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ELR Wine 101: Red Wine For Newbies

Posted Jul 14 2009 10:35pm

Good afternoon and welcome back to ELR Wine 101! Did you all do your homework yesterday? My glass of Riesling from Alsace was just fab! ;)

Today I’m going to briefly cover red wine, my favorite! When dealing with wine, there’s just SO MUCH information out there. That being said, this is really a very very short cliff-noted version. I’m not going to talk about all the different varietals, just the “big ones” that stand out in my mind.

First off, we all know how awesome red wine is. It really is. Check out my latest True/Slant article for all the amazing health benefits! Goes right up there with dark chocolate in my book!

The four varietals I’m going to talk about today include:

  1. Merlot
  2. Cabernet Sauvignon
  3. Pinot Noir
  4. Zinfandel

Yes, there are more types of red wine than just these (like Syrah/Shiraz) but for time’s sake we have to keep it short, sweet and juicy.

So first up…………. .Merlot!


Now, if you have seen the movie Sideways I kindly request that you put that scene where Miles screams at the top of his lungs, “I don’t drink any (beep!) Merlot!!!!!!!!!!” out of your head. Merlot can be really, really good! And, it is a GREAT red wine to start out with if you are a newbie because it is usually light and very easy to drink. With food or without food, Merlot is always a very safe bet. If you are at a restaurant and the wine list is very daunting… safe. Order Merlot.

Because Merlot grapes need certain specific conditions to grow (relatively cool climate and good soil), they can be sort of touch and go….especially in places like California. Good Merlots are awesome while very cheap, icky Merlots are bad, bad, BAD. A yummy Merlot has flavors of ripe plums, dark cherries and blackberries. You have tannins, but not as many as are in “bigger” wines such as Cabernets and Zinfandels.

What’s a tannin, you ask? Great question! Tannins are in both black tea and red wine and they are more of a “feeling” than a specific taste. The feeling of sort of your tongue drying up (not necessarily in a bad way though LOL) is from tannins. If you drink Earl Grey tea you know what I’m talking about! Some red wines have more tannin than others. I personally don’t care for too much tannin in my wine so my favorite reds are on the lighter side—Merlots and Pinot Noir. Wines with a lot of tannin in them are best served with food, such as cheese.Actually, cheese CUTS the tannin level down so if you take a bite of cheese and then take a sip of red wine, the wine actually tastes smoother and more velvety on your tongue. How cool is that?!

Great Merlots that I love:

  • Murphy-Goode Merlot (very light, easy to drink and only $15)
  • Deloach Merlot
  • Cakebread Merlot (SUPER expensive! I have only tasted it at a tasting one time but I fell in love….)

After you have conquered Merlot its time you move up to Cabernet Sauvignon, commonly called the King of Wine.


Cabernets are very tasty indeed and have flavors of dark fruit, black current, tobacco and even vegetables like bell peppers. You might be laughing at that but really, depending on where the grapes are grown, Cabernet’s flavors can be all over the board. Cabernet is one of those wines that people LOVE to serve at dinner parties. Why? Its so delicious with food! Honestly, I personally ONLY like Cabernet with food because the food really brings out the flavor of the wine and vice a versa. You may think Cabernet’s bold flavors are too much for you but try it with some homemade mac & cheese (seriously) and it will just rock your world.

If you aren’t used to drinking red wine and not sure you will like it, I recommend asking the guy at the wine shop about the taste of the wine first. Cabernet is one of those wines that can be SO different! You can find Cabs that are very, very dark and full bodied with flavors of tobacco and cedar or you can find some with bright, fresh fruity flavors. I recommend the latter. When you are just starting out, look for the lightest Can you can find because it will have the least amount of tannin (the funny tongue feeling, remember?).

Some Cabernets I like include some California Cabs like Murphy-Goode (obvi) that aren’t TOO heavy or dense and also I LOVE Cabs from Argentina and Chile….look for Cabs from the Mendoza region in Argentina and the Maipo region in Chile. In my personal experience, they don’t disappoint!

Now we get to my very favorite……the oh so delicious Pinot Noir……..


Will you just look at how lush and delicious those grapes look?! Truth be told, Pinot Noir is my very favorite kind of wine. In fact, I rather adore it. I love the fact that Pinot Noir grapes are extremely temperamental and can’t be grown everywhere….that it takes a lot of love, blood, sweat and tears to make a truly great one. I love the fact the Pinot Noir is rich, but also light at the same time. I love it that I can drink it with anything and everything or with even nothing at all!

Pinot Noir is GREAT for newbies because, like Merlot, most are light and have minimal tannins. In fact, just writing about this makes me want to leap up and race to Total Wine to buy a bottle! When you have a yummy Pinot Noir its almost like velvet on your tongue. Cheesy, I know, but very true.

Different regions have different styles of Pinot Noir, of course, and my favorites hail from California and the Pacific Northwest. Personally, I like lighter bodied reds so I really go for Pinots from the Russian River Valley ( Angelina is a great one I highly recommend) and oh! Talus Pinot Noir is one of my faves! Very light and fruity…perfection! :)

Last but not least—-Zinfandel….no NOT the pink stuff! ;)

I murphy_goode_liars_dice_sonoma_county_zinfandel_2003.jpg

For awhile I believed only White Zinfandel existed. Oh boy, I loved that stuff. Thought I was so cool bringing my own bottle of $4.99 Arbor Mist to a party when I was just 18. I won’t get into details but lets just say I can’t even SMELL White Zinfandel today. Yes, many people love the stuff but oh boy, that stuff is just INJECTED with sugar water. No thank you!!!

I finally discovered “true” Zinfandel, to be specific California Zinfandel, when I was working at Roy’s Restaurant. Roy’s loves California Zinfandels and I tasted one after work one night. Holy wow! It was good! It certainly packs a punch, that’s for sure! Think bold flavors of black pepper and blackberries, with a characteristically spicy note. Most Zinfandels are considered “big wines”, which means they are bold, tannin-licious, and have a high alcohol content—think better with food! One glass of Zinfandel and you might fall off your bar stool if you haven’t eaten for a few hours (I know from experience).

If you know you like bold and spicy, try a California Zinfandel. I’ve been surprised at how different they can taste! You guys that are slowly making the transition from white wine to red, ummm not so much. I say stick with something lighter like Merlot or Pinot Noir until you totally come over to the dark side. Zinfandel might be a bit too much too soon. However, if you love deep, rich, full, sexy reds….try it! Try a few actually since they can be very different. Like I said, I’m partial to California Zins, especially those produced on the Sonoma coast. For some reason I’ve found Sonoma ZIns to be a little less “wam bam thank you m’aam” than some others I’ve tried.

So that pretty much sums up Day 2 of ELR Wine 101! Homework, obviously, is to enjoy a glass of red wine to the absolute fullest…..and let me know what you think. ;)

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