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Red Wine – Where to Start

A comment I frequently hear is “I ought to know more about red wine but where do I start?”

Google for example “Red Wine for beginners” and the millions of consequent search results suggest that this is anything but a rare question.

Answering it can be tricky though.

We all have styles we love – often forged by discoveries many years ago – but tastes differ enormously from person to person.

Not only that, but the wine landscape has changed extensively over recent years.

So, I tried to inject structure into the subject by creating a few criteria that have emerged from my regular involvement with popular “entry point” wines.

I also looked at what bestselling wines seem to be like – because they are probably based on numerous focus groups’ conclusions.

Factors like typicity, longevity and complexity that commentators (like me) agonise over, are apparently of little interest to straightforward, unpretentious wine drinkers.

Instead, their first demand seems to centre around the wine’s level of fruit-based flavours – the actual fruit “taste-alike” can vary but deeper ones seem especially popular, although raspberry and cherry win prizes too.

Acidic freshness is also quite important but not if it overpowers those fruit components.

Texture feels like an optional extra which, as with secondary flavours (chocolate, spices, herbs, nuts etc), are “nice to have” but seldom represent deal breakers.

However, a big no-no is excessive tannin – partly because it counteracts the smoothness that figures prominently on so many “wish lists”.

So, in summary:

  • Fruit elements seem to be essential and come first
  • A reasonable level of acidity is important too
  • Secondary flavours (spice, herbs chocolate etc) are desirable
  • Texture is an optional extra
  • Heavy tannin is a major turn off.

With luck, these highly personal conclusions will help if you need to guide friends and family towards easily enjoyed reds.

Equally, it could come to your aid when selecting red wine for heterogeneous gatherings at an event or in a restaurant – or, even, to re-set your own thinking.

To help further, I have assembled a group of wines I have tasted this year that I think satisfy these criteria well.

See whether you agree.

Where possible, images and hyperlinks are provided to guide you towards more information about the wines.

First on the list

Well, the most obvious start point is malbec which is widely available and of pretty consistent quality even at relatively low price points.

To avoid firmer tannins, it is best to choose Argentinian versions rather than those from its original homeland around Cahors – great though those are as robust food partners.  

Soft and Mellow

Argentina’s principal wine producing area is Central Mendoza but, just to its north, lies San Juan (home to this particular wine) where determined growers are pushing up quality levels – despite the challenges of a lower altitude and higher temperatures than in other parts.

One result of their endeavours is the soft and mellow 2019 Extra Special Malbec (£6 at Asda and 13.5% abv) that contains medium bodied loganberry and red plum flavours supported by attractive hints of chocolate and cinnamon and controlled acidity but little tannin.

Darker and integrated.

Go northeast from San Juan and you encounter another well-known Argentinian wine region, La Rioja, where the Famatina Valley is noted for the quality of the wines (like this Fairtrade version) produced on its higher, more windswept, terrain.

What I especially liked about this wine was the integration at work here; slightly firm (but not intrusive) tannin is kept in check by the pronounced (and smooth) fruit components while an extra dash of acidity keeps everything lively too.    

Juicy, aromatic and dark in colour, 2019 Irresistible Fairtrade Organic Malbec (£7.50 at the Co-op and 13%) provides us with smooth, black cherry and bramble flavours, nippy acidity, discernible but proportionate tannin and a background that combines cinnamon and cola elements.   

Now to Southern Italy

Associations between Italian reds and chewy tannin are legendary but producers in the south in particular are now developing inexpensive wines that are significantly softer and fruitier.

Sicily’s floral but textured nero d’avola grape represents a good example of the point even though it is a relative newcomer.

Here are two inexpensive but reliable illustrations.

2019 Nero d’Avola Sicilia (£5.50 at Sainsbury’s and 13.5%) brings us medium bodied and well-defined red fruit flavours supported by firm acidity, soft tannin and suggestions of mint, baking spices and chocolate.

And from the latest vintage.

Smooth and relatively light in character, 2020 Nero D’Avola (£5.50 at Tesco and 13%) delivers minty damson and cherry flavours accompanied by good acidity with just the right amount of tannin, appealing sweet edges and touches of aniseed and savoury herbs.

Staying thereabouts

Rather more familiar is the primitivo grape from Puglia, which DNA evidence now confirms, is the same grape as California’s immensely popular zinfandel – although its “blush” format is not one for most red wine drinkers.

Smooth, rounded and great value, 2019 Primitivo Puglia (£7 at M&S and 13.5%) contains ripe cherry and berry flavours partnered by invigorating acidity and orange peel zing, attractively coupled with touches of menthol and allspice but with only limited tannin.

Finally, another great choice

Merlot is another good option although it does come in a variety of shapes and forms.

Many new world versions are light to medium bodied and, understandably, put fruit to the fore but ones with extra texture are usually well worth seeking out.

In 2020 LFE Terraced Classic Merlot (£5.99 – instead of £7.99 until 27 July – at Waitrose and 13.5%), Chilean producer Luis Felipe Edwards has indeed enhanced a tasty red with much appreciated additional texture.

With attractive savoury edges, it also has appealing blackberry and damson flavours supported by good acidity, minimal tannin and suggestions of chocolate, star anise and cinnamon.

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David Cronin

Interesting post Brian, I think you are spot on, most people I talk and drink with are more interested in red wine that has a good fruity content. I often hear ‘that’s nice and smooth’ mainly because things like tannins, acidity and high alcohol are limited leaving the fruit to shine, although high alcohol can lead to that perception of sweetness that a lot of people like as well, Grenache is a casing point. Acidity (although a complex subject) is another thing that divides, ‘that’s sharp’ I also hear quite a lot, so it’s getting that balance right trying to maintain freshness along with other aspects that acidity brings. I hear very few people mention ‘Tertiary flavours’ and some don’t get it and that’s fine, wine is meant to be an enjoyable drink, we all have different tastes and that’s the way it should be, that’s why it great that sites like this steer us in the right direction for tasty affordable wines.
Malbec is often a favourite and I did an online tasting a few weeks ago with friends featuring the Fairtrade Malbec which went down a storm and I thought it was pretty decent as well and as you mention Primitivo and Nero D’Avola are always crowd pleasers, although Merlot seems to be divisive.

Brian Elliott

Thanks Dave …. I am glad others are finding this “fruit focus” too. Nothing wrong with it provided it does not become the ONLY focus. As we saw with chardonnay and oak, the further supply gets tilted in one single direction, the greater the eventual reaction (and repudiation).

Jerry W

Just so, Brian. Tannin does have its place, and not just for ageing potential. A steak barbecue or fondue or just a really good red meat meal needs a red wine with backbone..

Brian Elliott

That’s a really good point Jerry. Tannin does a superb job of neutralising the fatty content of certain meats and why -as several comments here contend – selecting wines has to look at the whole picture especially with food in mind not just judge a bottle on its own.

Janet Harrison

Good post Brian. Like Dave mentioned, the Fairtrade Malbec goes down well at tastings, infact Malbec is a safe bet with most groups, irrespective of the level of wine knowledge. I tend to advise people to have food with the wine (even the smallest bit of charcuterie or salty snacks can take the edge off the tannins, as you know). I must try the Nero D’Avola, not something I naturally reach for and as you say, a crowd-pleaser.
It’s good to challenge folk occasionally though, and encourage food and wine matching as that really does change the flavours (sometimes considerably) even with entry point wines. Also the world would be a tad boring if we ONLY drank fruity mellow reds (IMHO).

Brian Elliott

Agree with the last point in particular Janet. Alongside those cassis and cherry charged reds, there has to be room for chocolate influenced Rioja, claret with attractive graphite contrast and the nuttiness that chianti often acquires. As you say, food matching is a good reason why a wide array of flavours is needed – hold food and wine in your mouth at the same time and the flavour match (or quarrel) can be a major surprise.

Eddie Walker

Hi Brian … focus groups eh? Tells its own tale as to why so much Oz Shiraz and Merlot are available on supermarket shelves. They certainly fit the ”criteria” you mention. Reviews on supermarket websites throws up certain expressions more than any others … smooth … fruity … easy drinking … But then I think it’s down to stand-alone drinking of a glass in a pub say, and not wine to accompany food? The focus group expression I’d say was the former and it determines so much of what I don’t prefer though I have to admit I rarely go into pubs and if I do then would never order a glass of wine. And I avoid most everything Oz on supermarket shelves. The Fairtrade Malbec was excellent when you first mentioned it a little while ago, and the Tesco Nero d’Avola very acceptable when I got a further 25% of on a buy-6. I must try the Sainsbury’s too when they have their next 25% deal on. As ever, enjoyable to read your reviews.

Brian Elliott

AS you aay (and Janet suggests in her comment), some of this focus is driven by wine destined to be drunk on its own – in pubs and elsewhere. To be fair, though, wine by the glass in pubs is getting better and better – although black spots do still exist. Part of the job of those of us arrogant enough to put our views about wine in print or online, however, is to help steer people gently towards different options. Nothing wrong with “I know what I like” but so many missed opportunities with “I like what I know”.

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