Anything but Merlot: A Look at the Other Reds

wineWe’ve all been there.

You sit down at a restaurant and the server thrusts the wine list into your hands. You plan to order the tenderloin, so your eyes immediately scan for the red wine section. As the server hovers over your shoulder in a not-so-patient manner you hurriedly select the most familiar wine possible in the hopes that it will be decent.

That rushed choice is almost always a merlot.

Merlot is a fine variety of wine and it is quite appropriate for many situations. However, the wine world is bursting with other types of reds that reflect the many different flavors and dynamics that red wines are famous for. By consistently ordering the same type of wine you may be severely limiting your chance to expand your palate and to learn more about some truly incredible reds that are widely available and, in many cases, surprisingly affordable.

We’ve looked at some of the best red wines that are not merlots and have come up with a tantalizing list of varieties from all over the world.

Cabernet Sauvignon

If you’re not ordering merlot the chances are good that you’re ordering a cabernet. A cross between cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc grapes, cabernet was once the most popular wine in the world until merlot took its place in the 1990s. While it might seem less complex than merlot, cabernet is a rich and full bodied wine with a high tannin content, and the flavors can range from smoky tobacco to fruit and berry notes.

Cabernet are grown and produced at vineyards around the world, but some of the best bottles come from the United States. California has become one of the world’s leading producers of this variety and the result is a wine with rich flavors due in part to the growing conditions and the oak casks that the wine is typically aged in.

Choose a fantastic cabernet sauvignon with the Culler Wines Caseada Napa. This wine is bursting with fruit flavors that speak strongly of cassis and berry, with a note of vanilla and spice for a well-rounded, versatile wine that pairs well with all types of meat dishes or a cheese course that features strong cheddar or sheep’s milk cheeses.

Pinot Noir

A complex variety that can be exceedingly difficult to grow, pinot noir is a grape that has historically been used primarily in the production of other, blended wines, the most noted of which is Champagne. However, the pinot noir of today has become a very popular wine in its own right, and you’ll find it on the wine lists of almost every restaurant in the world.

As a lighter red wine with a lower tannin content, pinot noir is quite versatile and pairs well with many types of food. From pasta or vegetarian dishes to lamb or beef, the mellow flavors of pinot noir are transformative and light and lend themselves well to desserts too.

New Zealand is famous for producing exceptional pinots and one of the best is the Craggy Range offering from Te Muna Road Vineyard in Martinborough.  The Craggy Range pinot is fragrant with notes of fruit and herbs and the wine’s medium body rounds out the flavor with a slight acidity that only serves to enhance its overall crispness.


Although malbec was once a staple in the thriving French viticulture market, a frost killed off nearly the entire crop of malbec grapes in that country in the 1950s. French growers then planted different varieties which led to a decline in the production of malbec worldwide. However, Argentinian growers embraced this finicky grape and that country is now the world’s leading producer.

Malbec is a rich wine with complex flavors that may seem intimidating. However, malbec is a great red meat wine and it also pairs well with spicy cuisines from Mexico or Italy. Try the Mendel Malbec 2011 from the Mendoza region of Argentina. This wine evokes mineral flavors from the soil which meld seamlessly with its fruit notes and high tannins.

Red Zinfandel

For many people zinfandel reminds them of syrupy, pink wines which bring nothing to the table. However, the red zinfandel varieties have nothing in common with their very, very distant pale cousins.

The zinfandel grape is native to Italy and Croatia and has a high sugar content which can result in a very high alcohol content in the finished product. When the alcohol and sugars are tempered slightly, the resulting wine is a deep red with high tannins and strong notes of cherries and spice.

An exceptional choice to pair with your meat or poultry dishes, the Kenwood Jack London Zinfandel is ripe with raspberry and pepper flavors which linger on the palate. This highly drinkable zinfandel is the perfect alternative to more traditional red wines.

The next time a server offers you a wine list, take a moment to breathe. Then look past the merlot section and seek out some of these exceptional varieties. You may never drink merlot again.



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