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Syrah, cabernet, zinfandel are red grape varieties. This page describes wine styles by variety and production area.
If only one variety (merlot, cabernet sauvignon) is mentioned on the label, then the wine is called varietal and is named after the grape with a capital initial (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon). Varietal wines primarily show the fruit: how the wine tastes much depends on the grape variety.
Syrah (or Shiraz)
(Sah-ra or Shi-raz) Syrah and shiraz are two names for the same variety. Europe vintners only use the name syrah.
Food pairings: meat (steak, beef, wild game, stews, etc.)
Districts: syrah excels in California, in Australia, and in France’s Rhone Valley.
Typical taste in varietal wine: aromas and flavors of wild black fruit (such as blackcurrant), with overtones of black pepper spice and roasting meat. The abundance of fruit sensations is often complemented by warm alcohol and gripping tannins.
Toffee notes if present come not from the fruit but from the wine having rested in oak barrels.
The shiraz variety gives hearty, spicy reds. While shiraz is used to produce many average wines it can produce some of the world’s finest, deepest, and darkest reds with intense flavors and excellent longevity. You’ll discover Syrahs of value and elegance by reading my reviews of French wines.
(Mare-lo) Easy to drink. The softness of Merlot has made it an “introducing” wine for new red-wine drinkers.
Food pairings: any will do.
Districts: a key player in the Bordeaux blend, merlot is now also grown in Italy, Romania, California, Washington State, Chile, Australia, etc. It is the fourth wine grape variety in terms of coverage worldwide (after sultanine blanche, airen blanc, and grenache noir).
Typical taste in varietal wine: typical scents include blackcherry, plums and herbal flavors. The texture is round but a middle palate gap is common. The Merlot type of wine is less tannic (rough) than Cabernet Sauvignon.
(Ca-burr-nay so-veen-yaw) Widely accepted as one of the world’s best varieties. Cabernet sauvignon is often blended with cabernet franc and merlot. It usually undergoes oak treatment.
Food pairings: best with simply prepared red meat.
Districts: cabernet sauvignon is planted wherever red wine grapes grow except in the Northern fringes such as Germany. It is part of the great red Médoc wines of France, and among the finest reds in Australia, California and Chile.
Typical taste in varietal wine: full-bodied, but firm and grippingwhen young.
With age, polyphenols polymerize: the grip fades away. The rich currant qualities of the Cabernet Sauvignon wine change to that of pencil box. Bell pepper notes remain.
Another article deals with the health benefits of polyphenols.
Vanilla notes if present come not from the fruit but from the oak treatment. They increase review ratings but may overwhelm the varietal taste.
Food pairings: all types of meat-based meals, foie gras. Argentine Malbec suits Mexican, Cajun, and Indian dishes, if you insist on having wine with such meals.
Districts: malbec has its origins in the French Bordeaux region. It is grown as côt in the Loire Valley and auxerrois in Cahors. Malbec has also been recognized as médoc noir or pressac again in France. Malbec is widely grown in Argentina, where it is the most popular red grape variety. It is also available in Chile, in Australia, and in the cooler regions of California.
Typical taste in varietal wine: malbec’s characteristics vary greatly depending on where it is grown and how it is transformed. Generally it produces an easy-drinking style, well colored wine that tastes of plums, berries, and spice.
Malbec is often blended with other varieties such as cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and petit verdot to make Bordeaux style wines. Malbec and some such blends may present some health benefits.
(Pee-know na-wahr) One of the noblest red wine grapes. Pinot noir is difficult to grow, rarely blended, with no roughness.
Food pairings: excellent with grilled salmon, chicken, lamb and Japanese dishes (notably sushi rolls).
Districts: makes the great reds of Burgundy (from Bourgogne, France), and good wines from Austria, California, Oregon, and New Zealand.
Typical taste in varietal wine: very unlike Cabernet Sauvignon. The structure is delicate and fresh. The tannins are very soft; this is related to the low level of polyphenols. The aromatics are very fruity(cherry, strawberry, plum), often with notes of tea-leaf, damp earth, or worn leather.
Yet pinot noir is very transparent to the place where it is grown. The staggering range of wines produced makes it pointless to define which personality is the best expression of the variety.
(Zin-fan-dell) Perhaps the world’s most versatile wine grape, making everything from blush wine (White Zinfandel), to rich, heavy reds.
Food pairings: very much depends on the freshness/heaviness of the wine; tomato-sauce pasta, pizza, and grilled and barbecued meats.
Districts: mainly found in California, zinfandel originates from Italy (where it is called primitivo).
Typical taste in varietal wine: often a zesty flavor with berry and pepper.
Food pairings: a good choice for Italian and other Mediterranean-style cuisines.
Districts: sangiovese produces the Chiantis of Italy’s Tuscany region and, of late, good wines from California.
Typical taste in varietal wine: the primary style is medium-bodied with fresh berry and plum flavors.
(Bar-bear-a) Not as popular as Merlot but with similar attributes.
Food pairings: barbera wines are versatile: they match many dishes, including tomato sauces.
Districts: another classic red of Italian origin. Widespread in California.
Typical taste in varietal wine: juicy black cherry and plum fruit, a silky texture and excellent acidity. You may wish to read tasting notes of Barberas at La Spinetta.
Thank you for bearing with me. You may be interested in related articles:
- A primer explains the basics of matching wine with food.
- Another article recommends which types and districts to buy from.
- A primer on organizing wine tasting parties.