Whether it’s for a celebratory dinner party, a romantic date, or a quiet evening with a book, a nice bottle of red wine is the perfect fit for the occasion. However, choosing the best red wine can prove to be a challenge.

This A-Z guide will help give you a basic understanding of red wine—everything from what types of red wine offer what flavors to their acidity and what to pair them with.

Of course, the “best” red wine is, in many ways, is subjective. Everyone will have their personal preferences. With that in mind, we’ll be covering a variety of different types of wine. Some are sweet; others are tart. Some have fruity notes; others have smokey notes. To start with, let’s explore the difference between the qualities of red and white wine.

Table of Contents

Red Wine 101

Red Wine vs. White Wine

Other than their color, there are several key differences between red and white wine. First, of which is that red wine is made from black grapes, which aren’t actually black—they can range in color from light red to deep indigo. White wine most often comes from white grapes, which are green in color.

What gives red wines their pretty color is the skin of the grapes. However, with white wines, the skin is removed. We’ll talk more on how this affects the flavor in a moment. While red wine is always made using black grapes, not all white wine is made with white grapes. Since the inside of all grapes is white, you can make white wine with dark-colored grapes by removing the skin.

The flavor differences between red and white wine can be quite noticeable. This has to do with the types of grapes used and the way the juice is aged. Red wine is most often aged in oak barrels while white wines are most often aged in stainless steel vats. Of course, there are exceptions. For instance, Chardonnay—which is white wine—is aged in oak barrels to add nutty and creamy flavors to the wine.

Oak barrels breath, allowing the wine to oxidize, while steel vats are airtight which prevents oxidation. Keeping oxidation at a minimum allows the wine to retain its fruity, floral, and acidic flavors. Oak barrels exchange these flavors for more nutty, rich, and smooth ones.

Understanding Wine Descriptors

There are a wide variety of ways to describe the many tastes, aromas, and sensations of wine. To get an idea of what might be the best red wine for you, let’s first take a look at some of the factors we use to describe wine.

In this article, we are going to split wine up into six different elements:

  • Flavors
  • Sweetness
  • Body
  • Tannin
  • Acidity
  • Alcohol content

This may seem overwhelming at first, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll know exactly how to describe the wine you’re looking for and know if a bottle of wine on the shelf may be a good match. Let’s talk about each of these elements in detail.

Flavors

At first, it seems a bit odd to talk about different flavors when referring to wine. After all, wine is a unique flavor in itself. But with every wine having different tastes, the best way to describe the flavors is by referring to other familiar flavors. Some common flavors you will find in red wines are cherries, dark fruits, berries, chocolate, leather, tobacco, peaches, bell peppers, oak, smoke, and coffee.

Each wine will have a handful of flavors that are used to describe it. Though terms used to describe wine can be quite odd—leather, crushed gravel, and pencil shavings—don’t get too caught up on these. Chances are, your wine won’t actually taste like you’re gulping down liquified pencils. As long as the majority of the primary flavors sound pleasant to you, it may be a good fit.

Sweetness

Describing the sweetness of a wine is pretty straightforward. The more dry, the less sweet the wine is. Wines range from very dry to very sweet:

  • Very dry/bone dry—wines close to 0% sweetness
  • Dry—wines at or around 1% sweetness
  • Off dry/semi-sweet—wines above 3% sweetness
  • Sweet—wines above 5% sweetness
  • Very sweet/dessert wines—wines above 7% sweetness

Brand new wine drinkers should avoid very dry wines since they can be too bitter to enjoy at first.

Body

The body of a wine refers to how heavy or thick it feels in the mouth. For instance, a light-bodied wine may feel similar to the weight of water, while a full-bodied wine may feel similar to the weight of whole milk. In general, red wines have a fuller body than white wines.

Tannin

Tannin naturally occurs in all sorts of plants and fruits including grapes. To get an idea of what it is and how it tastes, it helps to relive a time when you accidentally over-steeped black tea.

Black tea contains tannin which is most noticeable when you leave the tea bag in for too long. When taking a sip, you may notice a bitter taste that leaves your mouth with a puckering or dry feeling. In the same way, tannin wines dry the mouth.

Red wine is more tannic than white wine because of how they differ in the way they’re made. Red wines get their color and tannin, for the most part, from the grape skins that sit in the grape juice as it ferments. White wine is fermented without the grape skin, so it’s not as tannic.

When describing a wine as having high tannin, this means you can expect more bitterness. A low tannin wine would be the opposite—it would not cause as much of a dry sensation.

When researching wine, you may notice terms such as firm, leathery bitter, smooth, soft, rough, and chewy. These are describing the taste or sensation that tannin gives to the wine. As a rule of thumb, the more tannic wine is, the more boldness you can expect from the taste and the darker it looks.

Tannin is also a powerful antioxidant substance which offers many benefits through consuming wine in moderation. Its antioxidant properties produce anti-carcinogenic and anti-mutagenic effects which help support a healthy body. Some studies suggest that a glass of tannic red wine each day may boost your health.

It’s easy to confuse the mouth dryness experienced when sipping tannic wine with the term “dry” when describing the sweetness of a wine. A tannic wine isn’t necessarily dry in terms of sweetness. Since tannin is, in many ways, the foundation of red wine, you’ll see it mentioned a lot in this guide.

Acidity

Wines with a high acidity will have a more tart or sour taste—think citrus or vinegar. Low acidity wines have a more rich or mellow flavor. In general, white wines are more acidic than red wines. However, some red wines can be quite acidic.

Alcohol Content

The amount of alcohol in wine can affect flavor and feeling. A dry wine with high alcohol content may even cause a slight burning sensation—especially after spicy foods. Higher alcohol content will also mean you get tipsy faster.

Wines can have as little as 5% ABV (alcohol by volume) to upwards of 20% ABV. However, most red wines sit around 11.5-14.5% ABV.

The Best Fit for the Occasion

The best red wine often depends on the occasion. It may be better to go with a more versatile wine that a higher number of people will enjoy rather than only considering your own taste when choosing wine for a party, gathering, or date.

It’s better to choose a well-rounded wine with the flavors, sweetness, body, acidity, and alcohol content being toward the middle of the spectrum rather than the extremes. Choosing a wine with a bold flavor will likely leave dinner guests unhappy with the choice.

If you are bringing a bottle of wine to pair with a meal, it’s best to know what will be served ahead of time so you can research which wines tend to pair best.

Of course, if you’re mixing the wine into a sangria for a nice summer cookout, the flavor of the wine will matter much less since it will be overshadowed by more prominent flavors. However, when choosing a wine to cook with, you’re better off picking a wine that’s most similar to the one used in the recipe.

Red Wine & Food Pairing

When choosing the best red wine for the occasion, you should consider which foods, if any, will accompany it. Despite what some hardcore wine enthusiasts may believe, there is no right or wrong wine to have with a dish or snack. If you enjoy it, then it’s the right wine. However, there are some rules of thumb which may help you find a good pairing.

Bold red wine – Malbec, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon

These types of bold red wines pair well with:

  • Grilled or roasted red meat
  • Cured meat
  • Pork
  • Pungent cheese
  • Onions
  • Tomatoes
  • Black pepper
  • Red pepper
  • Pasta
  • Potato

Medium red wine – Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, Barbera, Sangiovese

These types of medium red wines pair well with:

  • Smoked Pork
  • Cured meat
  • Red meat
  • Grilled or roasted poultry
  • Pungent or hard cheese
  • Onion
  • Tomato
  • Mushroom
  • Red pepper
  • Exotic spices
  • Potato

Light red wine – Pinot Noir

Light red wines pair well with:

  • Sauteed or fried poultry
  • Salami
  • Soft or cream cheese
  • Onion
  • Mushrooms
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Exotic spices
  • Fresh herbs (oregano, basil, thyme)
  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Potato