Most California red wines are made from a majority (75% or more by law) of a specific red wine grape variety. The resulting wine is called a Varietal. Occasionally wineries will blend several grapes together without having a 75%+ majority of any one grape, which results in a wine blend.
Common California Red Wines
Alicante Bouschet – Also known as Alicante. This red-fleshed grape is usually used in blending, although it has become more popular as a varietal wine in recent years. Flavors: Blackberry, blueberry, spices, chocolate, and vanilla. Goes well with smoked meats or grilled steak.
Barbera – A red grape of Italian origin which produces a light, fruity wine in hot climates but a rich, complex wine in the cooler coastal counties. Flavors: Sour cherry, licorice, blackberry, and dried herbs. This varietal pairs well with pasta and seafood.
Cabernet Franc – One of several cabernet grape varieties from France. It is one of the primary Meritage grape varieties often used in blends but it can also be found as a varietal wine on its own. Flavors: Sour cherry, strawberry, plum, black raspberry, and black pepper. Goes well with roasted meats, sausage or lamb.
Cabernet Sauvignon – Generally considered the premier red wine grape in the world. Originally found in Bordeaux France, this is now the second most popular wine grape in the world, second to Chardonnay. The grape produces a dry, full-bodied wine of great complexity. While young, this wine tends to have a dominant tannic character. Flavors: Black cherry, black currant, bell pepper, and spices. Pairs well with beef, lamb, duck, fruit, and chocolate. Pairs well with prime rib, steak, or lamb.
Carignane – A red Rhone varietal originally from the Mediterranean region of Europe, this grape is predominantly used for blending. It is full of tannin and heavy bodied. Flavors: Cranberry, raspberry, licorice, prune, and spices. Pairs well with hamburgers, stews, and hearty meats.
Dolcetto – This grape was exclusive to northern Italy but is grown in California as well. It produces soft, round, fruity wines fragrant with licorice and almonds and should be enjoyed within about three years. Flavors: Blueberry, plum, prune, current, almonds, earthiness, and herbs. Goes well with pasta and meat sauces, pizza, and sausages.
Gamay Beaujolais – This red grape is a lesser clone of Pinot Noir. The style of winemaking can vary this wine produced from this grape greatly; however, the wines tend to be fresh, fruity, and should be consumed when they are young. Some enjoy this wine slightly chilled. Flavors: Cherry, raspberry, violets, earthiness, and black tea. Pairs with roasted chicken, grilled salmon, and meatloaf.
Grenache – A Spanish red grape that makes a big bold red. In France it is used as a blending wine. In the US, it is used for Rhone style blends or as a stand-alone varietal. It is similar to Pinot Noir in some aspects such as mouth feel and color. Flavors: Strawberry, raspberry, plum, leather, licorice, and fig. Goes well with stewed meats, pork or turkey.
Italian Style Blends – A blend of traditional Italian varietals such as Barbera, Nebbiolo, or Sangiovese and possibly other Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Great with pasta and red sauces.
Malbec – A red grape varietal once important in Bordeaux and the Loire regions in various blends. Now widely planted in California, Argentina and Chile. Flavors: Plum, blueberry, black cherry, vanilla, cocoa, and tobacco. Goes with hamburgers, steak, pork, or salmon.
Meritage (Red) – Meritage is an American work that is a combination of the words “Merit” and “Heritage” (and rhymes with Heritage). This term refers to a wine blend made from the traditional grapes of Bordeaux. Red Meritage grapes include: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petite Verdot, Malbec, St. Macaire, and Carménére. No one grape may account for more than 90% of the blend. Pairs with hamburgers, roasted meats, and cheese based pastas.
Merlot – A red grape from Bordeaux, France, similar in taste to Cabernet Sauvignon. Originally used in California to blend with Cabernet Sauvignon to soften the wine and add to its complexity. Flavors: Raspberry, black cherry, plum, berry jam, and chocolate. Good with beef and other red meats.
Mourvèdre – A red grape from the Rhone region of France, which grows well in warm climates and produces a deep colored wine described as having a spicy, bitter character and heavy tannins. Flavors: Blackberry, boysenberry, black pepper, and cocoa. Pairs with grilled meats, duck, and pork.
Nebbiolo – A red grape of Italian origin, which in Italy is used to produce a range of wines, including the famed Barolo. There is a relatively small but growing amount of this wine produced in California. Flavors: Cranberry, cherry, anise, leather, tobacco, and fruit cake. Great with beef tenderloin, roast turkey or duck.
Petit Verdot – One of the classic red grapes from Bordeaux, France. It is often used for blending, particularly with Red Meritage wines but is now found as a stand-alone varietal as well. Flavors: Black cherry, blueberry, plum, herbs, and lilac. Goes with spicy meats, sausages, and lamb.
Petite Sirah – A small, dark red grape that is related to Syrah but very different in character. Several clones are grown in California, but all tend to produce a very dark, inky black wine with heavy tannins. This grape is frequently used as a blending grape to add color and structure. Flavors: Black cherry, plum, blueberry, chocolate, and black pepper. Pairs well with big and well-seasoned meals.
Pinot Noir – This is the famous red grape from Burgundy, France. Although it is difficult to make wine from this grape, California winemakers have gained worldwide recognition over the last few decades. The grape grows best in the cooler coastal regions. Flavors: Cranberry, cherry, raspberry, clove, and mushroom.
It pairs well with lamb, beef, fowl, veal, egg dishes, fruits, nuts, and cheeses. Goes well with salmon, roasted chicken, or pasta dishes.
Pinotage – A red grape that is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, grown commercially in South Africa. A few wineries in California are producing this wine as well. It is fermented at higher temperatures and matured in new oak for finesse and elegant berry flavors. Pairs with grilled pork chops, lamb kebabs, and hamburgers.
Proprietary Red Wine – This term refers to wines that are often blended and do not meet the required 75% or more of a single type of grape that would allow the wine to have a varietal name (such as Chardonnay, Riesling, etc.). Often these names reflect a winemakers attempt to produce an excellent wine through blending. These blends can vary greatly in style as can the foods that pair with them.
Rhone Style Blend (Red) – A blend of wine from tow or more grapes that are traditionally grown in the Rhone Valley of Southern France. In California, the most common reds include: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignane, Cinsault, and Counoise. Best with game like lamb and goat as well as sausages.
Sangiovese – A red Italian grape, which in Italy is the traditional grape used in Chianti. In California, it is often bottled on its own but can be found blended with other grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Flavors: Red currant, raspberry, tomato, and spices. Great with pasta and meat sauces.
Syrah – A red grape from the Rhone region of France, which is capable of producing rich, complex, and long-lived wines. Some times the wine is referred to as Shiraz. Flavors: Blueberry, plum, olive, green peppercorn, chocolate, earthiness, and tobacco. Good with beef, lamb, and spicy foods.
Tannat – A red grape originally from Basque region of France. The wine is very robust, with high tannins and aromas of smoke, tobacco, ripe berries and plum. Flavors: Blackberry, currant, plum, minerals, smoke, herbs, and spices. Pairs with sausages, roasted lamb, and duck.
Tempranillo – A red grape that puts the structure into many good Spanish wines. The grapes are thick-skinned and capable of making deep colored, long lasting wines that are not notably high in alcohol. Flavors: Sour cherry, blackberry, dried fig, dill, tobacco, and raisin. Great with pasta, Mexican food, and grilled vegetables.
Zinfandel – A red grape planted widely in California. It has the potential of producing a wide range of wine styles varying from deep, dark, spicy, full-bodied, intensely flavored wines with long aging potential to late harvest, port-like dessert wines (high in alcohol, occasionally sweet) to the popular White Zinfandel, made by limiting the skin contact. Flavors: Blackberry, boysenberry, cranberry, plum, cinnamon, black pepper, licorice, chocolate, and raisin. Full-bodied Zinfandels pair well with barbecue foods, Dessert wine styles pair well with chocolate and berry desserts, and White Zinfandel pairs well with lighter dishes.