American Red Wine Made Simple

How is red wine made? What regions in America produce the best bottles? And what makes red wine red in the first place? F&W’s Ray Isle explains it all.
Orseggi decanter from Alessi.
© David Prince

The Basics

What makes red wine red?

Red wine gets its color from the skins of red grapes (like white grapes, the flesh of red grapes is greenish, with one or two rare exceptions). As with white wines, grapes are harvested and crushed, but then the winemaker allows the grape juice to ferment in contact with the skins for days or even weeks, drawing out the polyphenols and tannins that produce color and structure. Then, also unlike most whites, red wines are usually aged for a year or two before being bottled (classically in oak barrels) to soften their roughness and astringency.

What makes red wine healthy?

There’s strong evidence that drinking red wine in moderation is good for your health. Researchers have suggested for years that the antioxidants found in red wines may help reduce the risk of heart disease. More recently, scientists have linked the specific antioxidant resveratrol to the formation of nerve cells, which may be useful in preventing Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. There’s even some tentative evidence that, thanks to resveratrol’s benefits, red wine may prolong life.

More: 8 Health Benefits of Drinking Wine

Decanting Wine

People decant red wines for two main reasons. First, older reds tend to have gritty, bitter sediment in the bottle. To decant, let the bottle rest upright for a few hours so the sediment can settle at the bottom, then pour the wine out. Second, decanting a young, tannic red—Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah—exposes it to oxygen, which helps soften texture and accentuate aromas (just pulling the cork won’t do this). And an expensive decanter isn’t necessary—a clean glass pitcher works perfectly well.



Without acidity (tartness), red wines would taste dull and alcoholic. Plus, acidity helps red wines age successfully.


Oak barrels soften young red wines by exposing them to oxygen. New oak barrels also impart vanilla, caramel or spice flavors.

More: Understanding Oak: The Making of a World-Class Barrel


Tannins are astringent substances from the skins, stems and seeds of grapes. They balance fruitiness in young wines and help wines age. Cabernet Sauvignon is usually quite tannic; Pinot Noir, less so.

Aroma Pairing Notes

© David Prince

Aroma & Pairing Notes

Pinot Noir

Aroma & flavor: Raspberries, red cherries, strawberries
Best pairings: Duck and other game birds, mushroom dishes, rich fish like salmon
Wine 101: Pinot Noir


Aroma & flavor: Black pepper, raspberries, blackberries
Best pairings: Sausages, burgers, grilled meats
Wine 101: Zinfandel


Aroma & flavor: Plums, black cherries
Best pairings: Roast chicken, pastas with tomato sauce, pork dishes
Wine 101: Merlot

Cabernet Sauvignon

Aroma & flavor: Red and black currants
Best pairings: Steaks, lamb, roasts
Wine 101: Cabernet Sauvignon


Aroma & flavor: Blackberries, white and black pepper
Best pairings: Lamb, hearty stews, spicy foods
Wine 101: Syrah

PUBLISHED November 2008