In our last article we looked at four common white wine varietals, what they generally taste like and what they pair well with. In this article, we’ll do the same with 4 common red varietals Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz/Syrah. As in the last article, we won’t get into specific brands or tasting profiles. We are just shooting to give you, your bartenders, and servers enough information to properly talk about, pair, and suggest the most popular varietals of red wine. So let’s begin.
Pinot Noir: Relatively low on tannins, Pinot Noir can be a good transfer wine that can convert white wine drinkers to red. Tannins are the part of red wines that give texture, bitterness, and dryness. Tannins are typically the part of red wine that white wine drinkers do not like. Due to the lower tannin levels Pinot Noir has more of a fruit forward taste and freshness that may not be found as heavily in the deeper reds. Pinot Noir can be diverse depending on where it’s grown. Because it’s more fruit forward, it tends to pull in elements and earthiness from the soil it’s grown in. Tea leaf and leathery flavors are not uncommon in this style.
Pairing: As this varietal is a crossover red, it tends to pair well with chicken and fish, especially salmon, but can also pair with lamb or pork as well. Sushi also pairs admirably.
Merlot: The navy blue suit of red wine, Merlot fits well in any occasion. It’s a wine that is easy to drink and appeals to a wide spectrum of wine drinkers. If you have some guests that are new to red wine and some experienced red wine drinkers, settling on a Merlot has a great chance of pleasing everyone. There are some higher end Merlots that can go toe to toe with more expensive Cabernet Sauvignons. It presents middle of the road on tannin level, noticeable but not rough.
Pairing: Merlot can go well with almost anything. It doesn’t overpower chicken or fish but can hold up to peppered steaks and even wild game. It’s probably not a great wine to pair with citrus desserts but goes well with chocolate, dense cakes, and berries.
Cabernet Sauvignon: The go-to red wine for experienced red wine drinkers. It’s the style you order when you try to impress someone while ordering red wine and is the varietal of some of the highest rated wines in the world. Ironically, it’s also the wine a lot of inexperienced red wine drinkers will order even though it’s not the one they will most prefer because of both prestige reasons and because they may not know any of the other varietals well enough. That’s not to say it’s not a great wine varietal, just that at times it’s overrated and overpriced, selling on the varietal and not the quality. Cabernet Sauvignon is home to some of the best and the worst red wines in the world. So when do you suggest this? Cabernet Sauvignon has high tannin levels and should not be suggested to those just getting into red wine. Target Cabernet Sauvignon towards more experienced drinkers. It’s a good sell to someone that may have had a Merlot for their first glass of wine and is ordering a steak for dinner. The bolder flavors in Cabernet Sauvignon match the steak better than a Merlot would. Cabernet Sauvignon is often aged in oak barrels to give it a more rounded taste and can bring in vanilla-like flavors that cut the harshness of the tannins a bit.
Experienced wine drinkers will typically order this varietal without prompt unless you have rarer varietals such as Malbec, Carmenere, or maybe Zinfandel (Red Zinfandel not White).
Pairing: Cabernet Sauvignon pairs exceptionally well with red meats and matches wild game. The boldness and harshness in the tannins of the wine are complemented with bolder flavors in the steak and actually help both taste better. Try a bite of steak first, then try a bite followed by a good Cabernet Sauvignon and the difference may surprise you.
Shiraz / Syrah: These two types refer to the same grape varietal. European countries use the Syrah term almost exclusively while other countries use the terms interchangeably from winery to winery. Less popular than the other three varietals, Shiraz still has its place. This varietal has both a stronger fruitiness and stronger spice or peppery flavor. This is more of a pairing wine than one you would typically drink on its own because of the boldness of flavors.
Pairing: Shiraz / Syrah pairs well with spiced foods, heartier foods such as Shepard’s Pie, schnitzel, and stews. It also works well with most meats especially red meats and wild game.
Hopefully, you’ve gained a bit more insight on some common wine varietals. You should be able to direct your guests towards wines they may enjoy and also pair it with an entree that will enhance both the wine and the entree.