Wine types are based on the type of grape used in the winemaking process, although wine labels sometime refer to the region in which the grape was grown rather than the grape itself.
France is big on naming their wines after the grape growing region, and wine drinkers don't much care which grapes are in the bottle, as long as the wine came from somewhere like Alsace, Bordeaux, and Champagne. That tendency is largely based on the fact that wine drinkers count on getting a wonderful tasting bottle of wine if it comes from a certain region.
However, the taste of wine depends very much on the grape or grapes used in the winemaking.
Leading Red Wine Types
Cabernet Sauvignon (ca-ber-NAY so-vin-yawn) is the name of the wine, as well as the grape, which is famous for being one of the world's finest red varietals.
Characteristics - Deep red in color, Cabernet is a beautiful medium to full-bodied, dry wine. It has a hearty, complex flavor evoking thoughts of black currants and blackberries. Traditionally, the wine is aged in oak, which gives it an oaky, vanilla flavor. It has a particularly smooth, fine finish. Higher quality Cabernet ages very well for decades.
While perfect all by itself, Cabernet is frequently blended with the red wine types of Merlot, Shiraz, and Sangiovese.
Growing Regions - Cabernet grape vines are very durable and adapt well to a variety of climates. This grape is grown in wine-making regions all over the world, including, Australia, Chile, France, Canada, and northern California.
Merlot (Mer-LO) has become increasingly popular over the last 10-15 years. Due to its mellow taste and low acidity it is a good choice for those new to drinking red wine. Merlot is the name of the wine and the grape.
Characteristics - Merlot is considered a bit softer and less tannic than other red wine types, like Cabernet. However, it's still a complex wine, with rich, chewy flavors of plum and blackberry and hints of cherry and orange. Merlot is not suited for extended aging and is typically consumed immediately.
Merlot is an outstanding grape in a stand-alone wine, as well as when blended with other grapes, particularly Cabernet.
Growing Regions - The Merlot grape plant is grown in Italy, Australia, Chile, Romania, Washington State and California.
Shiraz (shih-RAZ) and Syrah (Sih-rah) are names for the same grape, with Syrah being used by European vintners. (It shouldn't be confused with the Petit Sirah, a completely different grape.)
Characteristics - One of the darkest reds, Shiraz can be made as a fruity, sweet wine with plumy flavors or a dry peppery wine with notes of blackberries, licorice, and chocolate. Hints of toffee come from the wine's aging in oak barrels.
Shirazcan be consumed immediately or aged up to 5 years.
Shirazis frequently blended with Grenache and Cabernet grapes to make some fine wines.
Growing Regions - While the Shiraz grape most likely originated in the Rhone Valley of France where it has been used as a blend with other wines, it is Australia's most widely grown grape and has thus become known as an "Australian" wine. However, Shiraz is also made in South Africa, as well as in some U.S. wineries.
Shirazgrapes cultivated in warmer temperatures tend to have softer plum flavors, while cooler climates give the grape spicy or peppery qualities.
Malbec (MAHL-beck), a black grape, thrives best in the hot dry summers found in Argentina and Chile.
Characteristics - Malbec grapes make a mid-bodied, rustic red wine, dry, with high acidity. Due to its acidity, it is most often blended with other wines.
Growing Regions - Malbec is Argentina's most popular grape variety and is widely grown there. It is also grown in Chile, Australia, and northern California.
Pinot Noir (Pee-no na-wahr) is a delicious red wine made from a variety of black grapes that were originally grown in France's Burgundy region. Some connoisseurs believe that these grapes make some of the finest wines in the world.
Characteristics - Pinot Noir is a challenging grape to grow, but with the right conditions, it produces an outstanding, complex wine. The wine is light to moderate in body, fresh, and delicate. It comes in an array of colors, from purplish-red to cherry-red, even turning brown during aging. It's an earthy wine with varying aromas and flavors rich in worn leather, tea-leaves, oak, vanilla, and jammy, such as strawberry, raspberry, and plum.
Many Pinot Noirs are meant to be immediately consumed, but a good quality Pinot Noir can age for over 10 years.