Red Wine for Beginners (Everything You Need to Know)
From the eclectic green pastures of France to the golden hills of Italy, you’ll find a variety of red wines – from light to bold – on your table. Red wine can vary greatly in taste, body, color, aroma, and overall experience they provide.
Finding the right wine for the right occasion takes some skill. It’s easy to assume that you can pair a Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage, or Merlot with anything. But differences in region, climate, and vintage create nuances in wines that add an extra layer to finding the perfect wine for any occasion.
Our breakdown of red wines focuses on the essentials – grape variety, growing season, body, origin, and more – helping those who want to refine their wine collection or find the perfect red wine for any meal to bridge the gap.
- What is Red Wine?
- Red Wine Characteristics
- Red Wine Varietals
- Red Wine’s Ageability
- How Should Red Wine Be Served?
- How is Red Wine Made?
- History of Red Wine
What is Red Wine?
Red wine is a wine made from dark-skinned grapes. It differs from white or rosé wine not only in the type of grapes used but also in the method of production. There is a persistent rumor that you sleep better after a glass of wine in the evening.
Before you enjoy a nightcap with your overnight guests, be aware that this rule does not apply to everyone. To ensure that no one is tossing and turning sleeplessly in the guest bed, a reasonable amount of time should have passed between the last glass and bedtime.
However, with the help of food, you can easily support relaxed sleep. A major discovery in the search for the reasons behind red wine’s health benefits has been polyphenols. Among other things, they have anti-inflammatory and cancer-preventing effects (1).
Flavonoids and anthocyanins protect the body’s cells from free radicals and slow cell oxidation. They reduce fatty deposits in blood vessels, preventing the hardening of the arteries. But there are many other health-promoting substances in red wine.
Red Wine Characteristics
Numerous red wine varieties, varietal wines, and cuvées characterize the world of red delights. But the potential of these wines is far from exhausted. Today, winemakers around the world are free to use a variety of methods to give their wine an individual character.
Some questions, therefore, run through the modern reality of red wine. Aged in steel tanks or in oak? Made from dried or fresh grapes? Fermented on the skins for a short or long time?
The red wine taste spectrum ranges from vanilla to tobacco to dark chocolate. Many drops reveal notes of red or black forest berries and cherries, others also hold cinnamon and licorice.
Even violet blossoms are a welcome guest in some red wines. Furthermore, there is the question of the basic character of such a drop. There are light, medium-bodied red wines and full-bodied red wines with a dry to sweet profile.
Red Wine Varietals
There are many different types of red wine. The number is enormous. And everyone who deals with this pleasure quickly realizes: not all red wine is the same.
From sweet and fruity red wine to low tannin wines and low acid red wines, practically anything is possible. An excursion into the world of red wines.
Light-Bodied Red Wine
One of the most important red wine characteristics of this style of wine is not the lack of color, but the very mild or even low tannin wines (little astringency or furry feeling on the tongue). In return, the wines often have a nice primary fruit note, appear juicy, and sometimes almost grapey.
Pinot Noir is considered one of the noblest red wine varieties in the world. Classically, the grape variety is mainly found in cooler wine-growing regions such as French Burgundy or Germany, where it is then known as Pinot Noir or Pinot Noir. Pinot noir is also used as a blend for champagne.
In wine, however, Pinot Noir is almost always a red wine varietal. Even though Pinot Noir is considered difficult to grow – the vine is susceptible to diseases and the grape skins are thin – the variety is popular, which is mainly due to the taste quality and the lush red wine flavors that are made from it.
Traditional red wine grape of the Beaujolais, from which mostly light, hearty-fruity, but also some full-bodied wines are won. These always come from the sites Beaujolais Cru like Brouilly, Morgon, Chiroubles, Fleurie or Moulin-à-Vent. The latter can age for a few years, while the former must be drunk rather young due to it being a red wine low in tannins.
In addition, Gamay is grown in the Loire, where it is mainly used for simple table wines. There are also larger Gamay growing areas in Switzerland. In California, this red wine varietal is becoming more and more popular.
Lambrusco is a sparkling, fruity red wine produced mainly in the area around Modena, Parma, and Reggio nell’Emilia.
The wines are made from Lambrusco or with a small proportion of Ancellot grapes to enhance the color (the grape variety is therefore sometimes called Rossissimo because of its distinctive dark red color).
The wines are made both dry (up to 15 g/l of residual sugar) and sweet (about 40 to 50 g/l of residual sugar) and exported in large quantities. A Lambrusco should be drunk young.
Probably originating from Alsace, today only found in Austria and occasionally in Germany. This variety has low demands on the soil, guarantees good yields, and, at its best, produces a delicate, acidic, fruity red wine, but often bland and inexpressive red wine.
Medium-Bodied Red Wine
Similar to white wine, in this medium-bodied red wines group, you will find a fairly wide range of different red wines from a wide variety of origins.
What they have in common is a medium to strong fruitiness, often with noticeable red wine tannins, fine spiciness, yet not too heavy and sometimes even elegant.
The Merlot grape presents a heterogeneous picture. On the one hand, it is a high-yielding variety which, if no quantity-limiting measures are taken, yields simple farm wines.
On the other hand, it is used to make some of the world’s greatest red wines: those from St-Emilion and above all from Pomerol, in particular, the legendary Château Petrus and Le Pin.
On the clay and sandy soils that predominate in this part of Bordeaux, it produces ruby red, fleshy wines of great quality. However, they make low tannin wines, lower acidity, and longevity than the wines of Cabernet Sauvignon, but a higher alcohol gradation.
Their red wine flavors resemble that of Cabernet wines in their youth, with sweet, malty notes coming to the fore instead of tart, aristocratic austerity. The oldest evidence suggests that Merlot may have originated in the area of St-Emilion and Pomerol (2).
Likely to be a mutation of Cabernet Sauvignon, but more of a basic red wine. Therefore, the red wine varietal is used mainly for blending with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Five to fifteen percent Cabernet Franc gives Bordeaux its piquant spice.
High-quality wines from this variety exist only in St-Emilion, good ones in the lower Loire (Bourgueil, Chinon, Anjou-Villages, Champigny). In northern Italy, it was confused with the Carmenére for decades.
Today it is hardly represented there. In the wine-growing countries of the New World, it is almost only cultivated as a complementary vine.
However, the most typical and characterful wine is always a red Zinfandel. The variety is almost exclusively cultivated in California. There, it is used to produce some high-class, noble red wines, but also numerous consumer wines that Americans drink with ice cubes.
White Zinfandel is a sweet Zinfandel. The Zinfandel vine is probably descended from the Italian Primitivo -vine, which is grown in large quantities in Apulia and from which simple, plain table wine blends, as well as sweet, fortified liqueur wines, are produced.
Distinctive red wine variety from Piedmont, usually fermented as a varietal and producing well-known wines such as Barbera d’Asti and Barbera d’Alba. It was first mentioned in 1799 as vitis vinifera Monferratensis.
Today it is grown almost everywhere in Italy, for example in Oltrepò Pavese, Franciacorta, Valpolicella, Trentino, Emilia-Romagna, and southern Italy.
Even in California, there are Barbera vines today. Barbera wines are characterized by low tannin wines and high acidity. The variety, if not pruned back, tends to produce mass yields, so many simple and basic red wines are made from it.
Full-Bodied Red Wine
A much-appreciated style of wine. Thick red wine, rather dry, often with distinct tannins in combination with ripe fruit notes.
Good representatives of this style are multilayered, contain more or less intense notes of aging in small oak barrels (usually the classic 225l barrique barrel) and are well balanced despite their power.
However, strength and a high alcohol content do not always automatically equate to “good”. We place particular emphasis on ensuring that the wines we select are as harmonious and balanced as possible.
Old red grape variety that produces high quality, dark red wines, long-lived wines due to its low yields and high tannin content, and is therefore cultivated in many parts of the world.
The aroma is reminiscent of blackcurrants, cedar, and black pepper. However, Cabernet Sauvignon wines impress less by the variety than by the fineness and fullness of their aromas.
When the grape variety can fully ripen, it produces multilayered types of red wines rich in tannins. As a late-ripening variety, it must be grown in warm locations so that the wine does not taste grassy or like green pepper.
The grapes are medium-sized and densely packed with dark blue, thick-skinned berries. Today, Bordeaux is considered the original home of the Cabernet Sauvignon, but the Médoc in particular, with its pebbly, water-permeable soils, has also been increasingly cultivated in the south and southwest in recent years.
The variety has also become very fashionable in Italy and Spain. The largest growing areas are in California, Chile, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Cabernet Sauvignon is almost always blended with other red wine varieties.
Formerly very popular, now in decline because of its yield uncertainty (it tends to trickle), this red wine variety produces dark red wines which are tannin-rich.
The best known Malbec is the Cahors from the southwest of France. There, the red wine varietal is blended with other red wine types to make the “black wine of Cahors”.
In former times, it was cultivated a lot in Bordeaux, today, it is only contained in a few wines to a small extent – for instance in some growths from the Graves region.
One of the noblest red wine varieties in the world, particularly at home in the Rhône. More or less varietal Syrah wines are the majestic Hermitage, the more elegant Côte Rôtie, the lighter St-Joseph and Cornas and the red Crozes-Hermitage.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape and other southern Rhône wines also contain Syrah. They are all dark red wines in color, strong in tannins, and have bittersweet, spicy berry red wine flavors.
Whether the grape variety originated in the Rhône or was brought there by traders from the city of Shiraz in Persia is unclear.
In Australia, it is called Shiraz and is, besides the Cabernet Sauvignon, the most common red wine variety.
Medium-bodied red wines of not very clear origin also called Durif in California. What is certain is that it has nothing to do with the true Syrah. It is cultivated in the hot San Loaquin Valley, but also in the cooler Monterey District. Has proven to be a blending variety for Zinfandel and Pinot Noir.
Red Wine’s Ageability
It is difficult to make a general statement about which wines are suitable for aging. Because even if certain red wine varieties have better or worse conditions for ripening, it is difficult to establish a rule of thumb.
Moreover, there are enough counter-examples where very long-lived wines are produced from less ripe grape varieties by modern, partly very elaborate methods in the production process.
There is a study in which an innovative technique has been developed to use an electric field ( AC ) on a pilot scale to accelerate the aging of Cabernet Sauvignon wines.
The application of an electric field of 600 V/cm – 3 minutes ensures that hard and sharp wines become harmonious and delicate wines (3).
Even with red wines, it is not only the initial quality that is decisive but also the grape variety. Thus, a French Gamay usually stands for immediate drinking pleasure.
The popular Beaujolais Nouveau wines are a good example of this. With red wines from the grape varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah or Nebbiolo the signs are already clearly different.
This results in many wines that are known for their good maturation and long shelf life. French wine drinkers even have their own term for these wines: They call them “Vins de Garde” – wines to keep.
That said, it’s fair to say that white wines, in general, are less destined to age for years in the cellar. For example, a Portuguese Vinho Verde or a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc should be considered an immediately drinkable wine, synonymous with freshness and drinking pleasure.
Quite different from a high-quality Chardonnay from Burgundy, which may have been aged for many months in new, small wooden barrels.
How Should Red Wine Be Served?
The red wine basics, and a general rule of thumb when buying the right wine glasses is actually quite simple: the stronger and perhaps younger a red wine is, the better it does in a tall glass with a large volume.
For lighter, red wine flavors, thick red wine brings more oxygen contact and makes the wine seem more intense. This also applies to white wines, except that the glasses are slightly smaller overall.
And with sparkling wines, it should be noted that a glass also has an influence on the “behavior” of carbonic acid. But the right choice of glass is also a question of experience, not something you’ll learn in red wine for beginners!
Bordeaux glass: for strong and dark red wines.
The voluminous volume gives the wine the necessary freedom to develop. The shape supports the typical characteristics of great wine with a wide surface and a high chimney. Powerful, with high concentration, the red wines low in tannins bind with the fruit through the wine level.
The fragrance molecules condense in the closing glass chimney and unfold expressively over the rim of the goblet. A Bordeaux glass is suitable, for example, for wines from the following regions and grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Nebbiolo, Médoc, Margaux, Pauillac, Barossa Valley, and Mendoza.
Burgundy glass: for aromatic, fruity red wines.
It’s not just a Pinot Noir or Pinot Noir that impresses with lots of fruit and subtle facets of red wine flavors that demand a slightly bulkier glass to develop well. Grape varieties such as Barbera, Blaufrankisch, or Gamay also go well with this type of glass.
Serving red wines at room temperature is a red wine basic know-how, but it’s old and dates back to the days when homes tended to be cool, even in summer.
Strong, thick red wines taste best at 18°C, 19°C at the most, while temperatures between 16°C and 18°C are suitable for most other red wines.
Lighter wines can also tolerate lower temperatures between 14 and 16 °C. A very young Beaujolais, a light Vernatsch, or very fruity red wines, for example, can also be enjoyed at 12 to 14 °C.
If this is too complicated for you, you can follow the following red wine 101: Enjoy expensive red wines at 18°C, all others at 16, at most 18°C.
Temperatures above 20°C should be avoided if possible. Depending on the ambient temperature, it is, therefore, advisable to pour less rather than more.
If you have already chosen the wine and do not yet know what you want to serve, you can use this small wine list as a guide, but be careful, each wine has its own subtle flavours!
- Merlot: beef, game, stews, wild fowl, hard cheese
- Tempranillo: lamb, tapas, Minced dishes, vegetables.
- Shiraz/Syrah: game, lamb, goat, spicy sauces and vegetables.
- Sangiovese: pasta dishes, grilled vegetables and meat, game.
- Cabernet Sauvignon: game, lamb, beef, minced dishes, very spicy vegetables dishes.
- Pinot Noir: wild fowl, stews, well-seasoned fish, blue cheeses, soft white cheeses.
- Beaujolais: fried chicken.
- Barbera/Dolcetto: pizza, pasta.
- Chianti Classico: all rounder – goes well with many dishes.
How is Red Wine Made?
The essential steps in winemaking after the grape harvest are maceration, fermentation, pressing, aging, fining, and bottling.
The fundamental difference in the production of red and white wine is that fermentation takes place before pressing in the case of red wine and after pressing in the case of white wine.
All the steps and treatment processes mentioned below are permissible under wine law and food law. However, not all measures have to be applied, because some are to the detriment of the red wine flavors, the fineness, the depth, and the balance of the wine.
Harvesting and processing
The time of harvest depends on the ripeness of the grapes, the weather conditions, and the type of wine desired. How quickly the grapes ripen depends on the red wine variety and the weather during the year and especially in autumn.
The grapes for Praedikat wines require a higher must weight and must therefore remain on the vine for a particularly long time. Harvesting is done either by hand or with the help of machines (harvesters).
Mechanical harvesting can be done very quickly and with less manpower, which is usually economical and, in the case of unstable or bad weather at harvest time, also a very practical advantage, which can then even save the wine quality. After the red wine grapes have been cut off the vine, they are brought to the winery quickly and as undamaged as possible.
During fermentation, yeasts convert sugars from grapes into alcohol and carbon dioxide, producing heat. Yeasts are already present in natural form in the must.
When these natural yeasts are used to ferment the must, it is called spontaneous fermentation.
However, this type of fermentation is fraught with uncertainty, as the natural yeasts may not be strong enough to complete the fermentation, or may form undesirable chemical compounds that can affect the flavor of the wine or even be harmful to health.
Therefore, the natural yeasts are often killed by sterilizing the must and then fermentation is carried out in a controlled manner with pure culture yeasts.
There are various technologies for the actual pressing process. What they all have in common is that mechanical pressure is applied to the mash, thus separating the juice from the solids.
These are then left behind as pomace. Basically, a distinction is made between vertical and horizontal presses; concrete examples are tree or basket presses, screw presses, screw presses, tube presses as well as pneumatic presses, which allow a particularly fine regulation of the pressure.
After pressing, the young wine is first re-sulphurised to prevent oxidation and then clarified.
Clarification is carried out either by simply leaving the must to settle at the bottom of the tank or by biochemical and/or physical processes such as the addition of enzymes, filtration, or centrifugation.
The aging of the red wines, i.e. the maturation after fermentation and pressing, takes place in most cases in stainless steel tanks or in large or small wooden barrels.
Other types of storage are concrete tanks or – rarely – amphorae (whereby here the fermentation usually already takes place in the amphora and the maturation is predominantly oxidative).
Aging in stainless steel tanks leads to reductive, fresh, and fruity wines. Maturation in large wooden barrels leads to smoother, full-bodied wines, as the constant minimal air supply through the wooden walls causes micro-oxidation, which also makes the wine more durable.
In addition to this effect, the small wooden barrel (barrique) also has the property that it releases toasted and smoky aromas as well as additional tannins into the wine; this makes the wine spicier and more complex.
When wines are aged in wooden barrels (especially barriques), malolactic fermentation (BSA) often takes place as well.
This process is often referred to as malolactic fermentation but is carried out by lactic acid bacteria rather than yeasts.
These convert the strong malic acid into milder lactic acid, making the wine smoother and rounder.
BSA is generally desired in red wines and can also be actively initiated by the targeted addition of lactic acid bacteria if it does not occur on its own.
The red wine knowledge term “bottling” means transferring a wine from one container to another. This can be done from tank to barrel, from barrel to barrel, and from barrel to tank.
Decanting can be done for a variety of purposes. It all depends on where we are in the wine-making process. The first racking generally occurs shortly after the initial fermentation of sugar to alcohol is complete.
This is when the wine is separated from the skins, seeds, dead yeast cells, and other particles that settle to the bottom of the tank.
Red wine is usually put into a barrel during this racking process. Red wines are also decanted on other occasions during the aging process. This depends entirely on the preferences of the winemaker and the grape variety.
In addition to sulfites, there are other substances used in the preservation of wine, such as histamine and tannin. The tannin in red wine acts as a stabilizer and preservative, which is why a smaller amount of sulfites is needed in red wine than in white wine.
Another natural way of preserving wine is called malolactic fermentation, a process in which malic acid (unstable to pressure and temperature changes) is chemically converted to lactic acid (stable) by the action of bacteria such as those found naturally in milk or even in the fruit itself.
The main effect is a reduction in acidity. Without the use of these preservatives – and especially without sulphites – the wine has a very short life (about 6 months).
Filtration and bottling
After the final filtration and the final sulphurization – which are not necessary if the wine is ready for bottling immediately after stabilization, which includes both measures – the wine is bottled.
In red wine basics, sterility is particularly important to avoid contamination that can lead to post-B gout in the bottle.
For this reason, bottling is usually done under inert gas (nitrogen or carbon dioxide). Sometimes hot bottling takes place, where the wine is heated to 55 °C during bottling to kill germs. However, this process can affect the red wine flavors.
History of Red Wine
In red wine 101, how long the red wine, or early forms of these drops, existed is not quite clear. What is certain, however, is that grapes were fermented into alcohol as early as ancient times and ancient Egypt.
As a remedy and for enjoyment, red wine has already played a role for Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians. Finally, in the Middle Ages, the monasteries and churches adopted wine and promoted its cultivation throughout Europe.
Red wine as a symbol of the blood of Christ undoubtedly played a role in this. In the end, however, it also turned out that wine was a good source of income.
Healthy vines soon grew on the vineyards cultivated by the church, and after wars and other catastrophes such as the phylloxera crisis, they no longer belonged only to the monasteries.
Today, winegrowers all over the world produce red wines. They deal with regionally typical red wine types and terroirs and sometimes create wines that become the flagship for entire regions. From varietal wines to cuvées, red wine is an integral part of the modern world of enjoyment.
What is red wine made of?
Wine is fermented grape juice. Red wine gets its individual and distinctive character precisely from the balanced interplay of alcohol, sweetness, acidity, minerals, and tannins.
What is the best way to drink red wine?
Hold the glass against the light and admire its color. Swirl, and after smelling the wine take a small sip. Keep it in your mouth for a bit, savoring the different red wine flavors.
How many types of red wine are there?
With more than a thousand grape varieties used to make wine, it’s probably no surprise that there are so many different types of red wine.
Which type of red wine is best?
The largest production area for quality red wines is the French Bordeaux. Cabernet Sauvignon produces historically, award-winning and outstanding red wines in the region.
What’s the difference between red wines?
Red wine varieties vary in a number of different ways. Each variety has a different red wine flavor profile resulting from a variety of factors that influence the final expression.
What makes red wine unique?
Thanks to the concentration of tannin, phenols, and aromas, it tolerates aging in wooden barrels better and can usually develop positively through storage, better than whites.