Last week I looked at six of the most popular white grape varieties; this week seven of the most widely available red (or black) grapes. Some European regions prefer to leave the variety off the label, although many print them on the back label. Once you work out your favourite grape variety, buying a bottle of wine will become so much easier.
Often grown alongside Cabernet Sauvignon (or its cousin cabernet franc) in Bordeaux, Merlot provides the soft ripe fruit to provide balance to the other more tannic varieties. It appears in virtually every wine from Bordeaux, although you will rarely see it on the label. It is also grown in Italy (where it is often blended with Sangiovese), Chile and California. So, if you are looking for an easy-drinking, fruity red wine, Merlot is a good choice.
Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the world’s great grapes, and a key ingredient in many of the top wines of Bordeaux, including the likes of Châteaux Mouton-Rothschild and Latour. Cabernet is often called structured which means dry and tannic. The best wines, often challenging when young, will mature for decades. As well as Bordeaux, high quality cabernet is produced in the Napa Valley in California, Chile and Australia. Cool climate Cabernet typically has blackberry, plum and redcurrant fruits; those from a warmer climate are richer and more alcoholic with cassis and ripe dark fruits. Chile and Bordeaux both produce a large quantity of good value inexpensive Cabernets or Cab/Merlot blends. Cabernet goes very well with roast lamb, beef or dishes containing red peppers.
In the Northern Rhône in France, where it is the sole red grape, Syrah usually produces scented, elegant yet deeply flavoured wines with savoury dark fruits. The best-known names are Hermitage and Côte Rôtie but wines like Crozes-Hermitage and St Joseph are more affordable. In Australia, where Shiraz (they are the same grape) has been grown for 150 years or more, the wines tend to be heady and powerful with rich dark fruits, spice and dark chocolate. The Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale are the best known regions but there are plenty of others too. The Aussie style is great with barbecued red meats and stews.
Pinot Noir, currently very fashionable, is the red grape of Burgundy. Elsewhere in France it can be found in Champagne, Alsace and parts of the Loire Valley, notably Sancerre. It is widely grown in Germany, and in parts of California, Oregon, Chile, New Zealand, Chile and South Africa, generally in cooler regions. Pinot Noir has thin skins, so the wines are often pale in colour. It is susceptible to disease and won’t produce high yields, so it is not easy to grow. The wines vary hugely in flavour (even from field to field), depending on where it is grown, but the best have a wonderful fragrance, sweet ripe raspberry, red or dark cherry fruits, sometimes a little undergrowth, and a silky smoothness that makes them irresistible.
Tempranillo is one of the two great red grapes of Spain, the other being Garnacha. It is planted all over the country and a little in neighbouring Portugal too. It is best known as a major ingredient in the wines of Rioja, and frequently the sole grape in Ribera del Duero, two of Spain’s great wine regions. Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero (and neighbouring Toro) tends to be big and powerful with rich dark fruits. In Rioja, where it is often blended with Garnacha and a few other grapes, it tends to be lighter with piquant red cherry fruits, taking on notes of leather and tobacco leaf with age. Some can have vanilla spice from oak-ageing.
Garnacha in Spain, Grenache in France, Cannonau in Sardinia; they are all the same grape. Long dismissed as an inferior variety best suited for blends, Garnacha is enjoying a spell in the limelight. You will rarely see it on the label in France but in the southern Rhône it is a major ingredient in most red wines, including Gigondas and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It is widely grown in Spain, including Rioja, Sardinia, and parts of Australia. All of these regions are fortunate to have a stock of very old vines capable of producing exquisite wines. Garnacha tends to be pale in colour, high in alcohol (often 14.5-16% abv) and have few tannins.
Sangiovese is the most widely planted red grape in Italy and also one of the finest. Its only rival is Nebbiolo, the grape variety used to make Barolo and Barbaresco. Throughout the country, Sangiovese is used to make light, tart wines with savoury plum fruits. In the Tuscany region in central Italy, it is the primary ingredient in two of the great wines of Italy, Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino, as well as other lesser wines. Sangiovese has sweet/sour morello cherries, sometimes earthy or leathery notes, good acidity and drying tannins.