The Red Wine Varietal Explainer

Written by
Vintage Cellars
September 11, 2017
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One of the most rewarding parts of exploring wine is developing your palate. When it comes to varietals – the broad term for the specific type of grape used in a wine’s production – there are hundreds of types to try across the globe. Each grape type imparts its own distinct characteristics, and winemakers can coax ample flavours out of each varietal.

So, where do you start?

Most varietals can be categorised based on their weight – light, medium, or heavy – and whether their flavour is savoury or fruity. When selecting what to drink, it’s wise to begin with the characteristics you already enjoy and trying wines that have similar properties. We’ve created a short explainer on red wine, pairing common picks with similar lesser-known varietals if you’re after something new. You never know, you might just discover your new favourite drop.


The most common light-bodied grape varietal is pinot noir. This grape is cultivated the world over and prized for its spectrum of flavours, which range from fruity berries through to complex caramels. Fans of pinot noir should consider trying gamay (grown primarily in France’s Beaujolais region, beside pinot’s ‘motherland’ of Burgundy), which has a similar profile but with more delicate aromas and unique earthy notes. Think blackcurrant, violet and subtle hints of banana.


Broadly speaking, medium-bodied wines – with their red-fruit flavours and balanced tannin and acid profiles – are perfect to match with food.

On the savoury side, fans of the earthy syrah and the fruit-forward sangiovese should try the lesser-known nebbiolo from northern Italy, which presents bold tannins, gentle aromas, and flavours like cherry and leather. For an even broader palate pilgrimage, try the dry and bold Portuguese varietal of touriga nacional, the flavourful French mourvedre varietal, or the smoky and sweet Austrian blaufränkisch. The latter can be served chilled and matches perfectly with food from the grill.

On the fruitier side of the medium-bodied wines, tempranillo’s star is on the rise, and for good reason. Its strong fruit flavours and neutral profile make it compatible with food and ideal for blends, but it’s equally worthy on its own. Alternatively, merlot – with its fluctuating flavour variations, depending on the climate in which it’s grown – is returning to the spotlight as a prized varietal. Grenache has also earned its spot as one of the finest grape varietals in the world for its distinctive sweet and spicy flavours that are generally gentle on the palate.


After big, savoury, dark-fruit flavours and strong tannins? Pick up a bottle of cabernet sauvignon and there will be boundless options to choose from. Like merlot, this grape has a wide spectrum of regional variations based primarily on whether it’s grown in a cool or warm climate. Expect bold flavours like black pepper, leather and cherries.

For a full-bodied grape on the fruitier side, choose Australia’s favourite ‘big red’, shiraz, which balances sweeter flavours like plum and blackberry with spicy notes and tannins. For something different, the lesser-known zinfandel varietal has the same rich, jammy quality as shiraz, but delivers unique flavours like blueberries and liquorice, rounding off with a smoky finish. Fans of malbec’s smooth and toasty flavour profile should branch out with the Sicilian varietal nero d’avola. This varietal is heavy and fruity, but packs quite the punch with hints of tobacco and chilli.