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2. Red grape varieties

By Mark Andrew

There are thousands of different grape varieties used to make red wine around the world. Here, I will cover just the handful that are globally recognised.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Perhaps the noblest of all red grapes is Cabernet Sauvignon, the stalwart of classic Bordeaux claret and the star of some of the new world’s best wines in California’s Napa Valley and Australia’s Koonawara. Many of the world’s most expensive and age-worthy wines are Cabernet based. On the nose & palate, Cab is reminiscent of dark fruits such as blackcurrants, blackberries and mulberries. In the new world it tends to be big and fruity with plenty of power, whereas in its homeland of Bordeaux it tends to be more elegant and balanced while retaining a full body.

Merlot

Merlot is Cab’s main partner in Bordeaux, where these two varieties sit alongside Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot & Malbec as the grapes permitted to make red Bordeaux wine. Silky smooth in texture and with a similar taste profile to Cab (dark fruits – although often plums in the case of Merlot), it is seen as the perfect partner for the fuller bodied, more austere Cabernet Sauvignon grape.

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is at home in Burgundy, where the variety is used to make almost all of its red wines. Pinot is a different beast to most other red grapes and is capable of producing complex wines of staggering finesse. It is very temperamental and needs exactly the right growing conditions to flourish. This is why the succulent raspberries, strawberries and ‘sous bois’ of great Burgundy is so hard to replicate elsewhere. New Zealand (Martinborough and Central Otago) and USA (Oregon and California) have seen excellent results with this most difficult of grapes and are consistently producing fantastic value Pinot Noirs.

Syrah

Syrah and Shiraz are the same grape variety, although one name refers to the old world expression (Syrah) and the other is the type grown in the new world (Shiraz). Syrah is a spicier, meatier and generally more savoury approach to the grape, while Shiraz tends to be a little sweeter and fruit-driven – often making big wines that are referred to as ‘Blockbusters’. Both styles are dominated by blackcurrant and plum fruit, joined on the palate by a gentle peppery character and a meatiness that is sometimes referred to as ‘bacon fat’. The world’s best Syrahs originate in France’s Rhône Valley, whereas Australia’s Barossa Valley is the spiritual home of Shiraz.

Grenache

Another variety from Southern France that has excelled elsewhere (particularly Spain and Australia) is Grenache. When cropped to low yields in the right climate (hot and dry), Grenache gives wines full of berry fruit and a savoury component that becomes meatier and earthier with age. High sugar levels often lead to high alcohol, which in turn produces full-bodied wines like those from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where Grenache is the dominant variety in the blend.

Tempranillo

Tempranillo, the major player in Spanish wines, is a rich and fruity variety that is packed full of berry flavours. While it goes by its international name in Rioja, it appears in other Spanish regions under local names like Tinto del País (Ribera del Duero) or Tinta de Toro (Toro). It takes perfectly to the Spanish tradition of aging wines for many years in American oak and is often blended (especially in Rioja) with the Grenache/Garnacha grape, although it has recently been getting quite a reputation for itself as a standalone variety.

Sangiovese

Tuscany’s very own Sangiovese is the foundation of Italy’s famous Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino wines. It is usually a fruity grape, with flavours of red cherries and strawberries. It is also highly tannic and quite high in acidity (as are many Italian grapes), and can therefore produce wines with good ‘grip’ that are perfect to accompany food.

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