Okay, so you probably know that there’s red wine and there’s white wine. You may also know that there are different kinds of grapes out there beyond red and white, and they each have distinct flavors and characteristics.
Here is your cheat sheet to the four red grapes that will get you through most conversations about wine!
Merlot is probably the most popular red in the United States. It’s also pretty big in France, so you might even argue it’s the most popular grape in the world. At the very least, it’s one of the most famous. It’s very fruity and smooth, known for being easy to drink. If you’ve seen the movie “Sideways”, you will probably have the impression that wine snobs don’t drink Merlot; this is false. Some places in California churn out mass amounts of it because it’s so popular and will sell quickly; this is where Merlot’s bad reputation comes from these days. Many wineries in Washington make stellar Merlots, and many people think that Merlot should be known as Washington’s grape instead of California’s.
Cabernet Sauvignon is the red varietal that might give Merlot a run for its money in terms of popularity. Cab is the easiest grape to grow in any climate (because of its thick skin), so it’s possibly the most widely grown grape in the world, and it’s definitely up there with Merlot as one of the most prominent red wines. Cab is often described as a “big” wine; the thick skin gives it a lot of flavor and a lot of tannins, which are sometimes too bitter for new wine drinkers. The best Cabs will have all the fullness of the tannins, but not the bitterness. As Cabs age, the tannins will soften and give the wine a very full body and long finish (meaning, it won’t taste weak, and the taste will linger in your mouth).
Syrah is currently one of the stars of Washington wine and grows really well around these parts. Syrah is an interesting grape because it takes on vastly different flavors depending on the climate and soil in which it grows. It can have a savory taste to it, or a very fruity taste, or a peppery, spicy taste. Often less tannic than Merlot and Cab, Syrah is a great wine if you shy away from the bitterness of the more tannic reds. Syrah is also known as Shiraz when it’s grown in Australia.
Zinfandel is a red varietal that you don’t find very often in Washington; it’s much more commonly grown in California. In Europe, it is known by several other names, most recognizably Primitivo in Italy. Zinfandels are fruity and spicy, often on the higher end of alcohol content. Sometimes known in its pink form as White Zinfandel, a sweet rosé whose heyday has come and gone, a true Zinfandel is bold and peppery.