Wine with Food


Whether it’s a hearty stew that has been simmering for hours or a quick steak on the grill, it’s always fun to have an excuse to open a big red. Big food and big red wines are a winning combination. Already eaten? Enjoy a hearty red with some robust cheeses in front of the fireplac e. Too hot to cook? Summer barbeque season is a perfect time to augment that mellow Chardonnay with a monster red.

Let’s examine the array of wines from around the world that fit the big red category.


The southern hemisphere uses the term Shiraz, while the northern uses Syrah, just a dialect distinction, otherwise they are exactly the same grape – inky black, thick, rich, and hugely flavored. The typical flavor profile would be fruit tones of dark cherry and blackberry with nuances of smoke, bacon/sausage/smoked meat, black pepper, and subtle floral notes.

Look for them from just about every growing region throughout the world. But the best sites are the northern Rhone Valley of France (Hermitage, Cote Rôtie, and Cornas especially), the Barossa Valley in South Australia, and Santa Barbara County in southern California. Enjoy these brawny brutes with just about anything off the barbee, stews, meat or mushroom-based pasta dishes, and thick hearty soups.


These are villages in the province of Piedmont in northwestern Italy. The grape variety is Nebbiolo, which is native to that area.

Other Piedmont village names that also use the Nebbiolo grape are – Boca, Bramaterra, Carema, Gattinara, and Ghemm e. These can be some of the most spectacular wines in the world because of the fabulous secondary aromas and flavors that can develop with bottle ag e. Nebbiolo wines must be left to do their magic in the bottle for at least 8 years for an average vintage and 20 years for a great vintag e. They are tough, rough, and palate searing when young, but with ag e...aahh, they turn from a frog into a handsome princ e.

With age the flavors become red and black cherry fruit tones with nuances of flowers (especially roses), smoke/tar, exotic spices, and an undertone of mushroom/compost/damp earth. Piedmont is truffle country. What a surprise that their best local wine has a mushroom/truffle element to it. So any hearty dish with mushrooms is the perfect accent for these beauties.

If you insist on drinking them young, less than 10 years old, open and decant them at least 3 hours before consuming. These beasts can’t be tamed until they’ve had some time to slumber in the bottl e.

If you ever see the word Spanna on a label, it is the local name for Nebbiolo. (Italians can’t have just one word for anything.) Spannas tend to be a smaller, lighter version of any of the above village names.


Cabernet Sauvignon is the king of red win e. Long drunk by nobility, plus the British demand for Bordeaux created the star status that Cabernets from all over the world now enjoy. You can encounter a Cabernet from every wine growing region in the world, and at every price as well.

Choose carefully when searching for Cabernet at the lower prices. The best values are coming from some unlikely sources: Bulgaria, Chile, and South Africa, just to name a few. Unfortunately, many wineries from California, Australia, and South African along with the upper classifications of Bordeaux, are pushing the price of many Cabernets beyond the reach of the average consumer!

Don’t think you have to spend that much for a mind-blowing experienc e. There are fabulous bottles at all prices. Cabernet Sauvignon is a sure-fire hit with any piece of meat, whether it is cow, lamb, or buffalo. Cabernet has a structure, a backbone, an inner core strength that makes it the Zen of all red wines. This structure also allows it to age very gracefully in the bottle for decades (only the best bottles from the better vintages). 

The flavors of red currant and red cherry fruits with nuances of herbs/tobacco/tea, cedar/cigar box, and spices (cinnamon and vanilla) hold a special place at anyone’s tabl e. This unique aroma of a filled cigar box is found only in a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. Whether it’s labeled as a Bordeaux in France, or a Meritage in California, they are all in the same family, that noble clan of Cabernet.

Cabernet Franc is a sibling of Cabernet Sauvignon--similar in style, except Franc has a softer, rounder feel with a more herbaceous edg e. There are several California producers that are bottling their Franc separately, instead of blending it all into a vat with Sauvignon or Merlot. It is a fun experiment to look at the individual parts that make up a blend to see what they add to the whol e.

Merlot continues to be popular; its rise to top-dog status is a case study in marketing strategies. As always, though, there are problems with popularity. To keep up with demand, many growers all over the world grafted over existing vines to Merlot, or planted new vineyards in less than desirable locations. Consequently, there is a lot of awful, flavorless red wine masquerading as Merlot.

Fortunately, the tide is shifting, the frenzy is decreasing, resulting in a resurgence of quality. So why is Merlot the darling of the wine world? When it is good, it is really good! Merlot has a soft, supple core and an easy-going demeanor unlike the rest of the red wine world. Hence, the popularity as a no food, by itself, sipper. Does this mean it doesn’t go with food? Heck no! Put it in front of a piece of meat and experience the chemistry.

Malbec is a newcomer to the red wine community. Used for centuries as a blender grape with Cabernet and Merlot, this often forgotten cousin is now taking center stage in Argentina. Most likely the grape came over with immigrants from France in the early 1800’s, but it hasn’t been until the last 10 years that the world has discovered the wonders of Malbec. The best are bursting with ripe, juicy fruit flavors of blackberry, black cherry and black currant with a hint of tart red cherry/cranberry undertone, dried herbs and flowers, and spices. Argentina is no place for a vegetarian; meat is in almost every dish. Their wines will stand up to such robust far e. Since they are fairly new to the market, they can be great values compared to their cousins in the Cabernet family.


If we categorized big reds by their alcohol content alone, Zinfandel would be in a class by itself. The pendulum has swung back to the days of big, super ripe, high alcoholic monsters. Bottles can be found with over 17 percent alcohol listed on the label!

Zinfandel, unlike most other grape varieties, has a natural affinity to these stratospheric ripening levels. Fortunately, these are not the norm and many wonderful, perfectly normal Zinfandels can be found on the market ranging in style from light and fruity to big and rich. These "lesser" wines are best in a food and wine situation. The flavor profile consists of blackberry/black cherry/blueberry jam (yes, a cooked fruit flavor), with notes of hot-sweet spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cardamom), bramble/tree bark/bitter herbs, and smoke and black pepper.

Zinfandel is the perfect accompaniment to grilled, barbeque-lathered ribs. The ripe jammy fruit flavors plus that slight bitter element really mirror the flavors of a sweet barbeque sauce, Kansas City styl e. Too much vinegar in the sauce can unnerve any wine, so be careful. But, don’t pigeon-hole Zins to the barbeque, they can go with just about anything. This very versatile red goes with pizza, tomato-based pastas, burgers, and fowl. Zinfandel is California-born and raised, don’t look for it from anywhere els e. A handful of producers in Australia and South Africa are trying, though. Have fun with Zinfandel, for even the producers don’t take themselves all that seriously.

Zinfandel can also be found under the famous White Zinfandel label. Yes, this is made from the zinfandel grape, but in a white styl e. Any red wine can be made to resemble a white, what you usually end up with, though, is a rosé. Next time you eat a grape, look at the pulp insid e. Almost all grapes, whether table or wine varieties, have a white pulp. The skin is where you get the color! So, when you press the grapes to extract the juice you get just a hint of color from the skins. That would make a white wine, very little color, if any. If you leave the juice sitting on that leftover pressed matter, then you get a pink color. The longer the maceration, the darker the color will b e.

There are a lot of big red wines to experience and experiment with, so get out there and have some fun!

Red wine is simply wine produced from red (or black) grapes. Most everyone knows that. What you might not know is that almost all grapes have colorless juic e. The way that the red wine gets its color is by letting the skins soak in the juice until the red color bleeds out.

Not only does soaking the skins give red wine its color, it also imparts a substance known as tannin. Tannin is what gives red wines a complexity that is beyond that of most white wines.

Tannin has a mouth drying quality that causes the wine to feel firm in your mouth. When a red wine is young, this firmness can be quite intens e.

Over time, the qualities of the tannin will mellow and blend harmoniously with the other characteristics of the win e. This is one of the main reasons that red wines usually age better than whites.


Major Red Wine (Grape) Varieties

Cabernet Sauvignon - Thick skinned grape with lots of tannin. They have a blackcurrant flavor and smell similar to pencil shavings.

Merlot - Usually higher in alcohol and will taste of black cherries and sometimes mint.

Nebbiolo - High in tannin and acid and need aging to mellow. They are mainly grown in the Piedmont region of Italy.

Pinot Noir - The most finicky of grapes producing the widest range of quality. The best are hauntingly silky, with aromas of truffles and decaying leaves.

Syrah/Shiraz - Rich and spicy wine with lots of tannin and the sweetness of blackberries.

Tempranillo - Spain's big red, with moderate alcohol and tastes of strawberries and plums.

Zinfandel - Ranging from light and fruity to big and spicy depending on the quality. The best examples are from California.  

Other Red Wine (Grape) Varieties

Barbera - Low tannin with high acidity. Creates a fruity and refreshing win e.

Carmenere - Produces a rich and spicy wine and is popular in Chile.

Gamay - Gained favor in the Beaujolais district of Franc e. They actually taste of grapes and are low in tannin.

Grenache/Garnacha - High in alcohol and is usually sweet and peppery.

Malbec - A smooth and plummy variety from Argentina.

Sangiovese - Main grape in Chianti. This wine has medium acidity and tannin.

Touriga Nacional - An aromatic grape commonly used for making Port.

European Red Wines

The Europeans label their wines by the region in which the grapes are grown, not the grape variety like in the U.S. Many times they are blends of multiple grape varieties. Here is a chart of some of Europe's red wines.



Grape Varieties



Corvina, Molinara, Rondinella









Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, etc.



Pinot Noir



Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, etc.



Sangiovese, Canaiolo, etc.

Côtes du Rhône


Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignan, etc.



Tinta Borroca, Tinta Roriz, Tinto Cão, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, etc.



Tempranillo, Grenache, etc.



Corvina, Molinara, Rondinella

Enjoying Red Wine

Red wine is usually intended to be consumed with a meal instead of on its own. The bold flavors and characteristics (compared to most whites), will stand up to and sometimes complement flavorful foods. But I often enjoy a good red wine all by itself.

Red wine will really shine when it is served at the proper temperatur e. If the temperature is too cold, the subtle flavors and textures will be lost. If the temperature is too warm, the wine will taste somewhat flat and totally non-refreshing.

Most people know to drink red wine at room temperature, but that is not really tru e. Unless of course, you keep the temperature in your house similar to that of an old English castl e. Most reds taste best between 62°F to 65°F (16°C to 18°C). For more specific guidelines, see chart below.

Sample Red Wines


Beaujolais, Nebbiolo, Port, light and fruity reds

54°F - 59°F (12°C - 15°C)

Simple Pinot Noirs, light Rioja, Argentine Tempranillo

59°F - 63°F (15°C - 17°C)

Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux, Shiraz, big Zinfandel

63°F - 68°F (17°C - 20°C)

Yes, I know, you're not going to get a thermometer and take the temperature of the wine every time you are going to drink it. What I would recommend is to actually drink wines at all three of the above temperatures until you get a feel for them without a thermometer.

With practice, you will have a good idea of the approximate temperatur e.

General Temperature Guidelines

The important thing to know is that a red wine needs to be warm enough to experience all of the flavors, but cool enough to be refreshing. Never drink a red wine above 68°F (20°C) if you can help it.

The glass of a red wine should feel slightly cool in your hands.

Tip - It takes about 3 hours to chill a bottle of wine down to the temperature of the refrigerator. Before drinking, take the room temperature wine and let it sit in the refrigerator from 15 to 40 minutes (depending on the type).

Tip - It's always better to serve a red wine at a temperature that is too cool than too warm. You or your guests can always just warm the wine with your hands or simply wait a couple of minutes before drinking.