Much like the white grape Chardonnay, Pinot Noir originated in Burgundy, France. It is a fragile grape that ripens early and does well in a moderate climate. Because the grape is so difficult to grow well, Pinot Noir is often expensive. It is also one of the 3 grapes used in Champagne.
Young Pinot Noir wines typically have red berry flavors, especially raspberry and strawberry, as well as fresh red cherry notes. The tannins are soft and smooth and the wine is a bit lighter in color than other reds. Ageing is unpredicatable, but the best quality Pinots develop a deep, almost earthy quality with age.
Outside of cool-moderate climates, the grape gets very ripe and produces a wine with very ripe, jam-like red fruit flavors.
The best regions for Pinot Noir are Burgundy, France; Carneros and the Sonoma Valley in California; the Yarra Valley in Australia; and Oregon. New Zealand has been producing particularly great Pinots in Martinborough, Marlborough, and Central Otago.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a grape and wine with a BIG reputation, particularly as the main grape in the famous red wines of the Haut Medoc in Bordeaux and many cult wines from the Napa Valley.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a full-bodied, high acid, and high tannin wine that stands up well to oak ageing in the winery before it's bottled. Many gain complexity and depth with age both in oak and later in the bottle. The best of these wines can age for several decades.
In moderate climates, Cabernet has signature blackcurrant notes. While in warm-hot climates, it develops more fruit flavors: riper black cherry and jam notes, as well as fuller body. In cool climates, many have mint and cedar flavors that complement the fruit nicely. Other classic flavors in Cabernet include: blackberry, chocolate, plum, fig, and pepper.
Classic regions for Cabernet Sauvignon are the Medoc and Graves in Bordeaux; the Napa Valley in California; Coonawarra and the Margaret River Valley in Australia; Hawkes Bay in New Zealand; and Colchagua in Chile.
Merlot is the second of Bordeaux's great grapes and is usually a major factor in blends with Cabernet Sauvignon, either as the primary component or as a way to soften the harsh tannin in other reds. Alone, it is soft, easy drinking, full-bodied, and low in acid.
Merlot typically comes in one of two styles. The first is the classic French style: medium body and alcohol, higher acid, with fresh red fruit notes. The second, more widespread style is popular in the "New World" and results from later harvested grapes: very fruit forward with blackberry and plum notes with a velvety, rich texture and higher alcohol.
Syrah and Shiraz are two names for the same grape, which typically help distinguish the two styles of wine made from the grape. Overall, Syrah/Shiraz is deep in color and grows well in moderate-hot climates, it will not ripen in cool areas.
In moderate-warm climates, it produces a wine with high tannins and blackberry, pepper, and mint notes. In hot climates, the wines are full bodied, with softer tannins and an earthy, spicy quality.
Shiraz refers to the style pioneered in Australia: fruity, full-bodied, and high alcohol. Shiraz usually has intense black fruit, sweet spice, and chocolate notes. Great regions for Shiraz in Australia are the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Coonawarra, the Hunter Valley, and the Margaret River Valley. Hawkes Bay, New Zealand and Chilean regions are also producing some fantastic Shiraz in this style.
Syrah is what the grape is usually called in France. Syrah wines are a bit more elegant and subtly flavored than Shiraz. Both the Southern and Northern Rhone Valleys are classic regions for Syrah and Washington State is also making great Syrah in the French style.
Other Reds: Sangiovese, Grenache/Garnacha, Tempranillo
Sangiovese is best known as the grape used to make Chianti and other Tuscan wines. It produces wines high in acid, with fresh red cherry flavors and subtle, tea leaves notes as well.
Grenache and Garnacha are the French and Spanish names for the same grape; one of the most widely planted grapes in Spain and the Southern Rhone Valley in France. Garnacha is important in the great wines of Navarra, Rioja, and Priorat in Spain where it can deal with the hot climate and drought-like conditions. It's also a huge component in the famous Rhone blends like Chateauneauf-du-Pape where it thrives in a similarly hot climate.
Classic flavors are red fruit and white pepper, evolving into a rich toffee note with age. The grape is also used to make fantastic fruity rose wines and often blended with Syrah in France and Australia to add depth and red fruit flavors to the final wine.
Tempranillo is another famous Spanish red grape. It plays a major role in the best wines from Rioja and Ribera del Duero. It is best in blends and when aged in oak barrels. Signature flavors are ripe strawberry and plum.