Red Wines 101

When you learn the different qualities of varietals, buying wine and pairing it with food is a cinch.
Karen McNeil

Just as you can imagine the different flavors of steak, chicken, and pork chops without actually eating them, you can learn to imagine the flavors of zinfandel, pinot noir, merlot, and other wine varietals. Being conscious of the differences makes buying wine and pairing it with food much simpler.

Pinot noir
Personality: Sensual and understated. Pinot noir is one of the most food-friendly red wines, thanks to lots of inherent acidity.
Origin: The Burgundy region of France, though great examples also come from California and Oregon
Aroma, flavor, and texture: Rich loamy earth, mushrooms, warm baked cherries; usually medium-­bodied flavor with a smooth, supple texture that's often ­described as silky
Cost: From $20 for a decent American version to more than $100 for a top-quality French pinot
Try it with: Grilled salmon, most anything with mushrooms ( Risotto with Mushrooms), roasted chicken, and duck breast

Syrah/shiraz
Personality: Rich,dramatic, even a bit wild
Origin: Northern Rhone Valley of France; also made in Australia (where it's called shiraz) and the United States
Aroma, flavor, and texture: Wild berries, chocolate, black licorice, black pepper with hints of meatiness; medium- to full-­bodied flavor, with a soft, thick mouthfeel. Australian shirazes, in particular, are big, plush examples of the wine world.
Cost: Modest (good shirazes can be had for $15) to $40-plus for the top French examples
Try it with: Lamb or slow-cooked hearty meaty stews and casseroles. Pour a glass with Lamb Shanks with Lemon and White Beans.

Merlot
Personality: Depends on price―inexpensive merlots are simple, ­basic red wines of little character. But if you spend $25 or more, you'll get a wine as rich and majestic as cabernet sauvignon.
Origin: The Bordeaux region of France; California and Washington State
Aroma, flavor, and texture: Cocoa, red plums, cassis, espresso, cedar, tobacco; medium to full bodied. The top merlots have a lot of structure.
Cost: From $10 for ­inexpensive Chilean merlot, $20 to $40 for a very good merlot from California, to more than $2,000 a bottle for the top Bordeaux-made merlot
Try it with: Meat dishes such as roasted chicken, braised short ribs, or steak

Cabernet sauvignon
Personality: The preeminent classic red ­variety, thanks to its complexity, majestic structure, richness, and capacity to age for decades―the Sean Connery of red wines
Origin: Bordeaux, France, but terrific ­examples are now produced in virtually ­every great red wine ­region of the world
Aroma, flavor, and texture: Similar to merlot, only bigger, deeper, more intense and powerful. Watch out, though, for poorly made, cheap cabernet sauvignon, which can be dank and weedy.
Cost: Moderate ($15) to expensive ($75); plan to spend at least $25 for a very good bottle.
Try it with: Grilled steak (cabernet and grilled steak are considered a classic American pairing) and roast beef

Zinfandel
Personality: Thick and jammy, like blackberries simmering
Origin: Croatia, though virtually all of the top zinfandels are now grown in northern California
Aroma, flavor, and texture: Like a big boysenberry pie with ­vanilla ice cream―full bodied, mouth filling, and flannel soft
Cost: $12 to $30
Try it with: Meat loaf, barbecued ribs, burgers, bean-and-vegetable casseroles, or pot roast. Open a bottle with Chipotle Barbecue Burgers with Slaw.

What is a varietal?
A varietal is wine made with a specific variety of grape. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and chardonnay are all types of grapes, just as Granny Smith, McIntosh, and Rome are kinds of apples. There are approximately 24,000 grape names. But these represent only about 5,000 distinct varieties, since a variety may go by numerous names depending on where it is grown (syrah/shiraz is one example).