Red Wine 101: The 9 grapes you need to know

A small portion of the book collection available at Henry & Son Liquor in Minneapolis' North Loop // Photo by Daniel Murphy

A small portion of the book collection available at Henry & Son Liquor in Minneapolis’ North Loop // Photo by Daniel Murphy

In the late 1970s, a historic pinot noir winery in Oregon had to make cabernet sauvignon from purchased grapes just to pay the bills because, at the time, no one was buying Oregon pinot. They hated doing it because it felt like selling out. But having had the opportunity to taste one of those cabs from the ‘70s, it proves that a wine is a reflection of its maker, because I found the wine is wonderfully well-made, balanced, and long-lived. Without “selling out” and making that wine, the founding winery of the Willamette Valley might not have survived to see the rise and success of Oregon pinot noir today. Business isn’t sexy, but it’s a reality.

So remember, when you explore the wide world of red wine, don’t let a bottle you don’t like make you biased against a grape at large.


Pinot Noir grapes from the Anderson Valley region of Mendocino County, California - a popular American Viticultural Area // Photo by Naotake Murayama, Flickr

Pinot Noir grapes from the Anderson Valley region of Mendocino County, California – a popular American Viticultural Area // Photo by Naotake Murayama, Flickr

“Pinot noir is kinda light and weak…”

If all you drink is 16% ABV zinfandel or cabernet, then yes—yes it is. And it will never be big enough for you, not even when picked at its latest and slathered in oak. The comparison I use is bodybuilding versus yoga. One requires a lot of external manipulation, the other relies on core strength, flexibility and balance. It’s not always about size and power.

Pinot noir is the grape you start with because it can be light and fruity, then leave to sow your oats with bigger and flashier grapes but come back to in the end because it ages so well and becomes incredibly beautiful. It’s transparent to where it’s from and can take on a multitude of forms—it’s the backbone of Champagne, Burgundy, Oregon, and a good portion of California’s wine industry—and as one of the oldest varieties is the progenitor of hundreds of grapes (chief examples: pinot gris/grigio and chardonnay, among many others). When a conversation of classic grapes starts, pinot leads the way.

The downside? It’s Goldilocks in the vineyard (can’t be too wet, too dry, too hot, too cold…) and good pinot costs money as a result. Cheap pinot? Life’s too short for that watery junk. That makes it hard to explore, but if you do you’ll find an extremely food-friendly and versatile wine that can be your friend for life.

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Sommelier Perspective: As much as I love Burgundies, I mostly love it when someone else is paying for them; the good stuff is horribly expensive after a decade of poor weather and lean harvests. For my money, the Willamette Valley in Oregon and the “New California” winemakers of the Sonoma Coast area are some of my favorites and featured prominently on lists I managed. However, if you want something juicier and more plush I also love the pinots from Santa Barbara County, particularly Sta. Rita Hills. Want to really have some fun? Try pinot from Germany, Alsace or the Otago region of New Zealand.

Regions for Pinot Noir:

Burgundy, Alsace (France); Pfalz, Ahr (Germany); Central Otago (New Zealand); Tasmania, Yarra Valley (Australia); Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Cape South Coast (South Africa); Patagonia (Argentina); Valle de Malleco, Casablanca (Chile); Willamette Valley (Oregon); Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, Anderson Valley, Santa Barbara County (California)


Gamay Grapes from France // Photo courtesy WCS Blog

Gamay Grapes from France // Photo courtesy WCS Blog

“Gamay is…huh?”

Beaujolais. But don’t jump to conclusions because of the candy-like Beaujolais Nouveau (seriously, if you stop buying it they’ll stop importing it) and consider what Gamay is in the wine world: pinot noir’s drier, sassier cousin. Flavors of tart cranberry, choke cherry and fresh herbs are the norm. The best examples—from the “cru” regions of Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, Chenas, Chiroubles, etc.—are wonderful. A top-of-the-line cru Beaujolais is often less than a baseline Burgundy and there is perhaps no better red wine for Thanksgiving than Gamay (hello, canned cranberries!).

Sommelier Perspective: Gamay is a grape that will almost always work with whatever someone is serving at a party or dinner (unless it’s ceviche and oysters, in which case invite me, please) so next time you have to bring a bottle, head for the France section and look for Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent or Fleurie. Or even trendier, try a Gamay from Oregon.

Regions for Gamay: Beaujolais, Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, Fleurie, Chenas, Chiroubles, Brouilly (France); Willamette Valley (Oregon)


Sangiovese Grapes in the Chianti region of Italy, a fabled and storied area in wine // Photo courtesy Monte Maggio

Sangiovese Grapes in the Chianti region of Italy, a fabled and storied area in wine // Photo courtesy Monte Maggio

“Sangiovese is…what’s Sangiovese?”

You probably know it by the most famous region that uses it—Chianti, in Italy’s Tuscany region. It’s an ancient grape that dominates plantings all over Italy in a multitude of mutations and clonal variations; the Prugnolo Gentile grape that forms the backbone of Brunello di Montalcino wines is a variant of sangiovese. It’s spectacular with food, particularly if there are tomatoes or tomato sauce involved (pizza!) but it does not do the one thing American wine drinkers enjoy: fruity. It’s lean and acidic and if you try to maximize the vineyard crop you get the thin, tart wine that became synonymous with wicker-bottomed wine jugs and red-checkered tablecloths. Blech. Times have changed, though, and now there are plenty of high-quality Chiantis (and Brunello di Montalcinos, which never suffered the PR problem Chianti did) available at all price ranges.

A confusing twist to sangiovese’s comeback was the “Super Tuscan” category, which were blends from Tuscany that used “international” grapes like cabernet sauvignon and merlot and fell outside the constraints of Italian wine law. At one point this was a legitimate category but now the Italians have adjusted many of the laws to allow for these grapes so, in my opinion, Super Tuscans are a non-issue. You may still hear the term used and some may say that it’s a blend that must include sangiovese, but the first and most famous Super Tuscan—a wine called Sassicaia—is a blend of cabernet sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Confused? Yeah, that happens when you try to study Italian wine law.

Related Post: White Wine 101: It’s all in the grapes

Sommelier Perspective: I always had a sangiovese-based wine on any menu I ran, for all the reasons mentioned above: great with food and especially good at handling tomatoes. However, there’s a very engrained way of thinking that you can’t drink Chianti unless you’re having Italian food. Lots of guests wouldn’t even consider an Italian wine at a non-Italian restaurant; drove me nuts because the entire country is about food and their wines reflect that synergy. Next time you’re thinking about what wine to have, consider something Italian. Please.

Regions for Sangiovese: Chianti, Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, Rosso di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Morellino di Scansano, Carmignano (Tuscany); Torgiano Rosso Riserva and Montefalco (Umbria); Vin Santo (sweet wine made in several regions)


Merlot Grapes from Shelton Vineyards in North Carolina // Photo courtesy Jacob Childrey, Flickr

Merlot Grapes from Shelton Vineyards in North Carolina // Photo courtesy Jacob Childrey, Flickr

“I’m not drinking any f**king Merlot!”

Let’s get one thing straight about the most obnoxious, out-of-context wine statement ever. In the book “Sideways,” Miles doesn’t want to drink merlot because it’s his ex-wife’s favorite, not because he doesn’t like it. That wine he’s been saving for a special occasion and eventually drinks from a paper cup in a taco joint at the end of the movie? Chateau Cheval Blanc, which is mostly merlot. The movie never explained that and as a result destroyed an entire category of the global wine industry. Feeling the financial pressure, vineyard owners ripped out merlot and replanted with pinot noir, two grapes which do not work interchangeably in the same climate. Now there’s a glut of mediocre California pinot out there and merlot wears a scarlet “A”, for Absolutely Not, I Don’t Drink F**cking merlot.

Some reality for you, then. Those super-popular red blends that are everywhere now? Often full of merlot. The most widely-planted quality grape in the world? Merlot. The most expensive Bordeaux in the world? 100 percent merlot. It’s the “secret” blending ingredient that makes most cabernet sauvignon taste fruity and powers hundreds of “Proprietary Blend” wines the world over. Merlot, in many ways, was driven from the spotlight only to become more powerful in the shadows. The best merlot growers stood their ground and never ripped their vines out and now, as the post-Sideways era wanes, the grapes are more mature and the wines have never been better. Merlot has great red fruit flavors, is soft in the mouth and is a personal go-to with leaner steaks. When I hear someone turn their nose up at merlot I always want to shout “Good! More for me!”

Sommelier Perspective: I prefer merlot over cab with most cuts of meat short of the fattier ones that need cab power (Ribeye, Porterhouse, Strip cuts) because it’s not so big that it lets the aging and seasoning of the meat show through. I usually got around merlotphobia on wine lists by having a good selection of Bordeaux-style blends (CabSauv/Merlot/CabFranc) of various compositions from around the world and made a point of sneaking merlot to people who said they hated it, particularly if after a brief conversation their wine preference sounded like merlot.

“This 2004 St. Emilion is beautiful!”

“I’m glad you’re enjoying it, sir.”

“What’s the blend?”

“Oh, it’s about 20 percent Cabernet Franc and 80 percent merlot.”

Mic drop.

Regions for Merlot: St Emilion, Pomerol, Bordeaux AOP (France); Maremma, Veneto (Italy); Margaret River (Australia); Colchagua, Valle Central (Chile); Napa Valley, Sonoma County (California); Columbia Valley, Yakima Valley, Walla Walla Valley (Washington)

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