more approachable alternative to the stiffer wines of the left-bank. Its likeability is its glory and its failing. Used as a crucial element of nearly all worldwide Bordeaux style wines, it fell out of favour somewhat as a premium, exciting varietal grape a few years ago (think Sideways), but new, revitalised offerings from many growers have resulted in a surge of popularity once again in recent years. Chilean Merlot is particularly lauded for its freshness and defined fruit character, as are examples from Washington State and Hawke’s Bay. Drink it with classic French cuisine – duck, beef, pork, you name it.
Nebbiolo is Barolo, and Barolo is a serious wine. Top Barolo Riserva isn’t released without at least 62 months of ageing, and the subsequent wines are big, tannic, rich and earthy. Nebbiolo itself is a curious taste – delicate cherry and rose notes on the nose are matched with bolder flavours of anise and leather, and the thick skins of the grape lead to wines with plenty of mouth-gripping tannins. Barbaresco and Langhe are the other Italian hotspots in Piedmont for Nebbiolo, but some parts of the New World – notably Australia and California – are producing high quality examples too. Drink it with roast turkey, braised pork, roasted garlic and peppers or even with a slice of yesterday’s cold pizza.
Rioja is popular throughout the world for its high quality-price ratio, and Rioja is made from Tempranillo. Confusingly, every region in Iberia seems to have its own name for it – Tinto Roriz, Tinta Fina, Tinto del Toro and Aragonez, to name but a few – but they are all Tempranillo, and the grape grows right across Spain and Portugal. In Rioja, Tempranillo tastes of bright cherry and stewed plums, with a curious tomato-ish note in cooler years. Often aged in American oak (and often for a considerable period) older Rioja develops moreish notes of vanilla, cedar and tobacco, and the best wines can last for decades. It’s rich, savoury quality and oaked character lends well to pairings with cured Iberico hams, as well as BBQ-grilled meats and tomato or pepper based stews.
Grenache is the workhorse of the Western Mediterranean. Typically blended with grapes such as Syrah, Carignan, Mourvedre or Cinsault in the wines of southern France, Grenache tastes hot and red, with particular cinnamon, cherry and almost candied strawberry flavours. In the Southern Rhone (think Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas) it can develop more herbal notes of oregano and sage that soften the initial heady fruitiness. In the famous wines of Priorat, it is blended with Carignan and Cabernet Sauvignon, and it can also be found in Corsica, Sardinia and in the hotter regions of Australia and California. Grenache’s spicy nuances makes it a good match with hotter dishes, such as pimento-based tapas, grilled tomatoes and some milder Mexican cuisine.
Cabernet Sauvignon trumps Merlot as the world’s most planted red grape variety. It is the key component of the great wines of Bordeaux’s Left-bank (think Margaux, Saint Julien and the Medoc), and as such has been exported across the world as the master of international Bordeaux blends. Its dominant flavours are of black fruits; blackcurrant, black cherry, black plum, and its affinity for oak ageing lend matured wines notes of vanilla, tobacco, liquorice and clove. Although often blended, single varietal Cabernet’s have become popular in regions such as Coonawarra in Australia (the wines here can develop curious savoury hints of menthol and eucalyptus) and most famously in the Napa Valley of California. Medium acidity, medium tannins and a medium body lend it well to most meat-centric food pairings, such as steak, casseroles or a well-made burger.
Originally a French grape, and still a major component of the wines of Bordeaux and Cahors, Malbec has become synonymous in recent years with the wines of Argentina. Imported to South America in the late 19th century, Argentine Malbec is fruit-forward with notes of plums, blackcurrant and a supporting chocolatey quality. High-altitude vineyards grown on the slopes of the Andes produce Malbec that tastes cleaner and fresher than some wines made in the lowlands, with the cool night time temperatures helping to maintain acidity levels in the grapes. In Cahors however, Malbec is less fruit driven, and bigger, spicier and more rustic. Here it is known as ‘black wine’ due to its particularly dark colour, and develops peppery, savoury notes that work well with country French cuisine. The classic Malbec food pairing however, is steak, and it can be no coincidence that Malbec and the Argentine BBQ tradition have such a famous synergy.
They say that Syrah likes a view, and indeed the very best examples are grown on some of the steepest red-wine slopes in the world. The home of Syrah is the Northern Rhone, and the great wines of Hermitage and Cote Rotie grow on steep, sun-drenched hillsides that coax the grapes towards maximum ripeness. Classic Old World Syrah is full-bodied, deep, dark and spicy, with a characteristic black pepper note lingering towards the finish. There’s a certain alluring smokiness to these wines, with an earthy, savoury hint of olive, whereas the New World examples – notably in the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale in Australia, where the grape is known as Shiraz – are more fruit driven, with blackberry, bramble and cassis flavours. Syrah is big, so pair it with big food. Game, steak with peppercorn sauce, or anything with fennel.
The final component of the famous GSM blend (the others being Grenache and Syrah) Mourvedre delivers a full-bodied kick. Big and meaty, typical examples offer spicy, peppery cassis and plum notes, although wines from French appellations such as Bandol tend to be more savoury in character, with notable elements of the local garrigue herbs on the palate. Mourvedre is a late ripening variety requiring lots of heat and sunshine, and also has something of a tolerance to drought stress, and is consequently grown throughout the hotter regions of southern France, Spain (where it is known as Monastrell) and parts of Australia and California. Soak it up with roast lamb or a Provencal Daube.
This article was written for us by Christian Lowe of Plumton Wine College