All About Red Wine

To breathe or not to breathe...our red wine guide answers that and more.

How do I identify a great red wine?

What separates a high-quality red from a so-so one is balance. When all of the following elements are present but none is overpowering, it's a sign of a superior bottle.

  • Tannins They're the chemicals found in the skins of red grapes that give the wine astringency and make your lips pucker a bit. The right amount of tannin gives a satisfying bite to the flavor of a wine, but too much can make it taste bitter.
  • Acid There should be enough tartness to enhance the flavor of the grapes, but not so much that you can't taste them at all.
  • Fruit There should always be perceptible fruit flavors in a wine (with reds, these are most often berry- or cherry-like).
  • Flavor High-end reds have hints of more complex flavors like spice, tobacco, and leather that persist on your palate.

What's the sign of a bad red?

  • It's bland Bad red wines lack a crucial balance of the four elements or are thin in flavor. This can happen when a winemaker cares about volume more than quality and grows too many grapes per acre of land.
  • It lacks color A very pale or translucent shade of red is usually a sign that a wine will fall short in the flavor department.

Is it necessary to “let a wine breathe"?
Yes. Exposing red wine to air helps open it up and enhances its flavors. (Note: A bottle will keep about three days after it's opened if you recork and refrigerate it.) If a wine is overly tannic upon first taste, it's a safe bet that it could benefit from some aeration.

  • Step 1: Pour the wine into a decanter designed to expose a larger surface area of the wine to air -- a simple pitcher or carafe will work just as well.
  • Step 2: Let it breathe for a few minutes. Just pouring it out of the bottle and into another vessel will provide enough aeration to bring out the flavors and soften the tannins. If you take a sip, aerate the wine, and taste it again a few minutes later, you'll probably feel like you're drinking an entirely different bottle -- that's the difference air can make.

How do I tell if a red wine is corked?
A wine is “corked" when a chemical called trichloroanisole (aka TCA) is present in the cork, giving the wine a tainted taste and a musty odor. To tell, take a second whiff of the wine -- a corked wine's smell won't change with exposure to air, whereas the bouquet of an uncorked wine should develop after a few minutes in the glass. Also, if it lacks the rich, fruity flavors you're accustomed to, your bottle could be corked. When ordering wine at a restaurant, don't ever be afraid to send a corked bottle back.