What is the Difference Between the Major Red Wine Varietals?

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Answered by: Ginger, An Expert in the About Red Wines Category
Buying wine can be a daunting task. Whether you're in the grocery aisle of your favorite purveyor, a fine dining restaurant with business associates, or in a crowded and noisy bar with your date, choosing wine for yourself or others can cause beads of sweat to form on your brow. It's at once intimidating, confusing, and overwhelming. Panic attack, here we come! But buying wine doesn't have to be so scary. You just need to know a few basics.



To keep it basic, let's stick with American red wine varietals. Foreign wines and appellation codes are for another time. This is your crash course to ordering drinkable wine! Now, let's pretend you ask your date the first basic question, which is "red or white?". This is a great place to start. Your date replies, "red." Now, let's talk red wine varietals, which translates to "different kinds of grapes used for making wine." If you want to impress your date, say "varietal." Instant points scored.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Often referred to as "The King of Red Varietals," Cab packs a decent, full-bodied punch. Cabs are most commonly a dry, full-bodied red wine, with earthy, woodsy, and fruity flavor profiles. Think of cherries and blackberries, with some mushroom. Most Cabs are aged for a certain amount of time in oak barrels, which can lend complexity and notes of vanilla or mocha. Cabernet Sauvignon goes awesomely with steak and BBQ. Yes, bring a bottle to your next BBQ!



Zinfandel: When people hear Zinfandel, they often think of the intensely sweet, pink variety. Well, White Zinfandel is not Zinfandel. Zinfandel grapes create a full-bodied, dry or off-dry, intensely fruity wine. Think plums, dark berries, and cocoa. Also, oftentimes there will be some delightful tobacco notes, or a certain smokiness. Zinfandels may also be aged in oak barrels. Zinfandels get along famously with venison, duck, or other game meats. Also, if you are so inclined, this is the wine to drink with that cigar you've had squirreled away for just the right occasion.

Merlot: Merlot is a wonderful varietal, and makes up for in subtlety what it lacks in punchiness. Merlot is typically dry and medium to full-bodied, with silky tannins and soft, dark fruit flavors. Merlot is easy drinking, and it's subtle spicyness goes perfectly with a crackling fire and a nice, warm blanket. Also, some lamb chops wouldn't be bad...

Pinot Noir: Pinot Noir is dry and medium to light-bodied. Often, Pinot Noir has some interesting earthy and mineral characteristics, as well as the ever present cherry, strawberry, and fruit flavors. Pinot Noir is a notoriously fickle grape to grow, and as a result is often a fairly pricey buy. Beware of cheap Pinot Noir!

There are, of course, many other red varietals to choose from, and all of them deserving your attention. However, these four common grapes are a good place to start, and simplify an intimidating mission: ordering a glass of wine. So, now that you've chosen a wine, raise your glass, enjoy your company, and have a good time!

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