I’ll never forget my very first wine purchase, a few days after my 21st birthday. I knew enough to recognize some grape varieties, but I didn’t really understand what made each unique. So I went in search of one example of each of the main ones. I thought that if I just tried one Cabernet Sauvignon, one Merlot, one Chardonnay and so forth, I could finally understand the differences.
While my quest that day didn’t entirely answer my question (although it did lead to the beginning of a beautiful relationship between my Visa card and my local wine store), I wasn’t completely crazy for wanting to understand the major distinctions. Although there are always exceptions, it turns out that each really does have an individual profile. You can learn over time (and through a lot of tasting) how to differentiate. To save you some time on your quest, here are some of the basics I have learned about the typical traits of five very popular red grape varieties:
Sometimes called the King of Grapes, Cabernet is usually deeply colored and very tannic. Wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are dry with a fairly full body and a distinct black currant note. Frequently aged in oak barrels, you might also notice aromas of vanilla, chocolate or toast, and as the wine ages, Cabernet Sauvignon often smells like tobacco, cedar and leather.
Merlot is usually also deep in color and dry. It can be higher in alcohol than Cabernet Sauvignon with milder tannins, so you will frequently hear the words plush, soft and supple used to describe Merlot. With generous plummy fruit, Merlot also sometimes has notes of red berries, and if oaked, vanilla and mocha. There’s more than one reason why the wine named after Marilyn Monroe is made from Merlot.
Pinot Noir tends to be paler in color, and is a more delicate grape compared to others. Pinot Noir’s power, structure and flavor always remind me of the expression “an iron fist in a velvet glove.” Its tannins can be firm, but more delicate than Cabernet Sauvignon’s. Its aromas range from raspberries and strawberries to earth, dirt and wood.
Syrah (or Shiraz, if you’re Down Under) is a bit of a chameleon. Full-bodied, with firm tannins and deep color, it sounds like Syrah has a lot in common with Cabernet Sauvignon. But on the nose and in your mouth, Syrah is completely different. Flavors can range from spicy to meaty to floral to fruity. I’m a big fan of Syrah from cooler climates as it tends to have notes of black pepper, strawberries and espresso beans.
Smelling Zinfandel always makes me think of the children’s book, Blueberries for Sal. Blackberry and blueberry notes are typical, along with hints of vanilla, chocolate and even coconut (those last three are thanks to oak aging). Full-bodied with high alcohol and a long, rich finish, Zinfandel is a grape that doesn’t take itself too seriously – as evidenced by the plethora of tongue-in-cheek Zinfandel labels out there. That being said, there nothing silly about the pleasure your palate stands to gain from this juicy grape.
Now famous as the standout grape of Argentina, young Malbecs tend to be inky with a slight purplish tint on the rim. With firm but ripe tannins and a nose that’s perfumed, floral and fruity, common flavors found in Malbecs are violets, raspberries and blackberries. Like Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s ideal for pairing with beef-based dishes, but certainly should not be limited to just that. With a taste, you can see why the Argentinians liken supple Malbec to the Tango.