Cork Guides #4

A Beginner’s Guide to Red Wine

For many, the idea of exploring their taste in wine can be daunting. Anybody who has walked down the wine isle in their local supermarket can attest to being lost in a blur of red and white bottles everywhere.

To help, we have put together this little guide to give you a steer on where to start, particularly if you like red wine. Now, we’re going to make a couple of assumptions before we get going. First, we’re going to assume that you get your shopping from your local supermarket in the UK and are happy to buy wines from there. Second, we’re going to assume that you don’t mind going off the beaten track and avoiding some of the bigger wine brands. If you are up for this then trust us, you are going to find some absolute gems at ridiculously good prices.

In this guide we are going to provide you with the names of some of the most popular red wine grapes along with a description of what to expect when you try it. We will then provide you with one or two fine examples of that grape variety from your local supermarket using the Best Wines from the Supermarkets 2020 edition by Ned Halley, a link to his outstanding book can be found at the bottom of the guide or on our homepage. Where possible, we have provided a vintage year but that may now be out of stock. If that is the case then you should be fine purchasing whatever vintage is available.

Whilst this guide is particularly tailored for UK market, the descriptions of the grapes are universal so it will be of some use to those outside of the UK. So, let’s get cracking!

#1 Cabernet Sauvignon

Probably the most poplar red grape variety there is. Cabernet Sauvignon is actually a cross between Cabernet Franc (another red grape variety) and Sauvignon Blanc (one of the most popular white grape varieties). The grape originates from Bordeaux though it is now grown all over the world with outstanding examples originating from the US, Chile, Australia and South Africa.

Cabernet Sauvignon can age for decades though it can still be enjoyed when young. Cabernet Sauvignon will often be blended with a host of other grape varieties to add specific tastes (Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec) and the blends can be just as tasty. On its own you should expect to taste:

  • Blackcurrant
  • Black Cherry
  • Cigar box (or Cedar wood)
  • Pencil Shavings
  • Spices

Cabernet Sauvignon is usually full bodied, will be high in tannin (making it taste a little bitter) and often high in alcohol content.

Good Places to Start

Viñalba Finca la 70 Malbec Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, 14.5% ABV, Co-op, Approx. £9.

One of the finest examples of a Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec blend you will find. Both grapes are hefty which gives you a powerful red wine bursting with blackberries, blueberries and a touch of blackcurrant from the Cabernet Sauvignon. Weighty, full bodied and a finish that goes on and on once you’ve swallowed it.

#2 Malbec

Malbec is another major grape variety. It’s originally from France though production here has subsided over the years and made way for more Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It has found a natural home in Argentina, however, where it thrives. Argentinian Malbec is considered among some of the best wines in the world.

Like Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec will be full bodied but will often be lower in tannins making it taste less bitter. Alcohol content can be anywhere between 13.5% - 14.5% and the best examples will look black in your glass.

With a good Malbec you want to be tasting any combination of the following:

  • Blackberry
  • Blueberry
  • Plums
  • Chocolate
  • Vanilla
  • Smoke or tobacco

Good Places to Start

Taste the Difference Morador Malbec 2018, 13.5% ABV, Sainsbury’s, Approx. £8.50

What’s better than an outstanding Malbec? An outstanding Fairtrade Malbec. From this you should expect to get notes of vanilla, oak and a touch of spice. It’s full bodied and has been noted as a fine example of Malbec from the Andes. A great price too.

Exquisite Collection Organic Malbec 2018, 14.5% ABV, Aldi, Approx. £7

A decent organic Malbec from Aldi. Purple in colour with spices and cream on the palate. A good bet for around £7.

#3 Merlot

Merlot is perhaps the second most well known grape variety behind Cabernet Sauvignon. It originates from Bordeaux and though there are some outstanding examples of Merlot on its own, when paired with Cabernet Sauvignon it can create wines that are second to none.

Fine examples of Merlot will often originate from France though good examples of the variety exist in Italy, the USA and South Africa to name a few.

Merlot is a little lighter in body than Malbec or Cabernet Sauvignon but because of the high tannin content they can age very well. Merlot wines will often be lighter in colour and a touch lower in alcohol too.

Merlot on its own will give flavours of:

  • Cherry
  • Blackcurrant
  • Herbs
  • Chocolate
  • Vanilla

Good Places to Start

Tesco Australian Merlot 2018, 13.5% ABV, Tesco, Approx £4.50

Definitely a candidate for the best value wine on this list. Light ruby in the glass that belies the dark cherry fruits on the palate. For £4.50 it’s got to be worth a look!

Finest Lussac-St.Emilion 2017, 12.5% ABV, Tesco, Approx £9

One of the best combination of blends from one of the best winemaking regions in the world. This Merlot is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon though (more Merlot than Cab Sav) and will offer plenty of blackcurrant fruit with a hint of spice and lots of earth & leather. Lower in alcohol content than most but it has got some aging potential.

#4 Pinot Noir

They’re getting lighter but not getting any less popular. Pinot Noir is often found in red wines from burgundy and might even end up in your glass of Champagne! Pinot Noir is renowned the world over and differing, though still excellent, examples exist from a host of countries including France, US, Chile, Germany, New Zealand and Australia. You can even get fantastic Pinot Noir from Moldova too.

Pinot Noir is light bodied and will often be a transluscent ruby colour. Alcohol content is fairly low for a red wine and the tannin content is also extremely low meaning that they’re supposed to drunk young. Summer fruits will often dominate the aroma though there are examples that offer floral aromas too.

Pinot Noir is very versatile and will offer a range of tastes. Among them you should expect:

  • Strawberry
  • Raspberry
  • Cherry
  • Vanilla
  • Mushrooms
  • Dried Herbs

Good Places to Start

Winemaker’s Choice Pinot Noir 2018, 12.5% ABV, Asda, Approx. £5

Notes of earth and spice dominate this Pinot Noir from Chile. Another candidate for best value wine on this list. It does have a touch of Syrah (more on this grape shortly) that adds to the spice but it’s worth it. A great wine.

Domaine Mandeville Pinot Noir 2018, 13% ABV, Marks & Spencer, Approx. £8 or £51 for  case of 6.

Pricier but no less interesting Pinot Noir from France. Described as giving ample mellow cherry Pinot fruit with 13% alcohol.

#5 Primitivo

Primitivo originated from Croatia and now has major growths in Puglia, Italy, as well as the United States where it’s known as Zinfandel.

Primitivo wines are dark in colour, bold with high alcohol content and are also high in tannins. They tend to be fuller bodied too, often being described as juicy or jammy. They are a perennial favourite of ours and provide some of the best wines you can find in Italy right now.

Primitivo’s popularity is on the rise due to the nature and styles that are made from Italy and the USA. With a good Primitivo, you want to be tasting:

  • Blackberries
  • Black Cherry
  • Strawberry jam
  • Tobacco
  • Cinnamon

Good Places to Start

Terre di Fiano Primitivo 2017, 14% ABV, Waitrose, Approx. £10

One of the best examples of this grape variety you will find in the supermarkets. Described as “soupy” and a “monster”, you’d be forgiven for thinking this bottle warrants a higher price tag. The bottle itself is weighty and the contents within burst with red cherries and strawberry jam. What’s even better is that the bottle has been known to be discounted too so keep an eye out!

Primitivo 2018, 13.5% ABV, Morrisons, Approx. £7.50

Black fruits dominate the palate more on this little gem so expect notes of blueberries, blackberries with a touch raspberry thrown into the mix. Dark, dense and good value at around £7.50

#6 Syrah/Shiraz

Bold, powerful and spicy. Syrah originates from France where the best examples can be found on the southern Rhône. It has also made a name for itself in Australia where it’s known as Shiraz.

Syrah/Shiraz is exceptional enough on its own but is also blended well with Grenache and Mourvèdre in both countries to produce well balanced, highly sought-after blends. Look out for the term Côtes du Rhône or Languedoc for France and the term “GSM” for Australia.

Syrah/Shiraz will be very full bodied, have high alcohol content & tannins and even boast high acidity, making you repeatedly salivate and swallow long after the wine has gone down.

As Syrah/Shiraz is made in a range of styles, it will be impossible to list all of the taste characteristics here though as a starting point you should expect:

  • Blueberry
  • Blackberry
  • Plum
  • Chocolate
  • Black pepper
  • Leather
  • Vanilla

Good Places to Start

Languedoc Rouge, 13% ABV, Morrisons, Approx. £7.75

We start with an award winner from the vineyards of former French rugby player Gerard Bertrand. It is a blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre that offers vegetal aromas and a lasting peppery spice. It’s a great introduction to this blend at £7 and an opportunity you shouldn’t pass up.

Exquisite Collection South Australia Shiraz 2018, 14.5% ABV, Aldi, Approx. £6

Bold, spicy and a good deal for £6. Described in the supermarket wines book as “Dark, ripe, and wholesome”.

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Best Wines in the Supermarket 2020

We regularly look at wines recommended by Ned Halley in our category "Ned Said", so here's how you can get a copy of his book for 2020.