In the world of red wine grapes, there’s a little more competition for the top slot, so a little less agreement about which one is at the top of the food chain.
But there are three red grapes, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon that come from the burgundy and Bordeaux regions of France that are the absolute icons of classic style.
There is one group that I would add to this major group though, because of the importance that it’s picked up just in the last 10 or 20 years. And that’s a group called Syrah, also from France, but that we often know under its new identity in other parts of the world where they call it Shiraz.
So let’s go to the beginning and look at the lightest one of these wines. Pinot Noir is the grape variety that has been grown in Burgundy since the 12th century and this style is on the lighter end of the red wine spectrum.
Even looking at it in the glass, you can see it has a translucence to it. That is because the grape has relatively thin skins and so its delivery of color and flavor intensity to the wine is on the lighter end of the spectrum.
However, the flavors that it does give are so seductive and desirable. The Pinot Noir is one of the most desired styles of wine on Earth, it is coveted and collectible. It is a cool climate style that is a little brighter, a little bit more in the red fruit, aromatic spectrum things like cranberries and strawberries come to mind.
This is a lighter style of red that works well with some foods that you might normally think of pairing with white wine seafood and white meats.
When we come to the kissing cousins next that come from Bordeaux, we have Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to grapes that are planted in the same region and that are distantly related.
When they’re grown in cold places like France and Italy, they often have a little bit of aromatic resemblance to them as well.
But once they are planted in sunnier warmer places like Chile, for example, or in California, we get a little more divergence in their aromatics and it gets easier to tell them apart.
On the nose, Merlot tends to give us a little bit more of an herbal quality to it. A little bit less of the earthiness that we find in Pinot Noir and seems to be a little bit darker in its fruit range.
A little bit more like blackberries and plums and a little bit less like strawberries and cranberries.
When we encounter it from a cool place, we often get a woodsy character to it almost like cedar or even roasted bell peppers and it is very well suited to food and its distant relation.
Cabernet Sauvignon is definitely among the most famous and well-known grape varieties in the world. It makes some of the finest wines of Bordeaux and is known for the long-term aging potential that it can have.
This is due to the fact that Cabernet Sauvignon was a grape that has smaller berries and thicker skins than Merlot.
And when we fermented in the tank that gives us a double dose of all of the sources of color and flavor that we get in the wine aromatically Cabernet Sauvignon has some resemblance to Merlot and its fruit definitely in the dark fruit, Blackberry, and cherry range.
But it adds to that herbal quality flavors that remind me of darker foods like licorice and chocolate and coffee, very much an intense powerhouse of a wine that will deliver a big oof of flavor.
If I was going to add another grape, certainly my choice would be a grape called Syrah. That also comes from another region of France called the Rhone.
However, we most often encounter it these days under another name where it’s called Shiraz is the name given to the Syrah grape when it’s grown in places like Australia and South Africa in the southern hemisphere.
However, it is genetically identical to the grape we call Shiraz. In places like California and France Syrah has similar thick skins and density of color to what we find from Cabernet Sauvignon, but usually does not quite have as much tannic structure and as a result, is more often made in the “drink me now style” with a little bit more emphasis on forward fruit.
This style has a kind of blackberry pie and black pepper quality to it that makes it very appealing and friendly and delivers a heck of a lot of flavor per square inch when you serve this as a sauce on the side.