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A Newbie’s Starter Guide to Red Wine

Don’t know much about red wine and too embarrassed to ask? We’ve got the answers to all your red wine questions – from the basics, to styles, varietals and food pairings. When the weather cools down, red wine is just the ticket.

first choice liquor red wine guide

If you’re reading about red wine, you’ve probably had a sip or two before. But for those new(ish) to a glass of red, you might be wondering how there’s so much to know. Going back to basics, red wine is made by fermenting the juice of dark-skinned grapes, giving it its characteristic colour, which can range from a deep purple to a pale ruby. The taste of the final wine differs depending on — among other things — the variety of grape and the wine region where it is grown and made.

Grapes and styles

Most red wines are made from mutations of the same grape species — Vitis Vinifera — including many of the ones you’ve heard of such as merlot, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir. There are four main styles that red wine falls into: sparkling, light-bodied, medium-bodied and full-bodied. ‘Body’ is all about how it feels in the mouth. A wine gets its body from the amount of alcohol present in it.


If you’re not too familiar with red wine, full-bodied reds are probably what come to mind when you think of the drink. This means the alcohol content is over 13.5% and is what gives it that heavier and fuller feeling in the mouth. Shiraz, merlot, cabernet, zinfandel and malbec usually fall into this category.


If something lighter is more your speed, at the other end of the spectrum are wines under 12.5% in alcohol. Common choices are pinot noir and gamay. In between light and full (more than 12.5% but less than 13.5%), are your medium-bodied reds, where grenache and sangiovese usually sit.


In terms of sparkling, there are popular styles like the lightly sparkling and sweet Italian Lambrusco, and the full-bodied sparkling shiraz — the best of which comes from South Australia’s Mclaren Vale and the Victorian Grampians. Some of our favourites include Andrew Garrett Sparkling Shiraz and Seppelt Original Sparkling Shiraz.


A varietal is a wine made from a specific grape variety – which is usually what you read on the label. Varietals from different regions do differ in taste due to the effect of local climate, soil and winemaking practices. For example, a shiraz made in the warm climate and shorter growing season of the Hunter Valley will be medium-bodied with a distinctive savoury style; whereas a Barossa shiraz will likely be dark, chocolatey and sometimes softly spicy. Here’s a speedy tasting guide to the most common red varietals.

‘Cab sav’ is full-bodied with noticeable tannins (dry and tart taste) and acidity. Usually has blackcurrant and peppery notes. Drink it with a mushroom burger and chips. Try: James Busby Cabernet Sauvignon

Smooth and full-bodied, this Argentinian favourite has berry flavours and smells a bit like chocolate or coffee. Drink it with lamb souva. Try: Theory of Evolution Malbec

Light-bodied, paler in colour, cranberry flavours and rose aromas. A good place to start for red wine newbies. Drink it with a mushroom-topped pizza. Try: Beyond the Wilderness Pinot Noir; James Busby Yarra Valley Pinot Noir

Full-bodied shiraz is a bit spicy, and tastes of blackberries and cloves. Lighter-bodied shiraz is more savoury. Drink it with a peppercorn steak or any other flavoursome red meats. Try: James Busby Vineyard Series Barossa Valley Shiraz; James Busby Shiraz

The key grape variety in the Spanish classic style Rioja is growing in popularity in Australia. Medium-bodied, it has bold flavours of blackcurrant and plum fruits. Drink it with tapas such as chorizo or albondigas. Try: Running With Bulls Tempranillo

Known for its bright red hue, this wine has a sweet, ripe berry and white pepper flavour. Drink it with pork cutlets with spicy Asian slaw. Try: Winton Road Barossa Valley Grenache; Isabella & Katarina Grenache

Sangiovese wines have fresh cherry fruit flavours. There’s a range of tastes from earthy and rustic Chianti classico to softer, more fruit-forward drops. Drink it with roast chicken or any dish with a tomato sauce. Try: Pensilva Sangiovese; Love Not War Organic Sangiovese

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