Choosing Red Wine

By Steve Watson
November 25, 2020

If your venture to the wine aisle causes you to agonise over which variety, region or name of wine to choose this post may offer some help.

In the wine aisles of Britain’s supermarkets, you can observe a peculiar manner that overcomes many shoppers looking aimlessly at the hundreds of bottles of wine on display. They exhibit a unique behaviour, characterised by a slow shuffling movement and peering with perplexity at the choices before them. Any upward glance to the top shelf wines is short lived, usually with a response one would expect when seeing something truly offensive, then quickly averted down to the cheaper selection on the bottom shelf. This pattern is repeated like some obscure dance as the hopeful shopper scrapes down the length of the aisle clutching a randomly chosen bottle. I know this shuffle, I’ve performed it myself, and choosing wine becomes little more than the attractiveness of the label balanced against price.

So I educated myself.

I’ve written this blog because a customer of mine requested it. He, too, very likely fits the aforementioned description. It’s not that I’m a wine expert, far from it, but I do know something about wines and, with a little research, can pass it on to help alleviate the onset of wine-aisle-bamboozlement.

I’m covering reds in this post. The wine world is simply too vast to discuss both red and white or, indeed, offer recommendations.

How to Read a Wine Label

First, a note about labels. Wines are classified in one of three ways: 1) variety, 2) region, or 3) made up names.

Variety

This is the type of grape used to make the wine, e.g. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah (Shiraz) etc. Buying wine by variety can be a little misleading because other varieties of grape are often included, e.g. a bottle labelled as Cabernet Sauvignon might also include Merlot or other varieties. If, after buying a wine by variety, you discover it contains other varieties then don’t feel you have been scammed or cheated. Wine makers follow strict guidelines which control the amount of varieties making up the wine. Each country has their own set of minimum requirements to label their wine by variety, ranging from 75% to 85%. It’s not like buying a single malt whisky to suddenly discover it’s a blend. 

Region

This is the geographical location of the grape, e.g. Bordeaux, Chianti, Rioja etc. Wines labelled by region tend to be from countries with an ancient history in wine, such as France, Italy and Spain. Regional wines are often a blend of more than one variety grown in that region, e.g. Bordeaux is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, along with other varieties in the region. Some Bordeaux’s contain a high percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon, others Merlot, depending on the part of the region.

As a general rule, the more specific the regional information, the more expensive the wine. A label containing not only the region but the vineyard and classification (control laws) is an indication of the quality of the wine. 

Made up Names

There are two reasons why merchants use made up names. Some regions impose strict controls (classification) on the winemakers, preventing them from using varieties that are not indigenous to the region. Winemakers who ignore these strict rules are forced to sell their wines under a made up name. However, some of these wines are of exceptional quality, which is reflected in the price. The second reason merchants use made up names is to sell cheap wine. Packaging sells, and marketers use fancy labeling to increase sales. A bright and colourful label promoting sun and fun, emblazoned with the name Sexy Syrah might cut out the confusion for many but it says little about what’s truly in the bottle. 

Choosing Wine

Have a purpose

What do you want from your wine? Are you pairing with food? What type of food? Are you drinking it on its own? Is your palette over sensitive to acidity or tannins? Do you prefer rich, full bodied, fruity flavours; softer, more rounded flavours, or lighter flavours? Or do you just want to get smashed?

Set your budget.

This will immediately limit your options to where on the shelves you’ll be looking. As a rule of thumb, top shelf is top price, mid shelf mid price, bottom shelf bottom price. Expensive doesn’t always mean better. Barolo wine, for example, is a relatively more expensive wine largely due to the small yield produced by the vineyard. The grapes are grown up in the Piedmont mountains of Italy and subject to weather damage.

That being said, there are, of course, Merlots for less than £5.00 and Merlots way out of the average person’s budget due to the quality of the grapes, the method of harvesting and prestige of the vineyard etc. It’s similar in many ways to beers. Mass produced beers are much cheaper to buy than small-batch craft beers, and the difference is in the taste. 

In general, non-wine geeks are quite content with the less expensive wines due to the residual sugars in the wine. Residual sugars are natural sugars in the grape that are intentionally prevented from turning into alcohol to retain the fuller flavour of lower quality grapes. Higher quality grapes are allowed to mature longer in the barrel allowing more sugars to be converted into alcohol.

But, we’re talking supermarket wines in this post, many of which are mass produced and selected for their affordability. 

Oaked or non-oaked?

Wines stored in oak barrels impart a unique flavour of vanilla, clove, smoke and wood. Cheaper oaked wines are stored in old barrels, which impart a subtle flavour, whereas more expensive oaked wines are stored in new oak barrels, which impart a much more pronounced flavour. New oak barrels can bump up the price of a wine by an additional £5.00.

Popular Wines by Variety

Barbera

Mention Italian wines and most people think of Chianti, Valpolicella or Barolo but Barbera is what most Italians drink. 

Primary Flavours: tart cherry, Licorice, blackberry, dried herbs, black pepper.

Taste Profile: dry, medium-full bodied, low tannins, high acidity.

Food Pairing: medium intense dishes.

Cabernet Sauvignon

If you haven’t heard of Cabernet Sauvignon you've been living under a rock. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular wine in the world, being the most planted grape in the world.

Primary Flavours: black cherry, black currant, cedar.

Taste Profile: dry, full bodied, medium-high tannins, medium acidity.

Food Pairing: rich grilled meats, peppery sauces, dishes with high flavour.

Grenache

A variety originally grown in Spain, the French have championed this wine.

Primary Flavours: stewed strawberries, plumb, leather, dried herbs, orange.

Taste Profile: dry, medium-full bodied, medium tannins, medium acidity, 

Food Pairing: roasted meats, spicy dishes.

Malbec

A popular variety from Argentina, but finding its roots in France. 

Primary Flavours: plumb, blackberry, vanilla, tobacco, cocoa.

Taste Profile: dry, full bodied, medium tannins, medium-low acidity.

Food Pairing: universal.

Merlot

Merlot is a very popular variety and often confused with Cabernet Sauvignon. This grape is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon to produce Bordeaux wine.

Primary Flavours: cherry, plum, chocolate, bay, vanilla

Taste Profile: dry, medium-full bodied, medium-high tannins, medium acidity.

Food Pairing: universal.

Nebbiola

Wines made from this variety, such as Barolo, tend to be expensive and benefit from cellaring for a few years. Look for wines using this grape made in 2015.

Primary Flavours: cherry, rose, leather, anise, clay.

Taste Profile: bone dry, medium-full bodied, high tannins, medium-high acidity.

Food Pairing: creamy, high fat dishes.

Pinotage

South Africa’s signature variety.

Primary Flavours: black cherry, blackberry, fig, menthol.

Taste Profile: dry, full bodied, medium-high tannins, low acidity.

Food Pairing: roasted meats, barbecue.

Pinot Noir

Produced all over the world with 60% coming from France and 25% from the USA. 

Primary Flavours: cherry, raspberry, mushroom, clove, hibiscus.

Taste Profile: dry, medium bodied, low tannins, medium-high acidity.

Food Pairing: chicken, pork, mushrooms.

Sangiovese

A very popular variety used in Chianti wines. 

Primary Flavours: cherry, roasted tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, oregano, espresso.

Taste Profile: bone dry, medium-full bodied, medium-high tannins, medium-high acidity.

Food Pairing: spicy dishes, tomato dishes, red pepper.

Syrah (Shiraz)

If you’re wanting for a peppery note from your wine look for wines produced in the northern Rhône region of France. The Australians call it Shiraz. 

Primary Flavours: blueberry, plum, milk chocolate, tobacco, green, peppercorn.

Taste Profile: dry, full bodied, medium-high tannins, medium acidity.

Food Pairing: darker meats, spicy dishes.

Tempranillo

A popular variety in Spain used at the core of Rioja regional wines.

Primary Flavours: cherry, grier, fig, cedar, tobacco, dill.

Taste Profile: dry, medium-full bodied, medium-high tannins, medium-high acidity.

Food Pairing: steak, burgers, pasta, tomato dishes.

Zinfandel

Almost exclusively a variety grown in the USA, though originating in Croatia. 

Primary Flavours: blackberry, strawberry, peach, cinnamon, tobacco.

Taste Profile: dry, medium-full bodied, medium-high tannins, medium-low acidity.

Food Pairing: Moroccan and Turkish dishes, pizza, onions, tomato, olives.

Popular Wines by Region

Barolo - Italy 

Barolo is a traditional hillside village in Italy using the region's signature Nebbiolo grape variety.

Primary Flavours: raspberry, cherry, rose, tar, licorice.

Taste Profile: bone dry, full bodied, high tannins, high acidity.

Food Pairing: risotto, pasta, charcuterie.

Beaujolais - France

Using the Gamay variety, this wine is simple and rustic.

Primary Flavours: pomegranate, bramble, violet, banana.

Taste Profile: dry, medium-light bodied, low tannins, medium-high acidity.

Food Pairing: universal.

Bordeaux Blends - France

These wines, using varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, are known for their full bodied, rich, powerful characteristics.

Primary Flavours: black currant, black cherry, chocolate, dried herbs.

Taste Profile: bone dry, full bodied, high tannins, medium acidity.

Food Pairing: steak and other red meats.

Chianti - Italy

Look for the highly regarded Chianti Classico wines.

Primary Flavours: cherry, plum, tomato leaf, leather, clay.

Taste Profile: bone dry, medium-full bodied, high tannins, medium-high acidity.

Food Pairing: spaghetti, meatballs, tomato based dishes.

Rioja - Spain

Spain’s top selling wine.

Primary Flavours: cherry, plum, dill, vanilla, leather.

Taste Profile: dry, medium-full bodied, medium-high tannins, medium-high acidity.

Food Pairing: lamb, pork, chorizo.

Valpolicella - Italy

Easy drinking wine.

Primary Flavours: tart cherry, cinnamon, chocolate, peppercorn, almond.

Taste Profile: dry, medium bodied, low tannins, high acidity.

Food Pairing: burgers, roast chicken, red meats, mushrooms, cheese.

Now that you’ve learned a little bit about choosing a roaring red, it’s time to ditch the wine-aisle-shuffle, leave Sexy Syrah on the shelf and find something more selected.

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Steve Watson
Author and founder of Watson's barber's
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