Red Wine 101: The 9 grapes you need to know

A basket of Zinfandel Grapes // Photo courtesy USDA

A basket of Zinfandel Grapes // Photo courtesy USDA Agricultural Research Service

“I really love a good Zinfandel!”

This is great to hear, because zinfandel can sometimes be the subject of sommelier hate (no names mentioned here) because the popular version is usually cranked up—fruity as hell and high in alcohol. But it’s what the grape does, quite honestly. The grapes pack a lot of sugar and that converts to a lot of alcohol during fermentation. Lots of alcohol tends to overpower food, hence the somm love/hate (love that you love wine, but hate that you love that one). If it’s stacked five cases high at a big liquor store, chances are it’s not a food zin but a get-drunk zin.

There’s been a “Zin Renaissance” (Zenaissance?), if you will, over the last decade or so and while there are still plenty of boozy fruit bombs from Lodi there are also more balanced, quality zins from Northern Cali than ever before… which are still high in alcohol but balanced with carefully ripe fruit and acid structure (the tangy texture) that is usually lacking in the boozier examples. There’s nothing better with sweet barbecue ribs or a loaded burger.

Sommelier Perspective: I really like zin, actually, but it was always hard for me to sell the good ones (Bedrock, Ridge’s Lytton Springs, Broc Wine Cellars, to name a few) because the boozy big ones are more popular (Turley, Earthquake). Easily solved by taking full, inflated margin on Turley (because those suckers will pay the money) and pricing the others very nicely. Why are they suckers, you ask? Turley often clocks in at over 16% ABV—nearly port-levels of alcohol that sear your taste buds and destroy flavor. I once had a group of gentlemen describe a single-vineyard Turley Zin they ordered from me (it was a good revenue night) as “a good light and fluffy one to start with.” I nearly suggested Knob Creek Bourbon as a follow-up bottle.

Regions for Zinfandel: Dry Creek Valley, Rockpile, Sonoma County, Lodi, Amador County (California)

A small basket or "cassette" of Nebbiolo grapes // Photo Anthony Nicalo, Flickr

A small basket or “cassette” of Nebbiolo grapes // Photo Anthony Nicalo, Flickr


Barolo is often referred to as “the King of Italian wine” and nebbiolo is the grape that is 100 percent responsible. It’s the most revered grape of the northwest Italian regions of Piemonte and Lombardy and makes a wide spectrum of wines. It is, however, a contradiction in that it’s aromatic and light-colored like pinot noir but packs the tannic punch of cabernet sauvignon. Nebbiolo is also grown in parts of Virginia, Santa Barbara County and the northern Baja Peninsula of Mexico but really, truly, the essential source of the grape is Italy. But since the Italians don’t typically put it on the label, let’s walk through the main regions.

Base level is Langhe nebbiolo, a broad catch-all for nebbiolo grown in Piemonte. Just above that is nebbiolo d’Alba, a region known for lighter, prettier wines because of the sandy soil. Jump north for a moment to Gattinara and Ghemme, two regions in northern Piemonte, and Lessona (a great value region to upgrade from Langhe). Valtellina, in the foothills of the Italian Alps in Lombardy, yields historic, incredibly beautiful wines now making their appearance more and more around the country. Back south, however, to the twin towers of this revered grape: Barolo and Barbaresco. Basic Barolo or Barbaresco often run $50+ and if it’s a single-cru wine (with a vineyard name, like Cannubi, Lazzarito, Rabaja, or Brunate) the price will soar with the quality. Studying the minute details of Barolo and Barbaresco can consume a lifetime, so we’ll stop here for now.

Sommelier Perspective: These are spectacular wines, but personally I hesitate to go near a Barolo less than ten years old because, frankly, they’re just beasts in your mouth and need time to calm down and develop their secondary characteristics. Top Barbarescos are the same way but tend to be more aromatic and feminine at a younger age. My preferences for drink-now nebbiolo are wines from Alba, Roero and Valtellina because the sandy soil in the first two regions and the altitude in the third soften them and make them less mean-spirited. This is an advanced grape not for the novice because there’s a tremendous amount going on in the wines and if you’re looking for fruity and drinkable this is absolutely not ever going to be the grape that gets it done for you.

Regions for Nebbiolo: Barolo, Barbaresco, Langhe, Gattinara, Ghemme, Valtellina (Italy)

Grapes on an 80-year-old Syrah vine // Photo labeled for re-use

Grapes on an 80-year-old Syrah vine // Photo labeled for re-use

Que Sera, Syrah!

Syrah is that grape that every somm hopes becomes the breakout grape of the year but somehow it never happens. Why? Again, I think it’s a grape that has a PR problem. Yellowtail and bulk Aussie Shiraz’s ruined the impression of what it can be so now, ten years later after even Australia has disavowed the mediocre, cheap “critter wines” it’s still an uphill climb to get anyone to try syrah. In the middle of this downswing, Cote-du-Rhone/GSM blends became very popular—often 40 percent or more syrah—and inexpensive blends from southern France are the darlings of wine shops, also typically with a generous portion of syrah. Sounds like merlot’s story, doesn’t it?

Syrah has wonderful notes of blackberry, plum, black pepper, herbs and in the best examples, smoked meat. Yes, this is a wine that can smell like peppered bacon. Bacon! Why the hipster brunch crowd hasn’t embraced this grape is beyond me. But seriously, it shows up in most rosé wines from Provence, those previously mentioned super-popular red blends from California and, of course, some of the most spectacular wines in the world from the Australian region of Barossa. California syrah is another great barbecue wine and works especially well with short ribs, another culinary trend that somehow hasn’t figured out it’s soulmate is syrah. Someone should tell them. Maybe you?

Sommelier Perspective: Syrah is one of the oldest, most noble grapes and capable of a variety of styles, from a pretty rosé to a dense, powerful red version from France’s Cornas region. Part of why you don’t see more pure syrah on restaurant menus is education; it’s a complicated grape to understand and therefore sell to guests. Those that know it love it and I always priced the best syrahs down to reward loyalty to this grape. Because syrah is not a hot grape in California, many small wineries making spectacular wines are hanging their hats on syrah because A) it makes beautiful wine and B) it’s a lot cheaper to buy a ton of syrah than a ton of cabernet sauvignon.

Regions for Syrah (unblended): Hermitage, Cornas, Saint-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage (France); Cape South Coast (South Africa); Barossa, McLaren Vale, Eden Valley (Australia), Hawke’s Bay/Gimblett Gravels (New Zealand); Walla Walla Valley (Washington); Sonoma Coast, Mendocino County, Paso Robles (California)

Regions for Syrah (blended with other grapes): Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Cote-Rotie, Gigondas, Vacqueyras (France); Canberra District (Australia); Central Coast (California)

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes // Photo labeled for re-use

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes // Photo labeled for re-use

“I only drink cab(ernet sauvignon).”

Man, there are a lot of you. And the California wine industry thanks you, believe me. Cabernet sauvignon does a lot of things well: it’s bold, it has intense flavors and it’s high in alcohol. It’s great for heavy cuts of meat with a lot of marbling because the tannins help break down the fat. It’s grown all around the world and thanks to this many examples can be found for under $20. As a result of these many things, it has fostered intense loyalty among wine drinkers as their go to for everything.

So much loyalty that they don’t seem to want to drink anything else. The ripe California versions are top of the pyramid and anything else is “light”. There are some spectacular wines from Coonawarra and Margaret River in Australia, Stellenbosch in South Africa, Maipo and Rapel in Chile, and of course Bordeaux in France. The Super Tuscan mentioned in the Sangiovese section, Sassicaia, is 95-percent cab. But no, nothing but Napa will do. And thus the stability of the California wine industry is assured. But the secret weapon is Washington State wines. Somehow the Yakima, Horse Heaven Hills and Red Mountain regions are still relatively new to cab drinkers and great discoveries for those looking to drink great quality domestic wine without the Napa prices.

Sommelier Perspective: Here’s the thing about cab: when it comes to pairing with most food, it’s like using a sledgehammer to pound a nail. It’s a big, big wine and unless there’s a large piece of fatty meat to block it, it will run roughshod all over whatever is on the plate and destroy the flavors. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve sold a lot of cab in my career and will continue to (because it’s business) but I almost never drink straight cab or, if I do, it’s mellowed for 10 to 15 years, taken on beautiful dried herb and tobacco notes, and someone else is paying for it. Case in point: at a recent BYOB dinner in Chicago with several dozen sommeliers, there were rieslings and pinots and syrahs and cru Beaujolais and super obscure Greek and Portuguese wines but no one brought a cabernet…except the one who worked for a major producer of it. By the end of the dinner several hours later (when we’re willing and usually do drink almost anything) the bottle was still three-quarters full. That’s how most sommeliers feel about young cabernet sauvignon: we don’t even drink it when we’re drunk.

Regions for Cabernet Sauvignon: Bordeaux (France); Coonawarra, Margaret River (Australia); Stellembosch, Paarl (South Africa), Valle Central, Colchagua, Maipo, Rapel (Chile); Mendoza (Argentina); Yakima, Horse Heaven Hills, Red Mountain (Washington), Napa Valley, Alexander Valley, Knight’s Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains, Paso Robles (California)

Malbec grapes at the Robert Mondavi Winery in Rutherford, California (in the Napa Valley) // Photo courtesy IanL, Flickr

Malbec grapes at the Robert Mondavi Winery in Rutherford, California (in the Napa Valley) // Photo courtesy IanL, Flickr

“Malbec is from Argentina, right?”

Yes, its most popular form has come from Argentina because the Mendoza region offers the two things Malbec had a hard time finding in its homeland of France: it’s warm and near desert-dry. Malbec is extremely weather sensitive and prone to mildew and fungal issues, which were non-stop problems in Bordeaux until a massive frost in 1951 killed most the Malbec vines and the Bordelaise finally gave up and ripped it out (and replanted with Merlot, btw). It is still found in the Cahors region of Southwest France and takes the popular bold dark berry, cassis, tobacco and cocoa flavors down to a balanced simmer; the wines are a spectacular value for the quality.

But back to Mendoza. Planted by a nostalgic French ex-pat (from Cahors, of course) in the 1860s, Malbec lived a quiet life until foreign investment in the Argentine wine industry in the early 1990s threw open the doors on what what a mostly domestically-consumed product and ta-da! Old vine Malbec hit the market at cheap prices. Now, thanks to capitalism, you can find young-vine Malbec (fruitier) for under $15 and brilliant, intense old-vine examples for $50+ (these are a lot of the old vines from the cheap stuff 15 years ago, btw).

Sommelier Perspective: My feelings for Malbec are similar to cabernet sauvignon—it’s a monster for anything other than meat or drinking by itself. I don’t even drink Malbec at Fogo de Chao (though mostly because it’s incredibly overpriced because they expect you to order it). But as a cocktail on a freezing winter night and all I want is boozy red stuff in my glass… sure, I guess. Why not. This is another one I’ll happily sell simply because it sells and use the money I make to buy pinot noir.

Regions for Malbec: Cahors (France); Mendoza, Valle de Uco, Luján de Cuyo (Argentina)

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