If you are new to the world of red wine, you will want to start off your sampling endeavors with a few of the classic varieties, rather than leaping head-on into rare vintages and unique blends. Here are four classic red varieties that you've probably heard of before, and that definitely belong on a first-time tasting table.
Merlot is a very popular variety of bold red wine. Although it has great depth of flavor, it is still considered approachable, and it pairs well with an array of foods. You can drink Merlot with a good steak or sip it with some chocolate; it will have equal appeal in both situations. The word "Merlot" means "little black bird" in French, and indeed, this is a traditional French variety. However, you will now also find Merlot made in California, which tends to be a little lighter-bodied and fruitier than that made in France. Merlot has a higher alcohol content than many other red wines -- sometimes as high as 14.5 percent.
Another wine that originated in France, Cabernet Sauvignon is typically oaky and very full bodied with a good amount of acidity. It's a great wine to drink with boldly flavored food. Cabernet Sauvignon has a very dark red color, so it looks lovely in a glass. It does contain a lot of tannins, so it can be overwhelming when consumed in large quantities. Try a Can Sauv from France for authenticity, but don't shy away from ones from Australia or Chile, either. They tend to be more reasonably priced, though sometimes more acidic.
If you find Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon too bold, then you may enjoy a glass of pinot noir. It tends to be lighter bodied than the other red wines on this list, and its blackberry notes give it a hint of fruitiness that's approachable. Pinot noir pairs well with creamy cheeses like muenster and havarti. You'll find lovely pinot noirs from California and from Ontario, Canada.
Malbec is another more robust red wine, classically produced in France and now also produced in Chile and Argentina. It has a very high tannin content. You can almost taste the heat of the sun in the grapes. Malbec grapes are sensitive, so some vintages of Malbec are notably better than others. When trying Malbec, it's always worth your while to pay a bit more for a better bottle.
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