Welcome to the family: the red wine spectrum

Red wine bottles stacked on wooden racks

The red wine family is a delicious group of wines ranging from refreshing red fruit flavors to complex and sultry essences of dark berries and tobacco.

From the lightest Lambrusco to the darkest Douro, these wines run the gambit of the red wine spectrum (we’ll call it the RWS). Generally, lighter bodied wines put out red fruit flavors while full-bodied reds are characterized by black fruit flavors. Lighter-bodied wines tend to grow in cooler climates such as the Pacific Northwest and Europe.

Fuller-bodied wines come from warmer climates such as the Mediterranean, Australia, and Southern California.

Wines sharing similar characteristics are grouped into family units. In the RWS, three of such sub-groups exist.


Light-bodied reds

Light reds are extremely versatile with low tannin and alcohol content. For those just starting out, light-bodied reds are a great introduction to wine tasting. These delicious wines typically have lower alcohol, less tannin, and higher acidity. Their lightness and refreshing fruit flavors make them a perfect light wine for dinner pairings or summer nights on the patio. Common light-bodied reds include:

  • Lambrusco
    • Slightly bubbly, notes of strawberries and blueberries with a subtle bitterness. Serve at 49°F – 54°F for a refreshing summer wine.
  • Beaujolais (Gamay)
    • Tastes of cherry, herbs, and banana. Best served slightly chilled at 54°F – 59°F
  • Pinot Noir
    • Various taste profiles depending on region, ranging from raspberry to cranberry. High aroma with low tannin. Best served cool at 59°F – 64°F
  • Grenache
    • Floral with notes of citrus and flavors of cherry, currant, and raisin. Serve at room temperature.
  • Zinfandel
    • Flavors ranging from mocha and raspberry to strawberry jam. Higher alcohol content than other light-bodied reds. Best served at room temperature.

Other varieties of light reds exist (8 more on top of these, to be exact). But if you explore these common light-bodied reds, you’ll get a good feel for what this side of the spectrum has to offer.


Medium-bodied reds

This middle ground slice of the RWS was made to pair with food thanks to balanced tannin and temperate acidity. Even on the medium-bodied family, there’s quite a bit of variation. Grenache straddles the line between light and medium-bodied, while Merlot is the reigning dark-medium. Some common medium reds include:

  • Merlot
    • Flavors of raspberry, cherry, and plum. Lighter notes of cedar, graphite, tobacco, and vanilla. Medium tannin and acidity.
  • Cabernet Franc
    • Savory bell pepper, medium-high acidity.
  • Sangiovese
    • Exceptionally diverse taste profile depending on region. Tasting notes range from floral strawberry to dark fruits and tannin.
  • Barbera
    • Dark fruits with notes of vanilla, violet, and other spices. Low tannin, high acidity.

Merlot Wine

Full-bodied reds

The darker, the bolder. That’s the general rule of reds. Bold reds derive more of their flavor from the dark, luscious skins of grapes, bringing out more flavor and acidity. A lot goes into categorizing a full-bodied red, including mouth feel, flavor, and alcohol content.

That being said, a wine darker than night isn’t necessarily a full-bodied red.

The grape and wine making method work together to make a full-bodied red. Seeds (pips) add tannin, which create a dry sensation in your mouth referred to as structure. Different fermentation techniques and oak aging are additional steps winemakers use to create full-bodied masterpieces. In addition, full-bodied reds have a higher alcohol content and a tad more natural sugar, bolstering the wine’s richness and viscosity (which refers to the “legs” of the wine as it coats the wine glass). The darkest of the dark reds include (in order of darkest to lightest):

  • Douro Reds
    • Indigenous grapes from the Douro Valley, Portugal. Tastes of fresh blueberries and violets.
  • Petite Sirah
    • High tannin (dryness) and blackberry flavors.
  • Mourvedre
    • Very dark, meaty flavors.
  • Shiraz
    • High tannin and sweet tobacco finish.
  • Malbec
    • High acidity, notes of vanilla and blueberry.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
    • Classic full-bodied red bursting with flavors of fruit, pepper, and cedar.
  • Merlot
    • High tannin (structure). Tobacco and black cherry.