The 4 Most Popular Types of Red Wine and How Best to Enjoy Them

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Maybe you’re not a huge wine drinker but you’d like to learn about it. Or perhaps you’re more of a white wine kind of gal but you’re planning a dinner party and looking for something to pair with your beef wellington. Whatever the case, you want to find a red wine that will tantalize the tastebuds. As for which one to choose, our expert-approved guide to the most popular types of red wine should provide you with all the information you need to make an informed choice.

Meet the Experts

  • Elyse Lovenworth is the Lead Sommelier at Sommsation, an online retailer that specializes in hard-to-find wines from top independent wineries. She has experience working in every facet of the industry, from working in vineyards and wineries, importing and distributing wine and spirits, managing bar programs and working as a sommelier and wine director in top restaurants on both coasts. She has spent time in renowned wine regions all over the world and holds a number of prestigious beverage titles, including Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers, as well as the lesser-known beer equivalent title of Certified Cicerone.
  • Rick Margaritov is a certified sake sommelier and hospitality veteran with an extensive beverage background that includes leading the opening of acclaimed Chef Thomas Keller’s first concept wine bar, Bar Bouchon, and collaborating on service programs for James Beard Award-winning chefs Tom Collichio, Jonathan Waxman and Suzanne Goin & Caroline Styne. He’s also the co-owner of Present Tense and Hippo, a Nashville restaurant and bodega duo that boasts a stand-out selection of sake and natural (aka “natty”) wines that are organically or biodynamically farmed and made with no interventions or manipulation, including added sulfites, preservatives and sugars.

What Are the Most Popular Types of Red Wine?

1. Cabernet Sauvignon

  • Tends to Taste: full-bodied and earthy with dark fruit
  • Ideal Food Pairings: steak, meatballs, mushrooms, blue cheese, pizza
  • Region(s) It’s From: Bordeaux, France; Tuscany, Italy; California and Washington; Australia; Chile; South Africa…(the list goes on)

Cabernet sauvignon is both the most planted grape and the most produced wine in the world, which explains why it can be found in mouthwatering red blends, prestigious wines that make collectors swoon and even the cheap house wine at your local watering hole. Or, as Lovenworth puts it, “CAB IS KING.” But what kind of king, you ask? “The general character of a cabernet is dark fruit balanced with a powerful structure and notes of tobacco, earthy leather, and sometimes coffee or cocoa,” says Lovenworth. Though it’s worth noting that cabernet can really run the gamut, since it’s very often blended with other grapes and current blending laws state that a wine need only be 75 percent of one grape in order to call itself by that name. (For what it’s worth, a wine that is actually 100 percent cabernet will say so on the label, too.) If you’re looking for a bold and full-bodied red that can stand up to a hearty meal, cabernet is a solid choice.

2. Merlot

  • Tends to Taste: fruity, smooth and structured
  • Ideal Food Pairings: red meat, chicken, roasted veggies, charcuterie
  • Region(s) It’s From: France (most notably, Bordeaux); Italy (Friuli and Tuscany); the United States (Napa Valley, California and Columbia Valley, Washington)

According to Lovenworth, merlot is a particularly elegant style of red wine that used to be the most popular choice until it got the wrong kind of feature in Sideways, a movie that was subsequently credited with depressing the market for merlot wine. (The main character is a wine snob who refuses to drink merlot and expresses deep disdain for the widely loved grape.)  The “Sideways Effect” aside, merlot—the world’s second most planted grape—is as it always has been, “cabernet’s fruitier friend; still powerful and structured like a cab, but with a smoother palate and more fruit-forward character, often with the scent of fresh blueberry pie and a pop of chocolate on the finish,” says Lovenworth. The takeaway? File this dry and highly approachable red under ‘smooth operator’ and keep it on your radar ‘cause it’s ready for a comeback.

3. Pinot Noir 

  • Tends to Taste: bright and earthy with mellow fruit 
  • Ideal Food Pairings: duck, chicken, salmon, mushrooms, beef stew 
  • Region(s) It’s From: France, New Zealand, and the United States 

The experts agree that pinots are accessible and easy to drink, with or without food, provided you don’t mind their characteristic acidity. Pinot noir is “one of the lighter red varietals out there, not tannic or too dry,” says Margaritov, adding that “pinots will feed you lush red berries, chocolate, pine, smoky wood and so many other fruity and earthy characteristics in each sip.” Indeed, Lovenworth tells us that, despite being such a light red, pinot noir often features relatively assertive mushroom and forest notes without the “super ripe fruit character that many enjoy in their red wines.” In other words, this one is best for folks who prefer something light, zippy and a bit more complex.

4. Gamay 

  • Tends to Taste: fresh, bright and fruity 
  • Ideal Food Pairings: lighter meat dishes, white-rind cheeses, charcuterie, salmon and tuna, pizza 
  • Region(s) It’s From: Beaujolais and Loire Valley, France; Oregon, California and Australia 

One of Margaritov’s favorite reds is Gamay—a very light and easy-to-drink varietal that’s basically synonymous with Beaujolais, a type of wine made in the namesake region of Southern Burgundy, France. (Note: not all gamay wines come from Beaujolais, but all red Beaujolais is made with gamay.) Per the expert, gamay is known to have “a little more bite without expressing too many dry tannins, [plus] beautiful floral notes and a silky texture.” Serve this bright and juicy wine slightly chilled and gulp it down on its own or pair it with almost anything.

Which Red Wine Is Smoothest to Drink? 

We’ve attempted to answer this question before with regard to white wines and, again, personal taste plays a considerable role here. As previously mentioned, Margaritov’s go-to red wine for easy-drinking is gamay, and many would agree that Beaujolais is indeed a wine that appeals to trained palates and new red wine drinkers alike. As for Lovenworth, she’s a self-described pinot noir person, but concedes that the wine’s acidity doesn’t typically lend itself to smoothness, per se, which is why she “continues to tell people that Sideways is just a movie and merlot is an incredibly smooth and delicious wine that deserves another chance.” With that in mind, we reckon your best bet is to experiment with merlot, gamay and even pinot noir (because smooth isn’t everything and what you really want might just be something light) to see which one pleases your palate the most…and maybe don’t dive headfirst into a glass of cabernet just yet.

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Emma Singer is a freelance contributing editor and writer at PureWow who has over 7 years of professional proofreading, copyediting and writing experience. At PureWow, she covers...