How to pick a red wine

Are you confused when faced with a novel-length wine list at a restaurant, or an entire aisle of wine at the supermarket? In the wine bar I work in, I often see the overwhelmed look on customers faces when I set down the booklet of offered wines; the servers are there to make recommendations and answer questions, but here are some good basics about red wines to know, even if you have an expert to point you in the right direction.

The "Big" Red

People often want a big red, or a big, spicy red. A big wine is generally full-bodied, which feels heavy in the mouth. One comparison is the difference between the feel of milk, which is thicker and coats the mouth more-full bodied, and water, which is lighter and the feeling in the mouth disappears quickly-light bodied. A big wine will hang around in your mouth, and the change in tastes between when you first sip until after you swallow often vary-earthy initially with a floral aftertaste, for example (that's often what people are referring to when they call a wine complex). Full-bodied reds are also often higher in alcohol content and tannins, which are the things that make you pucker and smack your lips after a sip of wine. Tannins have a chemical composition that actually dries your saliva; if you run your tongue over the roof of your mouth after a sip of wine and it feels like sandpaper, that wine has a high tannin content. Common big reds are Zinfandel, Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, and Syrah (aka Shiraz).

The Smooth Red

This one is a bit trickier, as smoothness varies by winery, vintage, barrels, the soil the grapes were grown in, even the weather when they were grown! A smooth wine doesn't have a sharp, stinging taste, but rather a more mellow, goes-down-easy feel. Generally, less tannins and a lower alcohol content contribute to the subtler feeling. Good bets for a smooth red wine are Merlot, Pinot Noir, Pinotage, and Chianti.

The Light Red

Light reds pair well with big, flavorful foods. The taste is cleaner (ie, less aftertaste) and less complex-think of the water versus milk analogy, light reds are the water component. Generally lower in tannins and alcohol, they are a simpler experience when your palate doesn't want the fireworks of a big, full-bodied experience. Common light reds are Cabernet Franc (often used in blends, but recently bottled alone and delicious!), Beaujolais, and Cotes du Rhone.


The last consideration when selecting wine is the region in which it was grown. The difference between a French and a Californian Pinot Noir, for example, are bigger than you might think. Californian Pinots tend to be fruitier and the French counterpart is generally more robust and earthier. Further, you may prefer the Californian wine when drunk alone, but the French version when paired with cheese, which brings out otherwise missed notes in both the wine and the cheese. Personally, I have a thing for Chilean wine, which I recently discovered and am buying like they're running out of grapes! The best way to discover your favorite regions is by buying wine with an awareness-select two comparably priced Merlots from two locations and do a taste test. Once you have found regions you prefer-Spain, Italy, Argentina, Napa Valley-and perhaps even wineries you consistently enjoy, you'll be able to look at a wine list and pick your perfect glass without any assistance at all.

Happy drinking!

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Comments 11 comments

DeniseClarke profile image

DeniseClarke 8 years ago from Florida

Great information and easy to understand. CHEERS!


jonaitis profile image

jonaitis 8 years ago from San Francisco Author

Thanks so much Denise--tried to make it as easy as possible, and a drink to that!

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CommMommy 8 years ago from Washington

Yum! I can't wait to quit breastfeeding!

Pennsylvania Wanderer 7 years ago

Thanks for the great information on red wine. I'm very quickly becoming a fan of Shiraz. This Australian variety is now being gorwn at many Pennsylvania wineries and the wine is getting better and better. Give it a try if you get a chance.

midnightbliss profile image

midnightbliss 7 years ago from Hermosa Beach

thanks, the information on your hub is really helpful specially to those like me who are not really familiar with "what's" and "hows" about wines.

Espy 7 years ago

Here's a recommendation for a nice, medium-bodied red wine, that pleases a wide range of tasters (friends who are not at all wine connoisseurs served it recently, and told us it was their favorite red). My wife likes heavier cabs, while I prefer a nice light Pinot Noir, but we do like something in the middle that we can both appreciate. We've gone through the two bottles I picked up last weekend, and will be buying more this weekend. It's Menage a Trois (California, 2007), and most liquor stores with anything of a selection should have it. Coupons 6 years ago

Thanks for the great information! It definitely makes it more clear!

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funky23 5 years ago from Deutschland

i think i saw that on the register the other day

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eventsyoudesign 5 years ago from Nashville, Tennessee

Great article. I enjoy Pinot Noir myself. Your article is easy to follow. Thanks for sharing. Teresa

hanwillingham profile image

hanwillingham 5 years ago

Nice picking tips.THanks.

TycoonSam profile image

TycoonSam 4 years ago from Washington, MI

Informative, and from one wine lover to another...Cheers!

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