The Cabernet grapes are small, black, and very tough-skinned. The thick skins make Cab grapes pretty resistant to disease and capable of withstanding hard autumn rains, which is a good thing because the grapes don't ripen until long into the growing season. The skins are also what give the wine its highly tannic nature. Cab grapes are adaptable and can grow in almost any climate that's not too cool. They grow in most major wine-producing regions of the world. Even in Spain and Italy where local grapes have dominated the landscape for centuries, Cabernet is being planted and used in nontraditional blends.
Because of their high tannins, Cabernets start out harsh. But aging-first in oak barrels and later in bottles-softens and smoothes them. Cabernets can age for fifteen years or more.
Typical tasting comments on young Cabernets usually praise the black currant, bell pepper, chocolate, and spice flavors. Older vintages are often described as having a taste of tobacco.
While 100 percent Cabernet wines are made, the trend seems to be toward blending.
Merlot's small, dark blue grapes are relatively thin-skinned, making them earlier ripening and less tannic than Cabernet Sauvignon.
Merlot doesn't get particularly complex, and, on its own, doesn't benefit much from boule aging. It's a "drink now" wine.
Typical descriptions of Merlot flavors are plum, black cherry, currant, violet, and rose.
Pinot Noir produces the best wines when it's grown in limestone soil and in relatively cool climates. Outside of France it's grown in such areas as Germany, Austria, Italy, Eastern Europe, South America, South Africa, Australia, Canada, and the United States.
Pinot Noir's texture is soft and velvety. Because the grape is less pigmented than other red wine grapes, the wine is lighter in color too. It's full-bodied but not heavy. It's high in alcohol-yet neither acidic nor tannic. Typical Pinot Noir flavors are raspberries, cherries, and smoke.
shiraz / syrah
The Syrah grape is black, thick-skinned, and can survive almost anywhere. That's why you'll find Syrah in places as diverse as France, Australia, California, Washington, and Oregon. Even within those areas, Syrah thrives both in cool climates and in warm and sunny conditions.
In the northern Rhone, Syrah is used in the wines from Cornas, Cote Rotie, Hermitage, and Crozes-Hermitage. The Syrah is rarely blended there. When young, the wines are deeply colored and tannic with a distinct spiciness. As they age, they ease into flavors of blackberries, plums, and smoke. In the southern Rhone, Syrah is blended with other varietals to produce such well-known wines as Chateauneui-du-Pape. In Australia Shiraz is made in two distinct styles: the big, rich tannic style; and the lighter, fruitier, drink-me-now style.
Sangiovese is the main component of Chianti. Sangiovese has a lot of sub-varieties. Both Vino Nobile de Montepulciano and the potent and long-lived Brunello di Montalcino are made from them. For the most part, wines made with Sangiovese have pronounced tannins and acidity-but not great depth of color. In the 1960s Italian winemakers began producing 100 percent Sangiovese wines and also blending the grape with Cabernet Sauvignon-wines that became known as "Super Tuscans."
Tempranillo (from the Spanish word temprano) means "early"-so named because it ripens earlier than most red varieties. Tempranillo has a bewildering array of aliases. Inside Spain it goes by Cencibel, Ojo de Liebre ("eye of the hare"), Tinta de Pais, Tinto Fino, Tinta de Toro, and Tinto de Madred. In Portugal it's known as Tinta Roriz. It's also been grown in California for grape juice and jug wines and called Valdepenas.
Easy to grow and can be made into many different styles.
other red wine grapes
Barbera is an Italian grape that contributes deep garnet colors, medium to full body, and light tannin levels. In warmer growing areas, it develops high sugar levels and, consequently, high alcohol levels. Barbera makes Italy's Barbera d'Asti, Barbera d'Alba, and Barbera del Monferrato.
Originally from northern Spain, this high-yielding vine grows extensively in France and around the Mediterranean. It's popular as a blending grape because it brings red fruit characteristics, deep purple color, strong tannin structure, and high levels of alcohol. Carignan is also known as Carignane, Carignano, Carinena, Mazuelo, and Monestel.
A historic variety once heavily planted in Bordeaux, Carrnenere was one of the six varieties allowed for use in making red Bordeaux wines. Because of low yields and ripening problems. it was almost completely abandoned in Bordeaux. But it has found a new home in Chile. It was imported there in 1850 but mislabeled as Merlot. In 1991 its true identity was discovered. Carrnenere produces deeply colored, full-bodied wines.
Gamay is the French variety solely responsible for the distinctive wines of Beaujolais-which are light-to-medium bodied, high in acid, low in tannins, and meant to be drunk young. Beaujolais Nouveau is a special category of "new" Gamay wine (sewn-to-nine weeks old) that's released on the third Thursday of each November.
Grenache is a sweet grape that can produce wines with 15 or 16 percent alcohol because of its high sugar level. It's one of the official blending partners in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. In Spain it's known as Garnacha, where it's blended with Tempranillo to produce the red Rioja wines.
A French grape permitted as one of the blending grapes in the famous wines of Bordeaux, Malbec is soft, yet robust, intense, and full-bodied. Malbec has found a new home in Argentina, where it is extensively produced as a rich and earthy varietal.
A thick-skinned grape grown mainly in Italy's Piedmont region, Nebbiolo is used as a varietal and for blending with other Italian wines. It is most famous for making two of Italy's great reds: Barolo and Barbaresco. It generally needs long aging in wood to soften.
A uniquely South African grape created in the 1920s by crossing Pinot Noir and Cinsault, Pinotage has a distinct spicy and peppery flavor. Although winemakers elsewhere have been experimenting with Pinotage, it remains primarily a product of South Africa.