Six grape varieties comprise the “big six” in the wine-making world: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir. Salute continues its Big Six review this month with a look at the three red grapes that are the foundation for many of the world’s best wines.
Story: Mary Ann DeSantis, WSET
I thought writing about red wine would be easy, because these three varietals are among my favorites. However, the challenge has been to fit everything into two pages. After all, entire books—in fact, volumes of books have been written about these classic red wines.
One of the most important aspects when learning about wine is to understand the concept of “body.” Most wine classes instruct you to think about milk. That’s right! Milk’s texture helps describe wine. Equate skim milk with Pinot Noir, a wine so light that you can practically see through it; whole milk has medium body, like Merlot; and finally, there is rich, heavy cream, which coats your tongue. Cabernet Sauvignon is often considered the crème de la crème of wines because of its richness and intense flavors.
Enjoy the differences among these classic red varietals in a side-by-side tasting:
It’s hard for me to be objective about Pinot Noir, my favorite go-to wine for just about any meal. And recommending only one is nearly impossible. Wines made from Pinot Noir grapes are lighter, both in color and body. They are also food friendly, especially with a classic pairing of grilled salmon or a savory chicken dish. Generally grown in cool climates, Pinot Noir grapes can be temperamental and difficult to grow; hence, prices tend to be higher. Cranberry and red cherry flavors are found in wines produced in cooler climates (Oregon, Burgundy) while wines from moderate zones (California) exhibit raspberries and black cherries. Pinot Noir is also the grape used for French Burgundy wines.
Robert Mondavi Winery 2014 Pinot Noir, Carneros:This earthy Pinot was a total surprise, because I always associated the legendary Mondavi name with Cabernets and Merlots. However, Mondavi has been making this Pinot Noir since 1969 so it’s not new to the RMW line-up of decent and affordable wines. The wine had the classic raspberry and cherry flavors with an added spiciness of clover and cinnamon. The wine complemented roasted game hens perfectly. (Suggested retail: $27).
Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery 2013 Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley: Gary Farrell Winery selects grapes from the region’s top vineyards to take advantage of varied climates and unique characteristics of each site. The result is a complex Pinot Noir that is elegant with more tannins than you usually find in this varietal. With quite a spectrum of flavors—from raspberry to mushrooms—this 2013 vintage paired extremely well with grilled salmon and a variety of cheeses. (Suggested retail: $45).
The granddaddy of classic red wines has to be Cabernet Sauvignon, which is the top-selling red varietal because of its intensity and full-body flavors. Cabernet Sauvignon vines grow well all over the world, and the hardy grapes allow winemakers to achieve consistency and good taste. An excellent Cabernet can be found at any price point, whether you’re on a tight budget or can afford to splurge. And when it comes to pairing with a steak dinner, there’s no better choice.
Robert Mondavi Winery Oakville 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon: Oakville has been the cradle of great Cabernet Sauvignon for more than 130 years, but Robert Mondavi put it on the map with his To Kalon vineyard. Winemaker Genevieve Janssens consistently carries on the tradition with flavorful and highly rated wines. 2013 was considered an epic year for Napa winegrowers because it provided optimal flavor development in Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The perfection in this complex and refined Robert Mondavi wine makes it highly sought after, and prices seem to be increasing since my visit to Napa last February. (Current suggested retail: $60).
Beringer Knight’s Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County: Located 17 miles north of the Beringer Winery, the Knight’s Valley vineyard in Sonoma County has volcanic, well-drained soils perfectly suited for Cabernet Sauvignon. I was fortunate to attend a vertical tasting for 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009 vintages of the Beringer Knight’s Valley Cabernet. Without a doubt, all were exceptional wines with firm tannins. Beringer even recommended cellaring for several more years. That’s good news if you buy the latest 2013 release. (Suggested retail: $34).
Merlot wines took a beating after the 2004 movie, “Sideways,” about a wine-tasting road trip. The film’s main character, played by Paul Giamatti, disparaged the varietal as he romped through wine country looking for the perfect Pinot Noir. For years following the movie, many wine drinkers stayed away from Merlot. Luckily, winemakers are winning fans back with medium-bodied Merlots that have the tannins, acidity, and flavors to make them excellent choices with or without food.
Miner Family Winery 2013 Napa Valley Merlot, Stagecoach Vineyard: This wine is luscious, and it made a simple dinner of ham and macaroni and cheese seem like an elegant affair. The grapes are hand-picked from a mountainous vineyard, and the winemaker uses a combination of Old World winemaking techniques with modern technology to produce a Merlot that can stand up to a Cabernet with its mouth-puckering tannins. (Suggested retail: $40).
Chateau Croix Figeac Saint Emilion 2011 Grand Cru, Bordeaux, France: My husband recently came across a closeout deal on this wine from the right bank of France’s Garonne River in Bordeaux, where the Merlot grape is predominant. While many Merlot wines are fruit forward with a hint of sweetness, this French version is earthy and has smooth tannins. Most wine websites recommend drinking the 2011 vintage by 2017 so that probably explains the discounts. (Suggested retail: $20).