There are about 40 important red grape varietals grown in the world today. The major ones are listed below.
To grape growers and winemakers, Pinot Noir presents both the ultimate challenge and the ultimate reward. At their best, Pinot Noir grapes produce wines that are rich and complex, tasting of black cherries, red berries, earth and spice, with an aroma that's been likened to everything from herbs and cola to bacon and roses. Pinots can be high alcohol, light in color and low in tannin, though oak aging can increase the tannin levels. One of the most exciting developments in the world of wine is the recent advances Oregon and California winemakers have made in producing first rate Pinot Noirs, respectable rivals to the legendary reds of French Burgundy. Most other Pinot Noirs produced around the world are pale imitations of Burgundy, usually lacking depth, elegance, richness and texture. You may wonder why anybody would bother with such a troublesome, fussy, hard-to-grow, enigmatic grape, but at their best there is no wine in the world that can offer more seductive, velvety, complex flavors than a fine Pinot Noir.
Merlot wines have soared in popularity in the last decade, as they offer something for everyone: from light and simple wines to full-bodied and complex bottlings. Merlots are often less tannic and more lush than Cabernets, though still full-bodied, deep in color and fairly high in alcohol with flavors of cherry, plum and chocolate. Merlot is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon at almost all the great estates of France's Bordeaux region and is the dominant grape of St. Emilion and Pomerol; for example Chateau Petrus is almost 100% Merlot. Other areas where Merlot has been successfully grown (and frequently blended into Cabernets to produce a more complex wine) include northern Italy, California, Washington and the Rogue Valley region of Oregon.
Zinfandel is a "new-world" grape varietal that been around for a long time. It is the one varietal that some say is indigenous to California. Since its mysterious origins of long ago, zinfandel has come a very long way. Once considered a lowly step-child to more noble grapes, California winemakers lately have been paying close attention to its potential and consumers have responded with a cult following.
After suffering an image problem in the 80's when people associated it mostly with its "white" counterpart, zinfandel in its true form, earned mainstream recognition first with the 1990 vintage, which was emphasized a few years later with 1994's stellar vintage. Cut to early fall 1998. By now many small, artisan wineries were making only zinfandel, and many medium to large producers had joined the club. Some were releasing 1997 zins and the positive predictions of the vintage were confirmed. 1997 had been quite warm, but zinfandel fruit loves this weather and it thrived in the heat. The wines are big, robust, and incredibly concentrated. At the annual ZAP showcase in the spring of 1999 - a virtual festival of all things zinfandel - the hype was on, and retailers were in full buying frenzy. Producers across the board were making some of their best wines ever.
The good thing is that along with the high quality, there was high quantity. These wines are out there and they are worth finding. Look for zinfandels from Napa, Amador and The Sierra Foothills. Sonoma in particular, was charmed. Look for Russian River, Alexander Valley and Dry Creek Valley appellations. You will find wines that have depth, color, concentration and balance as well as those exotic spices so unique to zins. They are drinkable now, but will certainly not wilt in the cellar. Think three-cheese pizza, rib-eye steak and especially..summer barbeques!
This is the grape responsible for the wines of Bordeaux's Medoc region, arguably some of the finest reds in the world. It performs well practically the world over, as long as it's not too cold, but in certain appellations in France, and more recently in California's Napa Valley, it produces wines that astonish with their richness and complexity. One theory holds that blending Cabernet grapes with Merlot and Cabernet Franc or Petite Verdot adds character and complexity and offsets its great tannin (such is the case with wines of Bordeaux), while other winemakers (Californians, notably) prefer to let Cabernet tell its own story with no help. The classic Cabernet flavor is one of deep, dark fruits, primarily blackcurrant (cassis) and the best are medium- to full-bodied, intense and firm. Cabernets are almost always aged in oak for over a year, and should age several more years in the bottle. The great Cabernets of the Medoc region in France age for 15 years and more.
Syrah is a rich, full-bodied, complex, spicy, long-lived wine that thrives in the Rhone region of France and produces such famous wines as Hermitage and Cote-Rotie. It is the most popular red wine of Australia (where it is called Shiraz and is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon) and is becoming increasingly popular in California (where it is replacing another Rhone grape called Petite Sirah in America). Syrah can be successfully blended with many other wine grapes (often to give them more backbone and structure); it also can be made in a variety of styles ranging from soft and medium-bodied with some berry characteristics to deeply colored, powerful monsters tasting of roasted peppers, black cherry and smoke. Like California Zinfandels, American Syrahs can be full-bodied wines but often show more spice elements and less berry-like fruit than Zins.