Californian wineries produce the vast majority of the wine that the rest of the United States consumes. When you visit St. Helena, you might be just a little overwhelmed! Let’s discuss the most prominent types of red wine to come from the Napa Valley. While you won’t become an expert overnight, hopefully this information can guide your tastings and food-pairings during your visit. (And once you’re home too, with those bottles you bought as ‘souvenirs.’)
We can categorize the types of red wine in a few different ways.
Tannins? Acids? Notes? Varietals? Who knows! (Just kidding.) It’s fine if you don’t have a clue about these terms yet.
For the entry-level taster, you don’t need to worry too much. We’ll keep it simple. We’ll break down these reds as light-, medium-, or full-/bold-bodied. This is about the overall ‘strength of flavor.’
Pinot Noir. Juicy stone fruit flavors (like cherries and nectarines), lightly floral, lightly earthy. Very easy to drink. Pairs well with mild and not-too-heavy foods — think goat cheese, nuts, chicken, tuna, and warm spices.
Barbera. Crisp, not too sweet, lots of berry flavor.
Cabernet Franc. Fruity and often blended with cabernet sauvignon or merlot to add some silky, more nuanced flavor.
Merlot. A rich and accessible classic. Fruit-forward and herbal. Pairs well with rich and creamy sauces (fondue, bolognaise, bearnaise), tangy cheeses (like Parmesan), and rich cuts of meat (steak, swordfish) — but also lots of herbs (mint, rosemary).
Sangiovese. Simultaneously spicy and fruity, but mostly via tart berry flavors. Some subtle florals, this one can be pretty ‘complex.’
Tempranillo. Cherry heaven! Usually. Bright and earthy, good with salty snacks.
Zinfandel. This could be a bold one, so watch out. Things might get intense-ish. You’ll taste some raspberry, but also more spices like black pepper and clove. This bodes well for almost any food pairing. Enjoy with an herbaceous salad, pasta, pungent cheeses, and pork, beef, or a burger.
Cabernet sauvignon. Party on with this lively, easygoing, astringent red. Choose firm meats (like grilled tuna, beef stew, and rib eye) and vegetables that can hold their own (broccoli, tomatoes), or a bittersweet standalone dessert (dark chocolates, coffee ice cream).
Grenache. Earthy, with bold blackberry and raspberry. This one can vary tremendously, so trust your sommelier.
Malbec. Deep and dry, peppery and berry-y. Go for big luscious flavors with salty and fatty foods like salami, bacon, Asiago, and Romano.
Petit verdot. Unique and often floral, you might taste olives or berries in this red.
Petite sirah. Fruity and rich, generally on the sweeter side. Have with a slice of pie.
Syrah. Bold, ‘complex,’ with a dark, dry, smoky flavor. Eat some more pie; the sugar will flesh out the syrah. And/or heavy spices and strong flavors.