I know I’m not alone when I say that for most of my adult life, my only concern when picking out a bottle of red wine was that the price tag was $10 or less. It’s the wine that Jan Levinson from The Office calls a “great wine to cook with” in the Dinner Party episode. (And can anyone blame us? We’re a generation of thrifty people is all.) But since your in-laws or boss might not be as eager to bust into that box of Chillable Red or bottle of Boone’s Farm as you are, it’s helpful to know the basics of red wine varieties and food pairing.
The science of pairing food and wine boils down to some key flavor components. Salty, acidic, sweet, bitter, fatty, and spicy (piquant) are the six main flavors considered when dealing with food. Wines can only embody three of those: sweet, acidic, or bitter. With each element’s flavor in mind, you can create wine and food pairings that bring balance and nuance to both parts of your meal.
Some basic rules of pairing wines (via Wine Folly include:
Whether you’re planning on attending (or hosting) a classic roast turkey meal, a backyard BBQ, or taco night over the holidays, there is a red wine that will elevate the meal to a whole new level. Although this might mean looking a little higher than the bottom shelf of the wine section, you can always save those “thrifty” bottles for the next cozy Netflix-and-chill night. Also, you can order from Drizly and let the wine come to you!
This accidental offspring of a Cabernet Franc and white Sauvignon Blanc is now one of the most popular wines in America. It’s dry, earthy flavor complements the fat and salt in red meats and creamy pasta dishes. The fats and salt in turn soften the bite of the tannins.
Depending on where your Cabernet Franc is from, this full-bodied wine has medium-high tannins and acidity and is a little less dry than a Cab Sav. Cooler climate Cabernet Francs tend to be more acidic and work best with creamy and sweet dishes, while their warm climate counterparts are sweeter and complement spicy, salty, and fatty foods best.
Nope, not just what Hannibal Lecter drank with his fava beans. This chameleon-esque wine variety is grown worldwide, though it’s typically associated with Italy. Chianti’s bold flavors pair well with savory, tomato-based dishes (like pizza and pasta -- go figure!), roasted meats, sausages, and hard cheese.
Named after the fog that would settle in the valleys of Italian vineyards (swoon), Nebbiolos are a robust red typically associated with Barolo and Barbaresco wines. Its dry mouthfeel and signature “tar and roses” scent make it a good partner to foods high in fat and acidity.
Typically produced in Spain, Portugal, Argentina, and the U.S., Tempranillos are a medium-bodied wine that pairs well with a wide range of cuisine. Tempranillos are similar to a Sangiovese or Cab Sav but tend to be a bit softer on the palate.
Another region-specific wine, Syrahs and Shirazes are typically bold and full-bodied reds. Cooler climate Syrahs boast flavors of vanilla and spice and pair best with gamey and earthy flavors. Warmer climate Shirazes are fruit-forward and bold and complement the spicy/sweet combo of BBQ and other grilled meats.
Malbecs are mostly grown in Argentina, although some do come from France. The former tends to be fruit-heavy with notes of chocolate, while the latter is more tart with notes of leather and black pepper. Malbecs are a cheaper alternative to Cab Savs or Shiraz and work well with funky, earthy, and rustic flavors.
My personal favorite, Merlots sit in the middle of the red wine spectrum -- it’s a good dry wine for sweet-tooths and a nice introduction to sweeter wines for Cab Sav-loyalists. Its chameleon-esque versatility makes it a good go-to if you’re not sure what’s being served for dinner or the flavor preferences of your guests/hosts.
Carried to California by the 49ers in the late 1850s, this spicy red wine struggled to maintain its original Gold Rush popularity into the 20th century. Not to be confused with the White Zinfandel, its popular, sweet, and inexpensive relative, berry-heavy red Zins are making a slow and steady comeback, bringing out the savory-sweet spiciness of BBQ, smokey cheeses, and grilled meat.
Another widely-planted grape, Grenache wines are a spicy red heavy on the berry. It’s similar in profile to a Zinfandel, but this one has a better chance of impressing even the judgiest of holiday dinner guests. If the Grenache comes from Spain, it will be called Garnacha.
Pinot Noirs are one of the most popular light-bodied red wines in the U.S. It’s a great choice for people who aren’t crazy about the mouth-drying effect of the tannins but don’t want a full-on dessert wine. Cool-climate French Pinot Noirs work best with earthy and gamey dishes, while warm-climate California Pinot Noirs best pair with spicy dishes, smoked meats, or fish.
Not everyone wants to have to push through a Sahara-dry glass of red for the sake of looking sophisticated. We get it. We hear you. We offer the Lambrusco, a sweet, frizzante (carbonated) red that is the alcoholic equivalent of red pop. Yum.
This sweet, fortified wine from Portugal comes in many varieties, but the two most popular are Ruby (or Red) Port or Tawny Port. Both wines are best served cold and ultra-sweet, though Tawny Ports’ butterscotch and graham cracker notes make it a little sweeter than its ruby-red, chocolatey relative. It’s literally dessert in a glass, so save this one for when the pies and cake come out after dinner.
Brachetto d’Acqui is Lambrusco with a few more scoops of sugar, boasting an airily crisp, fizzy, and sweet flavor. This decadent dessert wine makes a great aperitif and pairs beautifully with fruit pies and tarts, amaretto desserts, and creamy desserts like crème brûlée.