What to Drink Now

Episode II


Last week we took a look at what sort of white wines you might want to try after experiencing your gateway wine. Today we’re going to take a look at the next step in red wines. While the oak was an almost defining characteristic for many whites, it plays second fiddle with red wines, for several reasons. First off, you’re just as likely to find any type of red wine marked by new oak, as you are to find one devoid of oak’s obvious influences. Given the tendency to age red wines for longer than white wine, oak also tends to be a moving target with reds as they age, since the wood’s impact diminishes, whereas many whites are drunk in their youth while still decidedly oaky.

Another issue that you’ll be faced with reds is how powerful you like your wines. The truth is that most flavor profiles of red wines also come in a range of styles. It’s difficult to know whether you prefer a flavor profile or a style, but there’s only one way to find out! Fortunately, it involves drinking wine. The following for groups are very broadly expressed styles of wine worth exploring to see if one really rings your bell. If it does, then it’s time to move on and find the regions and producers that manage the oak, extraction and concentration to your liking.

Photo courtesy isante_magazine via Flickr/CC

Spicy Reds

Spicy reds – but where does the spice come from? To be sure, many red wines are spicy due to the influence of the wood they were aged in but others tend to have a spicy character that comes purely from the grape. By spicy, I mean notes of cracked pepper and earthy spices. The spices that one usually associates with oak tend to be allspice and dried ginger, which certainly have their place in a well-made wine. These spicy reds tend to be rather rich and bold wines, though there are some lovely, if very hard to find, exceptions.

Three Classic Spicy Reds

Australian Shiraz – The black peppery character of Australian Shiraz is well-known and adds a distinctive note to these fairly large-scaled wines.
Mourvedre, aka Monastrell – In particular, the Monatrell from Jumilla in Spain tends to be spicy with a dark black spice character.
Grenache – Grenache can also be spicy in a stemmy sort of way, though much of the spice one gets in Grenache, particularly those coming from Spain, tends to be oak-induced.

Photo courtesy jvdc via Flickr/CC

Herbal Reds

Herbal reds are slowly disappearing from the marketplace because some people have decided that people don’t like herbals reds and would prefer prunes steeped in cocoa and served up on a toasted toothpick. I say, hold on there buddies; you’ve pretty much cooked the character out of Napa Cabernet so leave something for me to love, why dontcha! I’m joking here (not really) and happen to like some decidedly herbal wines because, well, because herbs go well with food. Vanilla and espresso, they should be saved for after the meal!

Three Classic Herbal Reds

Bordeaux – Yes, it’s true. Much Bordeaux in the past was overly herbal, but today with climate change and better vineyard practices, you can find wines that blend herbs and fruit!
Cabernet Franc – While technically one of the classic grapes in a Bordeaux blend, Cabernet Franc delivers much more tomato leaf on its own, particularly when it comes form the Loire.
Carmenere – Another Bordeaux variety, you seeing the family resemblance here? Carmenere needs a ton of sun to mature, but even the best examples tend to retain a nice herbal edge and are wonderfully medium-bodied to boot!

Photo courtesy VancityAllie via Flickr/CC

Fruity Reds

Okay, so you think you love the fruity wines. Might be, but give yourself some time and you might find that you do want something else in your wine. All those herbs are starting to sounds pretty tasty. Thrown in some spice and what do you know? A complex, complete wine may just require more than a bowl of cherries! The truth is that people really do love fruity red wines, which explains why this list reads like winners at the People’s Choice Awards! Of course in many wine geek worlds, fruity really is code for fruity – and low acid, low in tannins and a little sweet, which pretty much does represent the recipe for easy drinking wine.

Three Classic Fruity Red Wines

Merlot – So you’re not drinking any f*cking Merlot? That’s too bad because you’ll probably like the smooth black cherry fruit here!
Pinot Noir – Ah yes, we all love Pinot. With more red fruit and raspberries and cream, those from California are particularly popular.
Barbera – While blessed with naturally high acids, Barbera is a low tannin grape making it easy to drink with refreshing bright red fruited flavors.

Photo courtesy dearanxiety via Flickr/CC

Earthy Reds

Earthy reds tend to be earthy not only because of the grape varieties used to make them but also because of the terroir, or climate and soil, of the region where they were made. Most earthy wines tend to be earthy because the fruit in the grapes just didn’t develop to the point where that fruit could cover and conceal all the other traits of the wine. Earthiness can also be minerally and is an attribute that is prized by many wine lovers, both because it gives them the illusion of a connection to the earth the grapes were grown in, but more importantly it adds depth and complexity to the flavor of a wine.

Three Classic Earthy Red Wines

Red Burgundy – Red Burgundy (Pinot Noir from Burgundy) is a classic earthy red wine, though it can be quite expensive. A suitable alternative is Beaujolais.
Sangiovese – The grape that produces Chianti and Brunello has an earthy, leathery character that shows up in those wines.
Nebbiolo – Another Italian variety, Nebbiolo produces wines which are redolent of tar, tobacco and truffles all in an earthy register.

Photo courtesy Thiophene_Guy via Flickr/CC

I’ve made no mention here of rosés or sparkling wines, not to mention fortified and dessert wines; but to a certain extent, those are all sort of wine 301 wines. Many are acquired tastes while some are love at first sip, but they all sort of fit outside of the flowchart we’re going to create for you with this.

Photo courtesy zpeckler via Flickr/CC

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Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: boydster
    494360 1

    Where do red zin's fit in?

    Aug 15, 2011 at 4:59 PM

  • Where do the Cabernet Sauvignons and Malbecs fit?

    Aug 15, 2011 at 8:51 PM

  • Snooth User: tb51
    499281 14

    Great article...loved the division of wines into categories according to basic taste!

    Aug 15, 2011 at 11:07 PM

  • Snooth User: jovinco
    526310 0

    Great article. Thanks Greg.

    Aug 16, 2011 at 1:04 AM

  • Snooth User: Qatra
    41466 16

    I think it is also important to emphasise with what and with who one is drinking the wine; as well as the occassion and whether outdoors or indoors.

    Aug 16, 2011 at 2:33 AM

  • Snooth User: whauptman
    864967 2

    Nice to hear that you included Barbera. Too often missed out as a simple table wine. Good Barbera can be very good indeed. Keep it up.

    Aug 16, 2011 at 3:59 AM

  • This stuff is as puzzling as it is illuminating. Barberas are acidic and fruity, but earthy too. They go great with mushroom dishes, as well as tomato dishes. Tempranillos are nowhere. Cabernet Sauvignon is nowhere. Beaujolais is fruity, yet we read it is earthy substitute for red burgundy, which should be very fruity too. Or earthy. Or how about cabbagey being a bad burgundy and strawberries being a good one?
    Price, source and combination with food all vary the grapes impact.
    Cabernet Franc is a different beastie between France and Australia.

    Aug 16, 2011 at 5:34 AM

  • Like the inclusion of Monastrell. Missing the zins bigtime.

    Aug 17, 2011 at 12:52 AM

  • No Zins, but no Primitivo or Nero D'Avola, or Touriga Niacional, or Lagrein dunkel, yada yada yada

    Boring Boring Boring!

    Aug 17, 2011 at 4:41 AM

  • Snooth User: whauptman
    864967 2

    For Monastrell, go to any good, refreshing cava from Catalonia--nothing like it if you are into refreshing sparklers during the hot summer months. I spent time in Spain and found wonderful wines which I could only get there--alas. But try some brilliantly chilled. Hint: put a strawberry in the glass beforehand. Great stuff.

    Aug 17, 2011 at 4:47 AM

  • Monastrell is a RED GRAPE

    It is also known as Mourvedre

    It does not feature in CAVA, which is a sparkling wine made from Parellada, Macabeo and Xarello white varieties.

    Monastrell is capable of making very good red wines in red blends especially in Spain. But it is not in CAVA

    Aug 17, 2011 at 4:56 AM

  • Snooth User: whauptman
    864967 2

    Yes, you are right. I mixed it up with Macabeo. Sorry. But good of you to have corrected it. Thanks.

    Aug 17, 2011 at 8:31 AM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 236,960

    First off, Since some people can't read or comprehend what they read allow me to repeat a phrase that is featured right up top in the first paragraph. Paragraphs are groups of words that are separated by spaces. Words are groups of letters separated by space. Got it? Good.

    So in the first paragraph it says:

    'Last week we took a look at what sort of white wines you might want to try after experiencing your gateway wine. Today we’re going to take a look at the next step in red wines."

    As I work on these installments I am prone to repeat the premise "It is not to definitively classify wine, but rather to create connections between certain wines that may share a character trait which in turns helps you find wines that you might enjoy. "

    You simply can't say that all Cabernet is X or that all Zinfandel is y. What you can say, and what I am trying to do is to say that if you like Shiraz, well then you might like Mourvedre since they share certain elements of their taste profiles.

    i want to thank you all for adding to the list here and for making suggestions. Yes it is as puzzling as it is enlightening, but that's the fun of wine. Your journey never ends and the more you learn the more your realize how little you'll ever know!

    Aug 19, 2011 at 12:46 PM

  • Snooth User: bill2810
    94571 22

    Thanks. An enjoyable read. Two questions: In the "spice" section, you mention, "earthy" spices and "dark black" spices. What are these spices, specifically?

    Also, you characterize "bordeaux" as if it were a grape and not a region. Is it a grape variety? I thought that bordeaux's were mostly, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cab franc...etc. blends. And I thought that they were often described as "earthy," as well. Can you explain?

    Aug 21, 2011 at 9:30 AM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 236,960

    Thanks Bill.

    before I try and answer your questions let me just say that the vernacular of wine appreciation is a certain percentage BS. Trying to describe smells and flavors is so personal that it frequently doesn't translate to some universal language so we make it up as we go along and try to do the best we can.

    Earthy spices tend to be more int he allspice/nutmeg/cinnamon end of the spectrum while black spice are more licorice/star anise/graphite like.

    I do categorize Bordeaux as a region. It's another failing of the nomenclature we use in wine. The old world has a region's name attached to either a single grapes identity of a traditional blend. So while it may seem that I am equating Bordeaux with, say Malbec, the truth is that I am equating a class of wines.

    I've placed Bordeaux in with the herbal wines because I don't really see them as earthy any more. Heck it can be argued that they're barely even herbal any more, particular at the classed growth level but that's an argument for a different time.

    If you look at grapes like Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and the family of Bordeaux Varieties I would say that they're flavors tend to run from herbal on one end to fruity on the other end. The earthiness can come from terroir, or perhaps more likely from new and/or used barrels.

    To a certain extent that is why I placed Bordeaux in with the Herbal wines, but on another level I placed them they because of their connection to other herbal wines. In the next part of this series, which began today with Crisp White wines you'll see that I explore each of these categories in further detail trying to provide a path of exploration for the budding wine lover.

    This is certainly not a perfect breakdown by any stretch of the imagination, it's just the framework I chose to follow. I hope that answers your question!

    thanks for asking.


    Aug 22, 2011 at 3:16 PM

  • Snooth User: spicycurry
    764650 53

    Ooh, I'm not into the picture of dessert being shown on the page talking about fruity reds. We can't support the notion that fruity reds like Pinot Noir and Barbara would be good with dessert. Those wines are still on the dry side, so as soon as they're paired with something sweet, unpleasant bitter qualities come out. Drink dessert wine with dessert!

    Aug 26, 2011 at 9:05 AM

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