10 Words to Know When Buying Red Wine

published Nov 6, 2014
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(Image credit: Jill Silverman Hough)

We’ve all been in a wine purchasing situation, confronted with a store-full of bottles or a daunting wine list, hoping for a bottle of red that will taste good to us. How do you convey to your salesperson or server exactly what you’re looking for? Not necessarily what they like, but something that tastes amazing to you.

A few weeks ago, we broke down the 10 Words to Know When Buying White Wine. Let’s take a look at some words commonly associated with red wines, because verbiage is the key to truly getting what you want.

10 Words to Know When Buying Red Wine

1. Tannin – This is the most important word to know when choosing or describing a red wine. What is tannin? Tannin is a natural component of grape skins and can also be imparted by oak. It manifests itself as a drying sensation on the palate. To experience this, brew a pot of black tea and let it steep for 30 or more minutes. The resulting tea has a bitter, mouth-parching, dry sensation. This is a great comparison to what a tannic wine feels like. If you tend to enjoy a “smooth” wine, be sure to seek out a wine with lower tannins.



– So, you’re looking for a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. Most people head right for the domestic aisle because it’s easy to read the label. It takes a little more knowledge to realize that you also could have ventured over to the Bordeaux section or the Tuscany section. You just have to realize that those wines, like most Old World wines, are labeled by region, not by which grapes are in the bottle. Taking the time to do a little extra homework can expand your options dramatically.

3. Blend – One of the most common requests I receive as a sommelier is, “Can you recommend a good red blend?” Many, if not most, red wines are blends to some degree. For example, in California, only 75% of the wine in the bottle needs to be variety stated on the label. Many famous European regions, such as Bordeaux, Chianti, and Rioja, are based almost solely on a blended style. Don’t let yourself get fixated on the word, blend. Instead, find a style that you like.

4. Varietal Characteristics – Although virtually every grape variety that we enjoy comes from the species, Vitis Vinifera, the profiles of these individual grapes can drastically vary in style. Just like the thick-skinned, small berries of Cabernet Sauvignon inherently produce a richer, bolder wine, the thin-skinned, more delicate fruit of the Pinot Noir vine yields a light-bodied, elegant style of red wine. When you find a specific grape that you like, ask about other grapes with similar flavor profiles, when you’re looking to try something new.

5. Body – Most commonly attributed to varietal characteristics, body can also be affected by oak maturation, age of the wine, sugar, and alcohol. I know that many people are happy with the boldest possible red wine for every occasion; however, there is nothing like experiencing how a lighter red, like Pinot Noir or Sangiovese, complements a more subtle dish, like salmon or mushroom risotto. It’s a magical food and wine pairing moment, when the weight of the wine is perfectly matched with the cuisine.

What is the most important aspect of red wine to know? Tannin. Tannin affects the perception of dryness and texture in a wine. What are some examples of red wines high in tannin? Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Nebbiolo. What are some low tannin options? Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Barbera.

6. Fruit – Somehow, using the word, “fruity”, has gotten a bad rap. Virtually all red wines exhibit fruity tones in some form. Fruity does not imply sweetness. Think about the dense, unctuous, ripe fruit flavors of a California Zinfandel versus the lean, dusty, brambly cherry-driven flavors of a Tuscan Sangiovese. Even regions like Bordeaux and Barolo, which are commonly associated with earthy notes, always showcase fruity components, as well.

7. Oak – Most red wines spend some time fermenting or maturing in oak. Why even bother? Oak rounds out the rough edges in a wine and brings a cohesive texture. It also imparts specific flavors into a wine, depending upon which type of oak is used, the most common types being French and American. Frequently noted aromas or flavors that oak imparts are vanilla, baking spices, smoke, caramel, and even dill.



– Vintage has two definitions. A wine’s vintage is the year printed on the bottle and always refers to the year in which the grapes were harvested. Climatic variations, year to year, greatly affect the resulting wine. So don’t be surprised if your favorite wine tastes different, when the new vintage rolls out. The term, “vintage wine”, also refers to wine that has been aged. What does time to do red wine? As red wine matures in the bottle, the wine becomes lighter in color, exhibits a more delicate structure, and its initial fruitiness drifts into secondary characteristics, often of leather, cedar and spice.

9. Reserve – Unfortunately, this word doesn’t guarantee much of anything outside of Spain or Italy. Many times we see the words “Grand Reserve” or “Vintner’s Reserve” on a bottle, yet there are no specific mandates for placing those words on a wine’s label. Either ask a sales professional or research that specific winery to understand what their “Reserve” means. In Spain or Italy, however, the government actually mandates strict aging guidelines, so that when you see a reserva from Spain or a riserva from Italy, you know that you are paying for quality.

10. Price – Ouch. Here comes the real question: “Is it worth it?” There is no definitive answer to this question. There is something truly magical about enjoying a wine that comes from an incredible, uniquely situated vineyard, a deft winemaker, or a perfect vintage. Price, however, does not necessarily equate to quality. I usually tell people to drink the cheapest wine that they love, but don’t be afraid to splurge sometimes!

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