What are the smoothest red wines for beginners? You might think this is an odd title for a post, but this is one of the most common questions I get asked by friends who are looking to expand their wine knowledge.
Of course, everyone’s palate is different, and our endlessly varied arrangements of tastebuds give rise to a spectrum of tolerances for sweetness, bitterness acidity etc. BUT… I reckon there is such a thing as a good red wine for beginners. And it’s one that fulfils the following specifications…
Not too tannic: Tannic is the opposite of smooth. And, while many experienced winos can appreciate the robust lick of tannin in, say, a young Bordeaux or a Tuscan Sangiovese, excessive bitterness can be off-putting to less experienced tasters. I recall, in my younger days, viewing strongly tannic flavours as the mark of a bad red wine. If you love strong black coffee or sucking wet teabags then you might be an exception to this rule. If so, I’m going to ignore you and choose softer, smoother wines for this list anyway.
Fruit forward: Not everybody likes oaky wine, but everyone likes fruit, right? And bold fruit flavours help the beginner to determine how to describe what they’re drinking. A complex wine, with subtle hints of violet and cardamom, is going to be harder to get your nose around than one with obvious aromas of blackcurrant, cherry and tobacco. Thus, in my view, the latter is better suited to so-called beginners.
Inexpensive: And this brings me on to the next category. Complex wines tend to cost more, but a beginner is less likely to get the full benefit from all those nuanced flavours lurking beneath the surface. I’m not suggesting going super cheap either, but £10 in a supermarket should be easily enough to secure some of the best red wines for beginners. Watch out though: certain grapes, like Pinot Noir, don’t generally work well as inexpensive wines. So I’ve left them off the list.
Easily available: As I’m UK based, I’ve plumped for grape varieties that are available at most people’s local supermarket or indie wine shop. If you’re a “beginner”, you’re not likely to be bothered hunting around online for some obscure Lebanese blend. However, I would suggest avoiding the most famous, big-name brands… because they tend to be gross.
Enough waffle for now. Here is, in reverse order, my pick of the top five smoothest red wines for beginners.
5. Merlot: Now, Merlot beat Malbec to the top five here, because, although it’s hugely popular, I’m just not a massive fan of Malbec. Merlot used to be the most popular red wine around, but its reputation took a bit of a bash in the late 90s, after the film Sideways came out. The movie’s lead character (an annoying wine snob) hated Merlot and would only drink Pinot Noir. Well I love it and I reckon we’re long overdue a Merlot renaissance.
Merlot is a key ingredient in Bordeaux wines, which also contain Cabernet Sauvignon and so can be quite tannic, especially when young. But it’s a versatile grape, and you’ll find some excellent value single varietal Merlots all over the world, including the Pays d’Oc and California. Good Merlots explode with smooth, ripe cherry and plum flavours, and the more you spend the more complexity you’ll discover.
Why not try: The Virgile Joly Merlot 2017, from the Pays d’Oc, available online at Naked Wines. It’s super fruity, with cherry and berry flavours, and sublimely velvety on the tongue. Regular price £15.99, members’ price £11.99.
4. Chilean Carménère: It was originally used for blending in Bordeaux, and is also popular in Italy, but Carménère wines from Chile can represent especially good value. I find Chilean wines generally provide a great combo of quality and value, and their Carménère tends to be smooth, warm and rich, with sweet, dark fruit and chocolate flavours.
Why not try: I always enjoy Montes wines, and the Montes Alpha Carménère (above) is no exception. If you’re looking to spend less, Sainsbury’s Fairtrade Taste the Difference Chilean Carménère is good value at (currently) £7.
3. GSM Blend: If you are a beginner, you might now be shouting “what the hell’s a GSM blend?!” And I wouldn’t blame you. Clearly it’s an acronym. But what does it stand for? Grammes per square metre? No, that’s a weight of paper. Guaranteed severe migraine? Quite possibly, if you overdo it.
No, it stands for Grenache, Syrah (or Shiraz), and Mourvèdre: a trio of grape varieties that are often blended together in the Côtes du Rhône region of France, home to the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape blend. Châteauneuf-du-Pape (of the red variety, at least) is the most famous blend to be based around the GSM grapes, although it does use a handful of other varieties too.
But the GSM blend has also been mimicked around the world, and for good reason — it’s beautifully balanced. The Grenache provides sweetness and lightness, the Syrah adds depth of colour, spice, dark fruits and body, while the Mourvèdre gives structure and finish.
Why not try: The Zalze South African Shiraz, Grenache, Viognier blend. Available in Co-op, among other places, for less than eight quid, it’s like a (much) cheaper take on GSM blends like Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
2. Californian Zinfandel: Cali Zinfandel is one for those who like bold, strong, full-bodied, intensely alcoholic reds. And I count myself part of that set. Smokey blueberry, jammy blackcurrant, strawberry, cherry, vanilla, chocolate, liquorice, leather, menthol and tobacco are among the aromas you might find here.
Yes, Zinfandel can be complex, but what makes it good for beginners is that none of these flavours are subtle. They’re all out there screaming for you attention. So get stuck in, explore and see what you can experience!
Why not try: This lovely Paso Robles Zinfandel from Sainsbury’s (currently £9.50), which I gave a five-star review recently. Aldi also sometimes do some pretty decent Zinfandel, for a few quid less.
1. Australian Shiraz: Yes, it’s perhaps the most popular red wine in the world right now, and with good reason. Australian Shiraz bursts with body and fizzes with mouth-watering, rich, dark fruits. It’s also exceptionally smooth on the palate, giving modern wine-drinkers what they’ve been asking for (and, quite possibly, annoying French traditionalists in the process).
The main reason Aussie Shiraz is the number one in my Smoothest Red Wines For Beginners list is that it totally fulfils all the criteria I outlined above. Value: check. Availability: check. Smoothness: double check. Fruitiness: triple check. Yep, you can get Aussie Shiraz at any Tesco, Premier Inn and Wetherspoons around the country. And because it’s so damn smooth, even a cheaper brand won’t be stripping a layer of your tongue off while you imbibe it. High praise indeed. And if you can’t smell Shiraz’s flavours of rich, dark, juicy berries then, frankly, there’s no hope for you in the wine game.
Why not try: It’s maybe not the cheapest or easiest to find (at around £14), but I love the Dandelion Vineyards Lionheart of the Barossa Shiraz (above). It’s intense, smooth and juicy as hell. Alternatively, Aldi do a cheaper Barossa Valley Shiraz which is worth a try at £7. Don’t go any cheaper that that though, or you’re asking for a headache.
For more top wine tips see… My humorous bluffers’ guide on how to taste wine like a pro.