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Understanding Red Wine: How to Decide If Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Malbec, or Syrah Is Your Preferred Style

Learn how to choose a red you'll enjoy.

red wines in glasses on table
Photography by: Bryan Gardner

Delicate and elegant or rich and robust, there's a red wine out there for every lover of the glorious grape. Where to start? Try one of these four very different reds: cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, malbec, and syrah. Here's what to know to get started plus how to pair them with food—and some sommelier favorites.

 

It's important to note that red wine grape varieties aren't all created equal: They are as different from each other as granny smith, golden delicious, and McIntosh apples. Each unique grape variety creates a completely different wine in terms of aroma, texture, flavor profile, and body. With that said, grape varieties themselves are only one aspect of the finished wine. Other factors that influence the final result are the climate and soil types in which the grapes are grown, as well as the type of barrel the wine is aged in and the length of time the wine is aged before it's released. It's fun to try different examples of a certain grape to see if there's a certain growing region or winemaking style that you prefer.

 

Here's some basic information to inform your red wine drinking.

 

Related: A Beginner's Guide to Italian Wine

 

Cabernet Sauvignon

Considered by many wine lovers to be the king of hearty reds, cabernet sauvignon (cab-er-NAY so-vin-YAWN) is originally from the Bordeaux region of France, where's it's most commonly blended with merlot. The cabernet sauvignon grape has a thick, hearty skin, which, along with its seeds and stems, contributes tannin to the wines—that's the compound that makes your tongue turn prickly and dry and it's also commonly experienced in black tea. Anyone that has ever over-steeped a cup of black tea knows exactly what this sensation feels like.

 

Because red wines get their color and much of their texture and flavor from the grape skins, the thicker skins of cabernet sauvignon create a rich, concentrated, and purple/black, full-bodied wine that does best in warm climates because it's a late ripening grape. Common flavors in cabernet sauvignon include blackberry and black currant, green bell pepper and herbs, coffee, and bittersweet cocoa.

 

The most famous, much heralded growing region for cabernet sauvignon in the U.S. is the Napa Valley, which produces the most premium and highly regarded examples of this coveted wine. Because luxurious wines often come with luxurious price tags, the best Napa cabernet can be relatively expensive (splurges include Far Niente 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon and Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon 2015). However, you can still get premium examples of Napa cabernet for under $100 a bottle (we like Cade Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 and Jamieson Ranch Vineyards Double Lariat Cabernet Sauvignon 2015). For those seeking affordable "weeknight" cabernets, it's best to look outside Napa: Lodi in California has some wonderful options like Noble Vines 337 Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon 2016. And definitely pay attention to Washington State which is emerging as another fantastic place for world class cabernet: we think Columbia Crest Grand Estates Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 is a great deal.

 

Cabernet sauvignon is a classic pairing with red meat because the tannins in the wine help cut through the rich, marbled texture of the fat in the meat. Try a cab with Seared Strip Steaks with Braised Peppers and Onion.

 

Related: 17 Delicious Ways to Use Up Leftover Wine

 

Pinot Noir

If you prefer a lighter style red wine, definitely consider pinot noir (PEE-no NWAR). Unlike thick-skinned cabernet, pinot noir grapes have very thin, delicate skins which produce a much lighter bodied wine, with a transparent ruby red color and classic flavors of red cherry, red currant, and wild strawberry. The warmer the climate, the richer expression you may find—think cherry cola—while cool-climate pinot noir reveals more earthy flavors and savory aromas like mushroom and forest fruits.

 

Although it's widely grown around the world, the origins of pinot noir lie in Burgundy, France. Today look for excellent versions from Northern Italy's Alto Adige region (try J. Hofstatter Meczan Pinot Nero 2016), New Zealand's Central Otago (Burn Cottage Moonlight Race Pinot Noir 2015) and even Mendoza, Argentina (Bodega Chacra "Barda" Pinot Noir 2018). In terms of U.S. pinot noir, the region currently in the spotlight here for cooler-climate expressions is Oregon's Willamette Valley. For benchmark examples, you can't go wrong with Brooks Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2017 or Stoller Family Estate Reserve Pinot Noir 2016. And, if you're seeking a richer and riper style with a bit more body, Sonoma, California, is a great place to start: try Benovia Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2017, Kutch Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2015, or Norton Ridge Pinot Noir 2016.

 

While most red wines beg to be paired with meat, pinot noir is one that vegetarians can enjoy because it pairs so well with vegetable dishes, especially mushrooms. The hearty "umami" quality of mushrooms is nicely offset by the silky texture and light red fruits of pinot noir. Try a glass with Mushroom Tacos with Charred-Corn Salsa.

 

Related: How to Drink Red Wine in the Summer

 

Malbec

This medium bodied, easy drinking red has gotten popular the past decade, largely because its such a crowd pleaser! Inky purple toned with a bright fuschia rim, the aromas and flavors classic to Malbec are soft rich plum, blueberry, and black cherry—with an occasional chocolate or sweet tobacco finish. Its luscious, juicy profile and velvety texture make this a seriously appealing wine.

 

Malbec originally comes from Bordeaux in France, where it's called Côt. However, the most famous country for Malbec today is Argentina. Landowners brought vine clippings with them when South America was colonized and discovered that Malbec thrives there. Today, it's rarely used in France except for in the Cahors region (try Cahors "Croizillon," Ch. Les Croisille 2017). Delicious Argentine examples are readily available in most wine shops and markets, we recommend Salentein Malbec or Zuccardi Concreto Malbec 2017.

 

When pairing Malbec with food, use a failsafe pairing strategy: "what grows together, goes together." Food and wine produced in the same region shares a natural harmony; imagine all those shared molecules in their terroir. Pair an Argentine wine with the famed Argentine parsley-packed condiment chimichurri in burgers or in Skirt Steak and Corn with Chimichurri.

 

Related: How Long Does an Open Bottle of Wine Last?

 

Syrah

Native to Southwest France, syrah (sir-RAH) has become popular in Australia where it goes by the name shiraz (shir-RAZZ)—yep, they're the same grape! Syrah is full of spicy, gamey, savory character: it's common to pick up aromas of briny black olives, roasted meat, and cracked black pepper when you take that first sniff. Because these savory flavors and aromas in syrah can be so intense, it's very common to see this grape blended with other fruitier grapes like grenache.

 

In France's Rhône Valley, a more nuanced, feminine, and delicate style that even has a light floral character comes from the region of Crozes-Hermitage (Guigal Crozes Hermitage 2015); where further south in Vacqueyras, syrah is blended with grenache and a touch of mourvedre for a lush, deep, intense and dimensional red that's also a fabulous value (try Domaine des Amouriers Les Genestes Rouge 2016). In Australia, look for shiraz from the Barossa Valley region (Torbreck Woodcutters Shiraz 2017) for burly, brawny, full and peppery wines. And in the U.S., Eastern Washington is emerging as a new star on the syrah scene: Amavi Syrah 2015 and Sleight of Hand Cellars "Levitation" Syrah 2016 are both delicious examples of the versatility of the grape. In California, Peay Vineyards La Bruma Estate Syrah, from the cool Sonoma Coast, layers fresh sour cherry notes into the savory structure, and Paso Robles' Justin Winery Syrah 2017 is slightly smoky with notes of anise and dried herbs.

 

For syrah, try what's called a "harmony pairing," or when you choose a wine that can mirror certain flavors in your dish. The savory, gamey flavors of syrah are classic with richly flavored meats like lamb.