The thing about wine tastings is that, much like life, you have to fake it till you make it. But why fake it when all you need is this handy red wine cheat sheet? How do you tell a Cab from a Merlot? Should you order a Pinot Noir or a Malbec? You’ll find answers to these pesky little questions below. What is the difference between a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec?
CABERNET SAUVIGNON: The most planted wine grape in the world and probably the gateway wine for most, the ‘Cab’ tends to have strong tannins with a slight acidity that makes you want to click your tongue. Since it is grown across the globe, Cabs from different regions tend to have different characteristics, however, they are generally full-bodied, have rich tannins and woody flavors such as oak and cedar.
MERLOT: As compared to the Cabernet Sauvignon, a Merlot (pronounced Mer-low) is easier to drink: it has softer tannins, is fruitier—with a cherry flavor and a chocolate-y finish. In French, the name “Merlot” loosely translates to ‘little blackbird’; possibly due to dark blue-black coloring of the wine. Merlots typically hail from France, Romania, Australia and California in the US.
ZINFANDEL: While the Zinfandel is a light-bodied wine as compared to the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the medium tannins and high acidity in it make it taste strong and bold. Often, when you sip a Zinfandel it tastes like a smooth candy, followed by a little spice and smoke. Most Zinfandel wines have higher alcohol levels ranging from about 14 – 17% ABV, so go easy.
SYRAH / SHIRAZ: First things first—Syrah and Shiraz come from the same grape. They are differentiated in terms of region and style, based on the terroir. Winemakers in France, California, Australia and Chile refer to the wine as Syrah (pronounced see-Rah) whereas wines growing in warmer climates such as India and other parts of Australia are referred to as Shiraz. A Syrah tends to be full-bodied (but leaner than a Shiraz), dry and full of tannins with notes such as vanilla, red and black fruits and black pepper. If you like bold, full-bodied wines, pick a Shiraz that is full of jammy aromas such as blueberry and blackberry. Incidentally, the Shiraz is one of the most popular red wine varieties in India.
MALBEC: An easy-drinking wine, a Malbec sits between the strong arm of a Cabernet Sauvignon and the fruity Merlot with its deep purple color, plum flavors and gentle smokiness. The Malbec came from France but is now widely grown across Argentina as well. It pairs well with spicy cuisine. So if you’re planning a dinner party with Indian food, bring out the Malbec!
PINOT NOIR: Another enjoyable and easy wine to drink, a Pinot Noir is characterized by cranberry, cherry and raspberry flavors as well as medium-low tannins. The fruitiness and low tannins in the wine make it easy to pair with a wide range of cuisines, so when in doubt about a meal pairing, this baby may come to your rescue. The grape is native to France but now grows very well across vineyards in New Zealand.
SANGIOVESE: Trying a Sangiovese? Get ready to pucker up! With tart cherry, strawberry, fig and red plum flavors, high tannins and acidity, this wine is literally a mouthful! Slightly complex, the Sangiovese (pronounced San-joh-ve-zee) hails from the Chianti region in Tuscany and is a very earthy, rustic wine, with notes of everything from roses to subtle tomato.
GRENACHE: If you like the combination of fruit and cinnamon, the Grenache is for you. A black grape varietal that is mostly grown in France, California and Spain, the grenache has soft tannins, is medium-bodied and fruit-forward with a gentle spiciness. Think strawberry, raspberry and a hint of white pepper.