The Ultimate Guide to Red Wines
A universally beloved beverage with a long history, red wine is available in dozens of different varieties. Winemakers can produce them either from a single type of grape, known as a varietal, or as a specialty mix of grape blends. This versatility is key to the beauty of the beverage and what leads to its wondrously unique and complex range of colors, flavors, and finishes. There are so many different varieties, in fact, even connoisseurs spend years understanding what the “best” types of red wine are — and why.
Whether you’re a seasoned wine lover looking to brush up on red wine facts or a novice just starting to explore all that red wine has to offer, we’ve got your guide to the different types of red wine.
1. Cabernet Sauvignon
We’re launching our list of types of red wines with the indisputable winner of global popularity contests, cabernet sauvignon.
Cabernet sauvignon is the most cultivated red wine type in the world — and for understandable reasons! This grape type grows well in warmer, milder climates, has a dark, near-blue color when picked from the vine and thick skins loaded with tannins. Tannins are directly responsible for those sharper, dryer and more astringent profiles behind certain red wine types, plus gives sauvignons their prized long-lasting finish.
Cabernet sauvignons are so popular because they strike that perfect balance between high tannins and fruity flavors, dry and sweet, sharp and smooth. A glass of good cab will hit your tongue with notes of bell peppers and cassis, linger with oak and finish with hints of black cherries, blueberries and blackberries. Among types of red wine for beginners, it makes for the quintessential varietal to start your foray into the world of red wines.
Cabernet sauvignons pair well with:
- Cheese plates, especially aged gruyere and gouda, plus blue cheese and other “funky” rind cheeses
- Beef short ribs and lamb ribs
- Gamey meats, like venison or elkpinot noir
- Mushrooms, particularly portobellos or dried porcinis
- Fattier cuts of steak, such as sirloins or ribeyes
- Mild chili con carne
- Beef ragus and bolognese
2. Cabernet Franc
The parent of sauvignon, cabernet francs see slightly less pop adoration but a lot of the same reverence and cultivation culture within the wine world. They are staples of the French Bordeaux region, which has a nearly iconic winemaking history buffs and beginners likely know. While winemakers cultivate New World varietals in places like California and New York, your classic Bordeaux-derived francs are where the story of this red wine type began.
Cabernet francs are one of the naturally earthier red wine types. On its own, it produces a well-rounded, acidic-forward flavor that mixes violets, strawberries, cassis, leather and oak with plums and peppercorn. Uncorking a cabernet franc that’s aged even for as little as two years should carry this unique body and rich mix of flavors characteristic of the producing winery.
Most glasses of cabernet franc will deliver a decisive “pucker” sensation immediately upon hitting the front of the tongue. Due to its medium body, this sensation lingers slightly longer than other types of red wine — but not enough to turn the entire profile too tart or vinegar-like, which you risk with underaged or overdeveloped bottles.
Cabernet franc’s higher acidity, but medium body, make it play well with many veggies and meats, including:
- Tomato-based sauces, curries, and stews
- Crispy-skinned fish, especially trout or mackerel
- Beef and turkey meatballs
- Lamb skewers and gyros
- Cheese or mushroom ravioli and tortellini
- Red beans and rice
- Stuffed peppers, both meat and vegetarian versions
- Eggplant Parmigiana
3. Pinot Noir
The taste of pinot noir is one of the most versatile, yet varied, on the market today. That’s because winemakers produce pinot noirs on nearly every grape-growing continent, from the foothills of New Zealand’s mountains to the tepid air of Sonoma Valley to its birthplace on the rolling hills of Burgundy, France.
Such a geographic sprinkling means pinot noir grapes grow in different soils that extract different nutrients. That, in turn, affects the chemical makeup, and thus flavor profiles, of this thinner-skinned grape type. Pinot noirs that grew in older European vineyards still provide the varietal’s fruit-forward flavor template, while North American pinot noirs carry brighter notes and South American pinot noirs a slightly softer aftertaste.
A pinot will pour paler, yet silkier, than other red wines. It will be more translucent in the glass and have a ruby-red coloration uniquely lighter than most others on this list of red wines, with a characteristically smooth, full-tongued finish.
There are so many dishes to pair alongside pinot noir, from classic meat-based meals to an eclectic array of charcuterie. Some foodie favorites include:
- White-meat roasts, especially pork, Cornish hens and squab
- Smoked meats and sausages
- Spicy enchiladas or fajitas
- Vegetarian pizza
- Honey-glazed hams
- Bruschetta or olive tapenade
- Sheep’s-milk cheeses, mild goat cheeses, white cheddars and comptés
Malbecs are a rich, dark and luxurious variety that’s a star in its own right. They have a deep, almost inky purple color and a strong, above-average array of tannins that lend this type of red wine a bold and fruity flavor.
They’re also geographical transplants, originating in southwest France but finding near-idyllic growing conditions across the ocean in South America. In fact, Malbecs make up one of South America’s top red wine varietals. They’re exceptionally successful in Argentina, which grows more than 75 percent of the world’s Malbec grapes in its high-elevation, high temperature-fluctuating agricultural regions. These conditions give the Malbec grapes the right conditions to produce key levels of acidity and create deep flavors without a too strong bitter aftertaste.
If you need another reason to add Malbecs to your list of red wines to try, note it’s also one of the best wines for you. Malbecs contain some of the highest concentrations of antioxidants not only in the wine family, but out of most fruit plants.
Opt for Malbecs when you’re in the mood for a fundamental berry and plum-flavored wine. Malbecs generally will also contain notes of cocoa, allspice, raisins, sour cherries, tobacco and pomegranates.
Match this vibrant and rich red wine with the following foods:
- Lean red meats, such as venison, bison or even ostrich
- Hamburgers and cheeseburgers
- Lean beef cuts, like skirt steak, hanger or filet mignon
- Beef brisket
- Duck and other dark-meat poultry
- Wild rice or forbidden black rice
- Soft cheeses like gorgonzola and melted Swiss
- Potato-based dishes
- Cream-based sauces and soups
Gamays are not often the talk of the town. In fact, when most people ask what types of red wine are there, very few remember to name-drop gamays — even though this grape varietal has a “personality” entirely its own.
Gamay grapes grow almost exclusively in the Beaujolais region of France. Sitting just south of Burgundy, Beaujolais cultivated a twist to their neighbors’ more tannin-forward, thicker-skinned grape by developing the low-tannin, milder-bodied red gamay.
Gamays are incredibly distinct in both fragrance and taste. They are among one of the lightest and most aromatic red wine types, yet keenly balance sweetness with bright acidity. In smell alone, you can expect notes of cherries, cedar, and vanilla to pop out. Many have noted younger Gamays smell acutely like bananas — even banana candy — something you’d be hard-pressed to find in any other type of red wine.
Gamays are fresh and easy to drink compared to heavier red wine counterparts, making them perfect for a balmy summer evening. Tastes on the front of the tongue will include cranberries, raspberries and red licorice, rounded out by lingering notes of yellow pear, almond and even baker’s yeast.
Gamays are genuinely one of a kind. When explaining the differences in red wine types, it’s hard to find anything similar to both the smells and flavors of a good gamay. Such a novel varietal deserves equally flavorful food pairings:
- Traditional French entrees like beef stroganoff, coq au vin or steak frites
- Most seafood, but especially tuna, salmon, cod and calamari
- Charcuterie plates with chicken paté, nuts and white-rind cheeses like brie and camembert
- Frisee salads with chicken or bacon and fruit
- Sweet potato or squash-based dishes
- Jambalaya and other Cajun or Creole fare
- Lox or deli-meat sandwiches
Smooth and soft from start to finish, Merlot wines might easily be overlooked — but they are universally embraced and ultra-agreeable on the palate.
There are a few unique features to a glass of merlot, beginning with its rim. The younger the merlot, the more you should note an orange-tinted rim hanging onto the glass, as well as its darker, almost blueberry coloration at the center of a pour. Taste-wise, merlots carry lush fruity notes, heavy on flavors of cedar, cherries, chocolate and currants. Tannin levels are moderate, and acidity stays in check with an uptick in those fruity notes that don’t veer overly sweet.
Merlots have stood the test of time to be the second-most planted grape variety today. They are hearty vines that thrive throughout Italy, Northern California, Washington’s Columbia Valley and Western Australia.
Overall, a glass of merlot is like the Goldilocks of wine. It is neither too robust nor too light, too sweet or too acidic. It makes this type of red wine particularly food-friendly for dozens of dishes like:
- Prime ribs
- Braised short ribs
- Pork, lamb and veal chops
- Pasta with sausage in tomato-based sauces
- Traditional Italian meatballs
- Mushroom Swiss and veggie burgers
- Caesar salad
- Grilled and barbecued meats, as long as they’re not too spicy
- Smoke cheeses and sausages
Those looking to diversify their wine portfolios would do well to check out Barbera, another different type of red wine that often doesn’t get the spotlight it deserves.
Barbera grapes call northern Italy their home, where winemakers often cultivate them in lower-elevation vineyards and seasoned slopes. There, they receive a fair amount of rolling fog and foothill moisture, encouraging winemakers to employ old-oak barrel aging practices to harness full flavors from their thin and susceptible skins. Newer oak barrels are generally not best for aging barbera, as the bite of fresh oak bark can easily overpower these straightforward, low-bodied grapes.
Barbera is sometimes called the “people’s wine,” a nod to its historical popularity among the Italian working class. Rather than scoff at this heritage, as some highbrow wineries have, there’s been a reinvigoration to take and make this grape all it can be.
Barbera is innately tart and can actually be a good bridge for white wine fans dipping their toes into the world of reds — even though it might take some convincing beyond visuals, as barberas are one of the darkest-colored red wines. It has a low tannin count and a floral, zesty smell that directly courts its flavor profile. Barberas contain fruity and fleshy tangs with a mildly spiced, even herbaceous finish. Typical flavor descriptions include boysenberry, anise, clove, lavender and cherry.
The best barberas complement bold main and side dishes alike, whose seasonings can shine next to its bright and sharp sips.
- Pasta with bolognese
- Sausage pizza
- Steak or tuna tartare
- Shaved truffle or truffle-oil pasta or risotto
- Seared scallops
- Roasted boar or pork
- Duck breast
- Bruschetta and Caprese salad
8. Syrah or Shiraz
This red wine is for those searching for big, bold flavors and a clean, velvet finish.
It’s an unusual combination to strike, yet syrahs consistently do — most notably through a process called cold soaking, where these extremely thick-skinned grapes get harvested and then immersed in freezing water for days, sometimes weeks, depending on the winery and their intended results. Cold soaking amplifies the sweeter berry notes of wine grapes while tempering the effects of its harsher tannins. It also helps produce syrah’s gorgeous dark magenta color and notably opaque pour.
Old-World syrahs derived from Greek or Sicilian grape ancestors contain more robust, earthy flavors like black olives, blackberries and tobacco, while New World syrahs — most reputably Australia’s world-famous Shirazes — carry forward notes of acai, cassis, black fruit jams and mocha.
Syrah makes an excellent match with the following foods:
- Barbecued chicken and spare ribs
- Slow-roasted or pulled pork
- Hamburgers and grilled sausages
- Pappardelle pasta and ragus
- Lamb or turkey shwarma
- Spicy stir-fries
- Hard cheeses like aged cheddar, Parmesan and manchego
- Miso-glazed eggplant
9. Red Zinfandel
Few wines match the bright, polished and sweet notes of a red zinfandel — or as high of an alcohol level. With grape origins that trace back to Croatia, your typical glass contains between 14 to 17 percent ABV, but can go even higher, depending on production methods and aging.
Red zinfandels are often a gateway red wine accessible for new, explorative sippers. For many, the light, fruity pops of acidity are pleasant on the palate and easy to enjoy as a solo pour, to serve during a cocktail hour or to pair with a variety of meals. And though it has a lighter body similar to a pinot, this red wine type finishes on the front of the tongue, fading from signature fruit flavors like cranberries, raspberries, figs and prunes to dryer profiles of cardamom and cinnamon or other warm spices.
The rim of a zinfandel may skew slightly blue — a telltale sign that the wine contains a higher acidity level. Likewise, its primary coloration will range from deep scarlets to the proverbial maroons and magentas you expect when you pour a glass of red wine.
Because of its distinct light sweetness, red zinfandels are a match made in heaven for ethnic foods and dishes with strong spice profiles:
- Yellow and red curries
- Pad Thai
- Fish or vegetable tempura
- Pork tonkatsu
- Fried rice
- Chorizo, Italian sausage or other spiced links
A list of the best types of red wines would be incomplete without Spain’s claim to red-wine fame. It is one of the country’s premier varietals — and a growth they’re perhaps most proud of, with Spain’s list of laws governing Tempranillo production and labeling running quite extensive.
That is in part due to Tempranillo’s highly unique flavor profile. It is one of the earthiest red wines on the market, low in lingering acidity, yet holding a bold, aromatically spiced finish many relish. Tempranillo courts a higher presence of oak than other red wines as well. Because tempranillo grapes ripen nearly two to three weeks earlier than other grape varietals, wineries can manipulate their profiles within their oak aging barrels. This process eases tempranillo’s naturally acidic nitrates and leads to the nutty and earthy finishes signature to this red wine.
A glass of tempranillo will carry flavors of green herbs, cigar smoke, vanilla and star anise. It is a warm, striking flavor profile in a deep-bodied pour that doesn’t like to fight against other tastes, preferring to be the star of the table. Pair it with rustic or classically unadorned mains:
- Grilled steak
- Cured Spanish meats
- Spaghetti and meatballs
- Corn-based dishes, like polenta
- White-bean soups and stews
- Spanish lentils
Grenaches are a final power play to round out the list of different types of red wine in this guide. A canonical varietal grown everywhere from southern France to the tips of Australia, it is popular because it checks nearly every box expected from a glass of red wine: fresh aromas, a vibrant body, complex sweet and savory flavors and a full-mouth, smooth finish.
Candied fruits and wild berries are the first notes to hit the tongue when sipping grenache. Subtle citrus, from orange peels to grapefruit, balances out these sweeter tastes. You can also expect hints of smoke and floral lavender to linger, especially for Old World varieties that grow in France, Italy and Spain — where the locals call this same red wine type garnacha.
Grenaches pour relatively smooth and semi-translucent. Not unlike a cabernet sauvignon, they’re ideal for wine drinkers seeking out a middle-of-the-road varietal, an experience that doesn’t lean too dry or too sweet, too heavy or too light.
It’s almost impossible to mispair grenache with food. A glass or two will complement most cuisines from around the world and hold up to uncommon dish matches:
- Traditional French cassoulets
- Braised or slow-cooked meats, but especially pork, veal and chicken
- Duck confit
- Fish stews, like bouillabaisse or cioppino
- Mussels and clams
- Sweet-and-sour chicken
- Shrimp and grits
- Cream-based pasta sauces
- Pub-food classics, like burgers, fries and pot pies
- Roasted or grilled veggies, especially cauliflower and zucchini
- French onion soup