A Guide to Red Wine

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From Barbera to Zinfindel, this Guide to Red Wine will take you through the basics and beyond. I’ll help you select the perfect red wine food pairings, be a more adventurous wine drinker, and impress your friends with your red wine knowledge.

A bottle of red wine next to 2 glasses of the same.


Whether you’re new to red wine, think you don’t love it, or drink it every week, chances are high that you’ll learn something new in my Guide to Red Wine. Discover the difference between light- and full-bodied red wines, how to serve red wine, and some of my best recipes to pair with red wine.

What is Red Wine—And How Is It Made?

Red wine is fermented grape juice made using red grapes that are aged with their skins.

To make red wine, winemakers grow, harvest, crush, then ferment grapes (skins included) in a tank or vat with yeast. This yeast eats the grape’s natural sugars to create alcohol. Most wines are then pressed to separate the skins from the juice. (Some winemakers opt to leave the wine unpressed; which is known as “free-run juice.”)

The wine is then aged in either oak, concrete, or stainless steel. After that, red wine may be treated with a preservative, sulfur dioxide, or may undergo malolactic fermentation, which is designed to tame down some of the bitter qualities. Red wines are then filtered, bottled, corked, and labeled.

Someone pouring a glass of red wine.

The Qualities of Red Wine

Regardless of the grape(s) used to make red wine, all red wines share a few common characteristics. First, the color, of course! Red wines can be everything from light ruby to deep purple. As red wine ages, it might look a bit more brownish in color; this is normal.

Next, tannins. This is the astringent quality you might recall experiencing after drinking tea, apple cider, or beer. It’s also the major factor that makes wine really cellar-worthy or ageable. In wine, tannins are a sensation created by the polyphenols in the skins and seeds of the grapes. Since those parts of the fruit are removed early on during the white wine-making process, white wines don’t often display tannins. 

Third, acidity, which is one quality that makes many red wines very food-friendly. Higher-acid wines taste crisp, and lower-acid wines land smoother (and almost sweeter, so if you’re a sweet wine fan, this might be your sweet spot). 

Lastly, flavor notes. Unlike white wines that often nod to citrus and tropical flavors, red wines naturally feature fruit flavors (ranging from underripe strawberries to jammy blackberries to raisins), floral qualities, herb and spice flavors (like pepper, clove, and cinnamon), and earthy elements (smoky, tobacco, leather)

A collection of different kinds of red wines in bottles.

Red Wine Spectrum

Of course, all red wines also share one other detail in common: they contain alcohol. (Well, except for the growing cast of non-alcoholic wines on the market, which we love to see!) 

Whether red or white, traditional wines fall under one of three “body” umbrellas:

  • Light-bodied wines: 12 ½ percent alcohol by volume (ABV)
  • Medium-bodied wines: 12 ½ to 13 ½ percent ABV 
  • Full-bodied wines: 13 ½  ABV or more

The spectrum below will walk you through these three red wine categories, including a sampling of the wine varietals of some of the wines you can enjoy in this category. Keep in mind that red blends often feature more than one of these; the combination is designed to offer a finished product that none of the individual grapes can offer on their own.

Light-bodied reds are an ideal entry point for white wine devotees or those who don’t think they like red wine. They’re typically lower in tannins and are often grown in cooler climates.  

  • Gamay
  • Pinot Noir
  • Grenache/Garnacha
Two bottles of red wine next to a glass of the same.

Medium-bodied reds are similar to your favorite pair of jeans or blazer; they’re versatile, crowd-pleasing, and, if you’re unsure about the recipient’s preferences, are among the best red wines to gift. 

  • Cabernet Franc
  • Sangiovese/Chianti
  • Rhône blend (like Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre)
  • Barbera
  • Merlot
  • Montepulciano
Two bottles of red wine next to a glass of the same.

Full-bodied reds pack plenty of alcohol and tannins that make them feel sturdy, cozy, and robust. Grapes for these wines are often grown in warmer climates.

  • Zinfandel
  • Tempranillo
  • Nebbiolo
  • Malbec
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Syrah/Shiraz
  • Petite Sirah
Two bottles of red wine next to a glass of the same.

How to Serve Red Wine

The best temperature to serve red wine varies based on the weight of the wine. Chill lower-alcohol red wines a bit more than sturdier ones, using the wine serving temperature ranges below as a guide.

  • Sparkling: 40-50 degrees F
  • Lighter whites: 45-50 degrees F
  • Fuller whites and rosés: 50-55 degrees F
  • Lighter reds: 55-60 degrees F
  • Fuller reds: 60-65 degrees F

There are a few different shapes and sizes of red wine glasses that sommeliers recommend. If you can only invest in one, it should be a “standard” or “universal” red wine glass that has a slightly tapered top.

Room in your collection for more? Consider a Bordeaux glass with a wider bowl and opening; these allow more of the aromas to release so the wine lands as smoother and less tannic. Or if you’re a bigger fan of lighter-bodied reds, seek out a Pinot Noir glass. Their wide bowls and tapered rims concentrate the aromas to highlight the bright fruit flavors.

Someone pouring a glass of red wine.

What Does a Wine Aerator Do?

A wine aerator infuses wine with oxygen to help the wine “breathe,” which increases the flavors of a wine and releases its natural aromas and it can be particularly useful when serving red wine. I love using the Rabbit Wine Aerator Shower Funnel to aerate my wines, and I like that it also removes sentiment or any pieces of cork. Plus, it’s inexpensive and just as effective as some more expensive models. It’s only $26.99 at Amazon, but we have some other options in our roundup of the best wine aerators.

Recipes to Pair With Red Wine

Lightweight reds are like the little black dress of the wine world. Think you can’t pour red wine with seafood? A good Gamay might change your tune! Light-bodied reds can act as a lovely partner for options ranging from Wild Mushroom Risotto to Blackened Salmon to Mezze Platters.

Mushroom risotto in a white bowl.


Wild Mushroom Risotto

I adore a super creamy risotto, and this Wild Mushroom Risotto recipe is just that, made even more luscious with an assortment of tender, earthy wild mushrooms.
Read More
Salmon in a cast iron skillet with lemons for garnish.


Blackened Salmon

Ready in about 10 minutes, my easy Blackened Salmon is definitive proof that seafood recipes should not be reserved for restaurant meals alone. Discover how simple it is to make Blackened Salmon for dinner tonight.
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Dukkah, eggplant dip, hummus, artichokes, and olives in bowls


Mezze Platter

Craving a taste of the Mediterranean, Middle East, or North Africa? Discover how to make the ultimate Mezze Platter, a global cousin to a charcuterie board or antipasto platter, for a taste of the region right in the comfort of your own home.
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Medium-bodied red wines like Motelpulciano play nicely with classics like Lasagna and Rotisserie Chicken, as well as heartier mains including Pork Roast.

A white baking dish of lasagna.



My best Lasagna recipe has three kinds of cheese, lots of ground beef, and one fantastic homemade sauce. Pre-cut the lasagna before baking for easier, cheesier, slices.
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A rotisserie chicken on a white plate with slices of lemon.


How to Make Rotisserie Chicken

Learn how to make rotisserie chicken at home with my super simple spice rub (4 ingredients plus salt & pepper). Or, recreate that same delicious flavor for your next oven-roasted chicken! 
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Pork roast on a plate with vegetables.


Pork Roast

Ideal for holiday dinners or a cozy Sunday supper, this seasoned Pork Roast recipe proves that low and slow is the way to go. Learn how to cook Pork Roast that rivals any restaurant version (and, quite possibly, grandma's heirloom recipe!).
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Syrah and other full-bodied reds can stand up to powerful flavors and darker meat cuts; think barbecue (Best Barbecue Ribs), steaks (Chimichurri Steak), and rich Dutch oven dinners (Beef Stew).

Barbecue ribs on a wood cutting board.


Best Barbecue Ribs

You don’t need a smokehouse and a gazillion hours to make your own award-winningly tender, fall-off-the-bone, melt-in-your-mouth barbecue ribs. This recipe is what I make when I want the best, most phenomenal ribs at home. It frees me up to concentrate on planning the party and figuring out the side dishes, too.
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Chimichurri steak on a wooden cutting board.


Chimichurri Steak

When you want to finish your steak with something beyond butter, try this easy, herby sauce straight from Argentina. Chimichurri Steak is packed with flavor, and the sauce is easy to make right in your blender.
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Bowls of beef stew on a table.


Beef Stew

This cozy Beef Stew recipe starts off on the stove but finishes up in the oven; it's filled with tender chunks of beef, root vegetables, red wine, and fresh herbs. Every bowl is hearty, delicious, and perfect for chilly nights.
Read More

If you’re just starting out in the wine world, check out my guides for the basics and beyond:

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Meggan Hill is a classically-trained chef and professional writer. Her meticulously-tested recipes and detailed tutorials bring confidence and success to home cooks everywhere. Meggan has been featured on NPR, HuffPost, FoxNews, LA Times, and more.

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