Ah, red wine: friend to hearty dishes, enemy to white shirts. At its essence, red wine may be the simplest and most straightforward alcoholic beverage in the world: you simply harvest some red grapes, crush them (with a press, or—if you prefer—your feet), let them sit with their skins for a while to add color (as distinct from whites, in which the juice is typically separated from the skins to produce wines of lightness and clarity), and wait for some ambient yeasts to start converting the sugar into alcohol. Unlike beer, there's no heating involved; unlike liquor, you don't need a still. You just need some grapes, a container, and mother nature.
The finest red wines of today follow this general pattern, with the addition of a couple millennia worth of innovation. Oak barrel aging, filtration, cultivated yeasts, and modern vineyard practices are all comparatively recent additions to the red wine experience. Traditions and mandates governing the production of red wine vary geographically: different regions of the world all have different rules dictating which grape varieties are permitted, how long the wines must age, what the final alcohol content be, and how the wine must be labeled.
And it's not just the rules that vary per geography, it's also the way the grapes express themselves. Take pinot noir, for instance: a hard grape to cultivate because of its delicate skin and difficulty ripening in areas that lack sufficient sunshine. The style of pinot from California is typically ripe, powerful and fruit-forward. The same grape grown in the various Burgundy villages of France returns a much different style: wavering in degrees of ripeness, with some more fruit-forward than others, but remarkably earthy and imbued with ample acidity and firm, taut tannins. And that's to say nothing of the unique styles and practices cultivated by each individual winemaker.
Gaja Barbaresco takes the top spot because it has a traditional but rich composition that makes for a legendary drinking experience.
With red wines now being made in every major wine-producing nation in the world, it's impossible to condense the totality of red wines into a short list—but that's not going to stop us from trying. Here are 15 excellent and diverse red wines that are especially deserving of your corkscrew.
Region: Barbaresco, Italy | ABV: 14.5% | Tasting Notes: Violet, Tar, Cherry, Baking spice
Wine lovers turn to cabernet sauvignon for intensity and to pinot noir for elegance—but if there's any grape that can match them both on each count, it has to be nebbiolo. Traditionally, the most celebrated nebbiolo hails from the Italian region of Piedmont, where the thick-skinned grape isn't harvested until late in the growing season, around when the autumn fog begins to roll in (nebbiolo takes its name from "nebbia," the Italian word for fog). And within Piedmont, two villages have long been understood to produce the finest nebbiolos in the world: Barolo and Barbaresco.
If there's one person who can take credit for putting Piedmont nebbiolo on the international map, it has to be Angelo Gaja. Beginning with the release of his first vintage of Barbaresco in 1961, Gaja began pioneering modern winemaking practices (green harvesting, aging in small barrels, etc.) that were previously unheard of in Piedmont. And while he was considered quite controversial in his early career, the more recent releases of Gaja's flagship Barbaresco may be considered among the region's most faithful and traditional in their expression, displaying the signature nebbiolo notes of violet and tar, along with wild berry, cherry, coriander, cedar, candied orange peel, baking spice, and dark chocolate—all complimented by great depth and gorgeous tannins that suggest several decades worth of aging potential. A legendary wine from a legendary producer, which would make for a legendary drinking experience.
Louis Latour Château Corton Grancey Grand Cru
Region: Côte de Beaune, Burgundy, France | ABV: 14% | Tasting Notes: Red currants, Blood orange, Dried raspberries, Baking spice
One of the top names in all of Burgundy is Louis Latour, and one of the most unique wines it produces is this Château Corton Grancey—a blend of four Grand Cru vineyards (Bressandes, Perrières, Grèves and Clos du Roi).
Delivering profound notes of black and red currants, blackberry fruit, blood orange citrus, and dried raspberries underscored by baking spices and dried red florals, this pinot noir is also a textural masterpiece with mouthwatering acidity and grippy cedar-like tannins.
Good to Know:
When it comes to red wine, balance is a non-negotiable for Alexandra Neverov, sommelier at Topping Rose House in Bridgehampton, New York. “For me, there has to be this unspoken equilibrium in a great red wine, from tannins to alcohol to acid and fruit balance,” she says. Neverov also goes for reds with pronounced aromatics. “If I find myself entranced, then I feel that wine can be truly enchanting.”
Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d'Abruzzo
Region: Abruzzo, Italy | ABV: 13% | Tasting Notes: Blackcurrant, Raw meat, Black olives
It's hard to think of a red grape that's more quintessentially Italian than montepulciano d'Abruzzo, and it's hard to think of a producer who elevates the grape to its highest potential more consistently than Emidio Pepe. Since founding his winery in 1964, Pepe—who still oversees production of the wines, along with his daughters and granddaughters—has earned a well-deserved reputation for producing rich, hearty, powerful montepulcianos using only the most traditional of winemaking practices.
"It's farmed biodynamically, destemmed by hand, pressed by foot and aged in cement tanks for a minimum of two years with no additives or manipulation," says Shane Lopez, wine director at Augustine Wine Bar and Melanie Wine Bar, both in Los Angeles, Calif. "It's a pure, traditional, and age-worthy expression of place resulting in a stunningly complex and structured red that will only get better with time."
Vega Sicilia Único 2009
Region: Ribera del Duero, Spain | ABV: 14% | Tasting Notes: Spiced plums, Forest underbrush, Cigar box
If Spain classified its wineries as they do in Bordeaux, with "first growths” dominating the pyramid of wineries ranked from first to fifth, Vega Sicilia would be at the top. This winery is owned by the Álvarez family and is located in Ribera del Duero.
A decade in the making, this 2009 vintage is a blend of 94% tempranillo with 6% cabernet sauvignon, aged six years in oak prior to bottling, remaining another four years in the bottle before being released. Beautiful ripe flavors fill the mouth, redolent of red cherries and spiced plums, while the palate reveals a fresh yet elegant wine wavering between deep forest underbrush, cigar box and muddled blueberries. A special (and expensive) wine, this should really be enjoyed on a special occasion.
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Prats & Symington Prazo de Roriz
Region: Douro, Portugal | ABV: 13.8% | Tasting Notes: Cranberry, Raspberry, Blood Orange, Cedar
For generations of wine drinkers, the country of Portugal was thought of as little more than the place where port came from—but consumers are finally discovering that the nation produces some excellent red wines that are often available at bargain prices. Owned by the Symington family, Quinta de Roriz first produced port two centuries ago, and today, the estate encompasses some 222 acres. Half of the property is planted to Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca vines—Portugal’s widely planted and most popular red table wine grapes, which are capable of producing reds of great depth and character.
The Prazo de Roriz is a remarkably complex red wine for the price, showing gorgeous medium to deep ruby hues in the glass. Bright, wild berry aromas and fine French cedar spices join cranberry and raspberry, with a touch of blood orange and baking spices on the palate, supported by firm tannins.
Related: The Best Red Wine Glasses
Best Southern California
Tyler Winery Sanford and Benedict Pinot Noir
Region: Santa Rita Hills, California | ABV: 13.5% ABV | Tasting Notes: Black cherries, Redcurrant, Mocha
In 1971, years before California wines were garnering much international esteem, botanist Michael Benedict and his friend Richard Sanford planted their eponymous vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills. They'd been seeking a cool-climate site that might yield grapes capable of producing wines with enough depth and elegance to rival the classics of Europe—and, half a century later, their experiment has proved a resounding success, with the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard having established itself as the source of some of the most sought-after pinot noir grapes in California. Tyler winemaker Justin Willett has been lucky enough to craft a celebrated pinot from this vineyard for over a decade now.
"Utilizing cooler climate single vineyard sites with close proximity to the ocean, Justin Willett creates perfectly balanced pinots and chardonnays," says Lopez. "All of his wines are made the exact same, to express the individual terriors—and this juicy, vibrant, and salty offering is among the elite wines of all of California."
Best Northern California
Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon
Region: Napa Valley, California | ABV: 14.1% | Tasting Notes: Blackberry, Brown spices, Vanilla bean
Today, thanks to co-owner Peter Mondavi Jr.'s leadership, Charles Krug winery is a pillar of Napa Valley. With longtime winemaker Stacy Clark at the helm, the wines are utterly delightful, classically structured and decidedly age-worthy.
Sourced from five estate sites in Yountville, the 2018 vintage has an incredibly modest price and impeccable pedigree. Wonderfully rich blackberry fruits mingle with brown spices, tobacco and vanilla bean. The cabernet sauvignon is full-bodied with black cherry, blackberry compote and black currants—all supported by lovely fine-grained tannins.
“I try to find off-the-beaten-path producers who inspire me with a story and passion. ... Of course, one shouldn’t ignore the classics; however, there are too many great wines in this world to stop exploring past the point of comfort.” — Alexandra Neverov, sommelier, Topping Rose House
Cooper Mountain Pinot Noir
Region: Willamette Valley, Oregon | ABV: 13.5% | Tasting Notes: Black cherries, Dried roses, Earth
Featuring a maritime climate and famously situated on the same line of latitude as France's pinot-producing Burgundy region, Oregon's Willamette Valley has been recognized for decades as an excellent growing site for quality pinot noir. Cooper Mountain Vineyards, founded in the early 1990s by Bob Gross, always had its sights set on organic and biodynamic farming, from “earth to air,” as the estate itself claims.
The winery became organic-/biodynamic-certified more than 20 years ago and has been a pioneering force for responsible farming in Oregon. Now joined by Gross' daughter, Barbara Gross, Cooper Mountain’s pinots are reaching new heights. This delicious expression oozes with flavors of black cherries, cranberries, dried rose petals and damp earth.
"I had a moment where I was hating red wine altogether and realized that I really liked light- to medium-bodied reds that provide wonderful aromatics and depth. [Oregon] had been delivering.” — Zwann Grays, wine director, Olmsted and Maison Yaki
Woodward Canyon Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon
Region: Washington | ABV: 14.5% | Tasting Notes: Black cherry, Menthol, Baking spices
Washington State is further north than Oregon—but, paradoxically, it's best known for producing grapes that thrive in warmer climates. That's because the majority of Oregon's vineyards are located west of the Cascade mountains, exposing them to maritime weather and creating ideal growing conditions for cool-climate grapes like pinot. Washington's vineyards, meanwhile, lie mostly east of the Cascades, so the maritime influences are blocked—resulting in long, warm growing seasons that are perfect for hearty reds like cabernet sauvignon.
Only the second winery to be established in Washington's prolific Walla Walla Valley, family-run Woodward Canyon has been churning out delicious reds since 1981, and their “Artist Series” cabernet is a blend of grapes sourced from some of the most highly regarded vineyards in the entire state, including the lengendary Sagemoor Vineyard. "The result is a silky, medium- to full-bodied wine bursting with notes of ripe black cherry, blueberry, cassis, warm baking spices, cedar, black pepper, menthol, and cocoa," says Claire Coppi, a Certified Sommelier and a cast member on SOMM TV. "Wait about five years before opening, as the wine benefits highly from a little time to integrate in the bottle."
Achaval Ferrer Quimera
Region: Mendoza, Argentina | ABV: 14.5% | Tasting Notes: Cherry compote, Salty dark chocolate, Cedar spice
Achaval-Ferrer's Quimera blend is a wine of remarkable precision: co-founder Santiago Achaval and winemaker Roberto Cipresso comb the vineyards, tasting grapes and hand-selecting vines specifically for this release. Their typical blend consists of malbec, cabernet franc, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon, all grapes that originally hail from France's Bordeaux region—with malbec, Argentina's most highly-regarded grape variety, playing the starring role.
Loaded with blackberry fruits and marvelous spices, this wine is intensely concentrated with layers of black cherry compote, salted dark chocolate and cedar spices weaving in and out of vanilla and clove. There’s a palate-coating richness that builds to a serious 60-second finish, with rose petal and dried herb flourishes.
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Penfolds Bin 389 South Australia Cabernet/Shiraz
Region: South Australia, Australia | ABV: 14.5% | Tasting Notes: Black cherries, Cassis, New leather, Fruit cake
Penfolds, unquestionably the greatest winemaking estate in Australia, is best known for its iconic wine, Penfolds Grange. Chief winemaker Peter Gago made it his mission to produce well-structured wines with deep flavors and, as he puts it, “a propensity to age.”
While both cabernet sauvignon and syrah (known in the southern hemisphere as shiraz) originally hail from France, tradition and geography dictated that they typically weren't ever blended together in that country. The Australians, however, discovered a real fondness for the iconoclastic pairing, and Penfolds' Bin 389 combines 54% cabernet sauvignon with 46% shiraz—a characteristic Aussie blend. Often referred to as Baby Grange, the Bin 389 is offered at a more approachable price than the Grange, making it a recognizable crowd-pleaser that can be enjoyed by enthusiasts the world over.
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Best New Zealand
Felton Road "Cornish Point" Pinot Noir
Region: Central Otago, New Zealand | ABV: 13.5% | Tasting Notes: Red berries, Dried cherries, Mocha
With its cool climate and mountainous terrain, New Zealand is home to some of the world's best regions for growing quality pinot noir. Deep, dark-fruited, lively and breathtaking wines are being made in places like Central Otago. And in the heart of this region lies Felton Road, maker of several complex pinots.
Their Cornish Point Vineyard is planted on an old gold miners' settlement, and is unique in being bordered by water on both sides, which helps to minimize frost. The rows of vines are orientated to 345 degrees, so that the grapes receive an extra hour of morning sun and one less of the hotter afternoon sun. Coupled with biodynamic farming, the result is a deeply creamy wine with fleshy red berry flavors, dried cherries, subtly dusty tannins and a mocha-tinged finish. It's all supported by juicy and racy acidity.
Good to Know:
Zwann Grays, wine director at Brooklyn-based Olmsted and Maison Yaki, cites winemakers with bad reputations, as well as bad vineyard practices and undesirable labor conditions, as some of her non-negotiables when seeking out great red wines. “Beyond that, a red wine must first smell good and be pleasing to my nose,” she says, also advising to stay away from reds that are overly oaked. “It can't be a dead wet blanket just laying in my mouth!”
Barons de Rothschild Legende Bordeaux Rouge
Region: Bordeaux, France | ABV: 12.5% | Tasting Notes: Berry compote, Earth, Sweet oak spice
Perhaps the greatest new Bordeaux release in decades, Légende wines come from the exceptional Bordeaux house of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (owners of Lafite, which was established as a First Growth in the 1855 classification). Truly value-driven, these wines represent the expression of Bordeaux’s notable appellations, from Médoc to Saint-Émilion to Pauillac.
This Bordeaux Rouge is packed with red berry fruit, warm wild berry compote, vanilla, earth and sweet oak spices. Best of all, this wine retails for just under $20.
Good to Know:
Sylvester Inda, wine manager at CoolVines Powerhouse in New Jersey, recommends seeking out producers that you already know and love when seeking out a new and delicious red wine to try. “If a bottle is made from a winemaker that I recognize, and I know their work in past vintages or different grape varieties, then that’s a great place to start for picking quality red wine,” he says.
Larkmead Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Region: Napa Valley, California | ABV: 14.7% | Tasting Notes: Dark fruit, Tobacco, Fresh-turned earth, Dark chocolate
This winery, under the watch of winemaker Dan Petroski, doesn't just focus on making world-class wine. Petroski helps shed light on the necessary work for studying climate change, and in 2015, Larkmead converted to organic farming practices.
Cabernet collectors should stockpile wines from the 2016 vintage, which are high in naturally vibrant acidity due to a moderate growing season. Hallmark signifiers are deep, dark fruit and a distinct freshness, all of which the 2016 Larkmead has in spades. Adding to that are incredibly alluring brown spices, fresh-turned earth and tobacco wrapped in dark chocolate, with mouthwatering purple violet notes and firm, dusty tannins.
This is a wine to contemplate over many hours—and, ideally, over the next decade, with a bottle or two every year.
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Best Chillable Red
Girolamo Russo A Rina Etna Rosso
Region: Etna, Sicily, Italy | ABV: 13.5% ABV | Tasting Notes: Red berries, Ash, Black pepper, Clove
Italy is home to some truly legendary red wines, from the Brunello of Tuscany, to the Barolo and Barbaresco of Piedmont, to the Amarone of the Veneto. Further south, hulking reds made from aglianico and sagrantino are establishing themselves as contemporary legends in their own right. All of these wines are brooding and full-bodied, however—what about a breezy Italian red that you can serve chilled, but that still offers serious flavor and character?
If you’ve never explored the world of earthy Sicilian reds, specifically from Etna, we can’t recommend them enough. These complex, terroir-driven wines are grown in the ash-laden volcanic soils of the region, which impart an undeniable mineral quality to the juice. This mouthwatering expression oozes with flavors of red berries, smoky ash, black pepper and clove.
“I love a good Nerello Mascalese from Sicily. There’s something about that volcanic rusticity and high-toned cherry notes that strike a chord with me. ... If the red wine is mostly mass produced, then it’s a no-no for me.” — Sylvester Inda, wine manager, CoolVines Powerhouse
Our roundup contains wines that range from light to heavy—not just on the palate, but on the pocketbook as well. There are few wines, however, that can match the combination of elegance, richness, and age-worthiness reliably delivered by the Gaja Barbaresco (view at Vivino). Vintage after vintage, this is an enduring classic that combines Piemontese traditionalism with norm-shattering vineyard practices introduced by Angelo Gaja in the '60s and '70s. It's undeniable that there are other nebbiolo-based wines from the same region that deliver a similar experience for half the price, but when your family has been making Barbaresco at the same winery since 1859, we think that degree of tradition and experience justifies the extra splurge.
What's the proper temperature to store red wine?
Most reds should be stored at "cellar temperature," i.e. roughly 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Nearly every wine will age best when it's kept away from light and heat, so if you don't have a wine fridge, a dark, undisturbed corner of your closet is probably the ideal spot. The proper serving temperature for most reds is somewhere partway between "cellar temperature" and "room temperature," but some very light-bodied reds may be served fully chilled, just like a white or rosé. (Even if you plan to serve a light red on the cold side, however, that doesn't mean you should store it long-term in your regular fridge—the vibrations of a standard fridge motor can be disruptive to wines and may throw off their flavors.)
How long does red wine last once opened?
Lighter-bodied, lower-tannin reds will last for a few days, whereas fuller-bodied wines with higher tannins will likely last up to five days. You can prolong the life of your opened bottle of red by storing it in the fridge—just remember to bring it back to ideal serving temperature before pouring, as anything but very light-bodied reds will likely taste too astringent when served fully-chilled.
What's the average alcohol content in red wine?
Most red wines clock in around 12% to 15% ABV, whereas dry white wines tend to clock in between 11-% to 14%. As a general rule, the more full-bodied a wine, the higher the alcohol content is likely to be.
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This roundup was edited by Jesse Porter, who has worked as a sommelier at numerous California restaurants featuring excellent red wine programs. His favorite red wine is an aged nebbiolo—especially one he didn't have to age himself, because who has two or three decades worth of patience?
Vicki Denig also updated this piece. Her writing has appeared in Decanter, Departures, Food & Wine and Wine Enthusiast. She has contributed to Liquor.com since 2020. Splitting her time between New York and Paris, she is a certified wine specialist and has worked in the wine trade since 2013.
United States Department of Agriculture. Guidelines for labeling wine with organic references. 2009.
Demeter Association, Inc. The Demeter Biodynamic Farm and Processing Standards.