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How do I choose the best red wine?

Choosing the best red wine can seem daunting given the vast variety of options on the market. However, understanding a few key factors about red wines can help simplify the selection process. Here are some tips for choosing a high-quality red wine that suits your taste preferences and budget.

What are the different types of red wine?

The main types of red wine include:

  • Cabernet Sauvignon – Full-bodied wine with notes of black cherry, cassis, cedar, and tobacco.
  • Merlot – Medium-bodied wine with plum, blackberry, mocha, and herbal flavors.
  • Pinot Noir – Light-bodied with red fruit like cherry and raspberry and earthy, floral notes.
  • Syrah/Shiraz – Robust, peppery wine with ripe fruit and spice.
  • Zinfandel – Juicy, jammy red with bold berry flavor and spice.
  • Malbec – Dark, inky wine with plum, blackberry, and tobacco.
  • Sangiovese – Italian variety used for Chianti; medium-bodied with savory herbs and acidity.

There are also many red wine blends on the market that combine two or more grape varieties. Familiarizing yourself with the main red wine types is a good starting point for narrowing your selection.

What are the characteristics of high-quality red wine?

Look for these markers of a well-made red wine:

  • Color – Deep red to purplish hues signal flavor concentration and ageability. Pale ruby colors may indicate a lighter, less substantial wine.
  • Aroma – Complex bouquets with fruity notes as well as savory, earthy, herbal scents point to a flavorful wine.
  • Taste – Balanced, integrated flavors with good structure (tannins), acidity, and a long, pleasant finish.
  • Harmony – No single flavor dominates; all components integrate seamlessly.
  • Complexity – Subtle layers of flavors reveal themselves as you taste; not one-dimensional.

Wines with finesse and nuance tend to be higher in quality than simple, blunt wines. Concentrate on the wine’s harmony and complexity of aromas and flavors rather than just its power.

How do I choose a red wine based on body type?

The body of a wine refers to its weight and mouthfeel:

  • Full-bodied – Dense, extracted wines that feel thick and rich on the palate. Examples: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Malbec.
  • Medium-bodied – Moderate weight and intensity. Merlot, Sangiovese, Barbera.
  • Light-bodied – More delicate with bright acidity. Pinot Noir, Gamay, Valpolicella.

Full-bodied reds pair well with steak, lamb, or hearty stews and cheeses. Medium-bodied wines complement dishes like meatloaf, bbq ribs, pasta with red sauce, and semi-soft cheeses. Light reds are terrific with salmon, roast chicken, vegetables, and soft cheeses.

Should I choose a red wine based on tannins?

Tannins are natural compounds in grape skins and seeds that give red wine structure and aging potential. On the palate, tannins feel drying and astringent. Here are some tannin guidelines:

  • High tannins – Young wines needing age. Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, Syrah.
  • Medium tannins – Approachable now or after short aging. Merlot, Malbec, Chianti.
  • Low tannins – Soft, fruity wines for immediate drinking. Pinot Noir, Grenache, Barbera.

High-tannin wines pair well with fatty meats to help soften the tannic grip. Low-tannin reds complement more delicate foods. Acidity, sweetness, and umami help balance tannic wines. Consider your menu when choosing a red wine based on tannin level.

What are some versatile red wine grape varieties?

These red grapes make food-friendly wines in a range of styles:

  • Pinot Noir – Light-bodied and earthy yet also richly fruity, Pinot Noir embraces a wide variety of foods.
  • Grenache – Soft and juicy with kirsch and pepper notes, Grenache is highly versatile with both meat and vegetarian cuisine.
  • Sangiovese – The bright acidity of Sangiovese makes it perfect for tomato-based pasta and pizza dishes.
  • Tempranillo – With pretty red fruits and moderate tannins, Tempranillo complements everything from tapas to barbecue.

These grapes make both affordable everyday wines and cult classics. Exploring wines made from these grapes is a great way to enhance your food pairing abilities.

How important is vintage when choosing a red wine?

The vintage refers to the year the grapes were harvested and wine made. For quality red wines, vintage matters for several reasons:

  • Weather patterns fluctuate year to year, influencing grape quality and yields.
  • Good vintages mean grapes achieved optimal ripeness resulting in more concentrated, age-worthy wines.
  • In cooler regions, poorer vintages can result in less ripeness and lower alcohol levels.
  • Vintage charts score each year, helping consumers choose the best vintages.

That said, modern winemaking techniques help mitigate vintage variation. While vintage can indicate quality, winemaking is more important. Focus on reputable producers consistently making quality wines. The grapes they harvest, regardless of vintage, will reflect their high standards.

Should I splurge on an expensive, high-end red?

What constitutes an expensive or high-end red depends on your budget. Here are some considerations regarding premium red wines:

  • More age-worthy wines justify higher prices, as good aging potential requires high-quality grapes and winemaking.
  • Bottlings from iconic regions and vineyards command top dollar based on reputation and scarcity.
  • Wolrd-class, labor-intensive wines warrant elevated pricing due to human effort invested.
  • Discerning wine lovers may detect nuances in upper tier wines that wine novices miss.
  • Paying more does not guarantee satisfaction. Focus on your preferences, not the price.

Rather than buying one expensive bottle, consider several mid-range quality wines to explore your tastes. Over time, figure out your budget sweet spot for splurges. Special occasions deserve special wines!

What are some red wine options under $20?

Quality red wines under $20 include:

Variety Region
Pinot Noir Oregon, Chile, South Africa
Grenache California, France, Australia
Malbec Argentina, Chile, S. Africa
Tempranillo Spain, Portugal, California
Cabernet Sauvignon California, Washington, Chile
Red Blends California, Australia, Portugal

Factors like mass production, machine harvesting, and industrial winemaking lower costs without sacrificing too much quality. Focus on wines from respected large producers, or smaller operations leveraging economies of scale.

What are the best practices for storing red wine?

To preserve freshness and aging potential, store red wine:

  • In cool conditions around 55°F to prevent heat damage.
  • In a dark area away from light to avoid premature oxidation.
  • In a humid area to keep corks moist and tight.
  • In a location with minimal vibration that could disturb sediment.
  • On its side to keep wine touching the cork and prevent drying out.
  • For short term, an upright position is acceptable to make grabbing bottles easier.

Long-term wine storage requires a specialized wine fridge or cellar. For everyday wine, a dark, cool closet shelf works fine. Take white wines and Champagne out of long-term storage a day before serving.

How long can I store an opened bottle of red wine?

How long red wine lasts open depends on the wine style:

Wine Type Open Duration
Light reds with low tannins 3-5 days
Medium-bodied reds 5-7 days
Big tannic reds 7-10 days

To maximize open red wine lifespan:

  • Seal the bottle tightly with a stopper.
  • Refrigerate to slow oxidation.
  • Use an inert gas spray to purge oxygen if storing for more than a day.
  • Consider smaller format bottles to minimize air exposure.

When in doubt, taste before pouring a glass from a previously opened bottle. You should detect some opened-up flavors, not flaws.

What are the best red wine glasses?

A quality wine glass enhances your ability to assess and savor red wine.Ideal red wine glass traits:

  • A round, wide bowl to allow wine to aerate as it’s swirled and sniffed.
  • A tapered rim to concentrate aromas for easy smelling.
  • A thin, lipless rim for smooth wine flow across the palate.
  • A stem long enough to allow holding without hand contact warming the bowl.
  • High clarity, thin crystal to maintain sensitivity.
  • Capacity between 12-22 oz. to allow adequate serving plus swirling room.

For casual drinking, an “all-purpose” wider glass works well. For critical evaluation, use a shape optimized for the specific red wine variety. Invest in the best hand-blown crystal you can afford.

What general tips help guide red wine selection?

Keep these red wine buying tips in mind:

  • Let your personal taste preferences, not wine ratings, drive choices.
  • Try both Old World (European) and New World (everywhere else) style wines.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask wine shop staff questions – it’s their passion.
  • Judge a bottle by its rear label, not front label marketing claims.
  • Always inspect, swirl, smell, and taste wine before purchasing.
  • Buy more of any bottle you enjoy – the next might be gone tomorrow.

Choosing red wine is part art, part science. The more wines you taste, the better you’ll get at finding bottles to your liking. Enjoy the journey!


Finding a great red wine involves considering the major grape varieties, wine body and tannins, vintage, price range, and your personal preferences. Take a structured approach but also have fun trying different regions, styles, and producers. Learning more about red wine will rapidly boost your ability to select quality bottles you’ll savor now or age for the future. Trust your own palate to determine what tastes best to you. With so many excellent reds now available, the world of wine is your oyster!