A beginner’s guide to red wine
We answer the most commonly asked questions about red wine in straightforward English (no snooty wine lingo in sight) in this basic red wine guide for beginners.
We’ve all been there: the anxiety as we approach the wine aisle. Red wine is arguably the most popular type of wine, and with all the variety available, it’s easy to get bogged down in too much choice. Equip yourself with some basic red wine knowledge through this simple guide to what red wine is, how to choose a bottle, how to serve it and what to enjoy it with.
In the unlikely event that you’ve opened a bottle of red wine and haven’t finished it, stick the cork back in and put it in the fridge. The cold will help preserve your wine for up to a week.
So, what is red wine?
Red wine is made from red grapes and generally has higher levels of alcohol and tannins (the part of the wine that seems to dry out your mouth). The colour can range from a light, jewel-coloured red to a dark, inky purple, with deep, spicy flavours such as pepper, liquorice, berries and dark chocolate coming through.
What sets a red wine apart, other than the above, is its body. When we talk about the wine’s body, we’re not referring to the bodacious shapeliness of the wine glass, but the heaviness and fullness of the wine in your mouth. There are three red wine types according to body:
Light-bodied red wine: Typically a paler red (usually see-through) with very light tannins. A classic example would be the light sipper Pinot Noir.
Medium-bodied red wine: These have a bit more weight to them, but are balanced out with a bit of acidity, making them the best wines to pair with food. We’re loving the new generation of medium-bodied wines hitting the shelves, most notably Grenache and Cabernet Franc.
Full-bodied red wine: Heavy and rich, these bottles are deep, dark and lustrous, and often have many more mouth-drying tannins than their lighter counterparts. Our favourite local varietals are full-bodied: Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinotage.
How do you choose a good red wine?
When it comes to selecting a wine bottle off the shelf, turn to the label, which will tell you a bit about the wine. As well as the more obvious information, such as the type of wine (variety or blend), the label will also reveal the estate and wine of origin (where it was made) and vintage (year it was made), whether it is a sweet red wine or dry red wine, what its ageing potential is and what flavour notes you may pick up. You can also look at the gold and silver stickers: these are like little Academy Awards for wine, and if you’re struggling to choose, this is what the experts recommend.
The best red wine is the kind you like, but first you need to experiment with the different types, varieties and blends to find your preference. Here are the most common red wine varieties found in South Africa:
Pinot Noir: Lighter in colour and lower in tannins, the Pinot Noir is well known for its red fruit flavours and savoury undertones (think wild mushroom). It’s traditionally blended with Chardonnay for sparkling wine.
Pinotage: The lovechild of Pinot Noir and cinsault grapes, Pinotage was developed right here on South African soil. Whether it’s made in a heavier, wooded style, or light and fruity, it goes well with all our local favourites: casseroles, game and a good braai.
Cabernet Sauvignon: This is the most widely planted red grape in South Africa. Our local winemakers really know their stuff when it comes to this wine, so if you’re struggling, always choose the Cabernet Sauvignon, as it’s a safe bet.
Shiraz: Spicy, peppery and intensely flavoured, this wine is a darling if you love full-flavoured, full-bodied red wines with some punch.
Merlot: This is considered an easy-drinking, elegant wine that is velvety and smooth, with berry flavours and warm mocha, vanilla and clove undertones.
How do you serve red wine?
Red wine should be drunk at 17°C, which is the average European room temperature (brrr!). On warmer days you can chill it down in the fridge – just not too much. If it’s too cold, the flavours tend to “shrink” and disappear, and the tannins can become unpleasantly dry and bitter.
Many people believe that before pouring a red wine into your glass, you should decant it first. Decanting refers to pouring the wine into a separate vessel to “breathe” before serving. Whether or not you should do this depends on the wine’s age: a mature red wine (of around 10 years) probably won’t benefit from much air contact. In fact, the flavours can deteriorate quite quickly. Younger reds, on the other hand, can benefit from up to an hour of aeration to soften the tannins slightly.
How long can, or should, you store a red wine?
Whether red or white, something to remember when buying wine for keeping is that some wines aren’t necessarily going to improve with age but will actually deteriorate over time. Check with the person you’re buying from what will improve with age and what was made to be drunk now. Consult the label for any ageing recommendations, too.
As a rule of thumb, red wines that age fairly well are Merlot (2-10 years), Pinot Noir (2-8 years), Shiraz (4-16 years) and Cabernet Sauvignon, which can be cellared for up to 20 years.
What dishes should you pair with red wine?
Red meat, like lamb or beef, is a classic accompaniment to red wine. What’s more, a good glass of red can be used in the marinade too to bring out the best flavours in the meat and wine.
But you don't only have to pair red wine with meat. Tangy, hard cheese like Cheddar will round out red wine tannins; meaty mushrooms and brinjal can be great with soft reds like Pinot Noir; and, believe it or not, tuna is a wonderful match for light-bodied Cinsault or Grenache. Because chocolate tends to coat the inside of your mouth, it can really kill the flavours of most wines, though a spicy Pinotage will usually take up the challenge.