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There are thousands and thousands of red wines in the world. Even though I’ve dedicated years to learning about them, I haven’t made a dent in trying them all. It’s difficult to pare them down, or to rank them. Some bottles are worth thousands of dollars. I’m sure they’re excellent, but it seems unlikely that I’ll ever get a sip of one, so forgive me for not including them here. This list is focused on wines you’ll want to drink more than once, ranging from classic loveable reds to slightly funkier natural bottles.
Louis Jadot makes fun, tasty budget wines. Jadot wines are a classic representation of their grape, which means they’re a great tool for learning about how wine should taste. This French pinot noir is light and fruity with a touch of earthy minerality.
Typically, a wine from Europe will be labeled with the region, and a wine from the U.S. will be labeled with the grape variety. This tends to cause some confusion among novice wine drinkers, who shouldn’t be expected to know that legally, all reds from Burgundy must be 100 percent pinot noir if they carry the Burgundy label. Louis Jadot wines are friendly and approachable and include both the region and grape on the label.
The Handwork Granacha is certified organic, biodynamic, and made from 100 percent grenache. The vineyard is owned by three brothers in La Mancha Spain. Their dedication to their land and their home country is expressed in their commitment to organic and biodynamic wine production. When it comes to funky, earthy natural wines, this bottle is on the lighter end. It has a profound earthiness, but is still light and fruity.
This bottle is full of tart cherry and strawberry flavors, and packed with mouth-watering acidity. To cap it off, the value is unbeatable. For under $20, you get a quaffable bottle that pairs excellently with paella, a simple roasted chicken, or other light meats.
When exploring red wine, don’t be afraid to step outside of Europe. Chateau Musar is a historic vineyard in Lebanon, and its wines are beloved by wine experts the world over. This is a blended wine fermented from cabernet sauvignon, carignan, consult, and grenache. It’s also aged in European oak for six months, so the drinker can expect light spice and pepper flavors.
Chateau Musat is famous for its old vine, low-yield style of production. This treatment yields grapes with richly concentrated flavors. This is an intense and interesting wine, aged in oak and full of dark plummy fruits. For pairing, this wine has the depth to stand up to red meats and flavorful stews. If it’s your first time trying this particular wine, don’t hesitate to enjoy a glass on its own and really take the time to understand the flavors.
Craving something a little different? Try a Lambrusco. Lambrusco hails from the Emilia-Romagna region in Italy. This red wine is slightly sparkling. The ripe red fruit flavors and playful nature of Lambrusco have earned it a reputation as the perfect wine to pair with pizza. Why not? Like pizza, it’s fun, it boasts simple and accessible flavors, and it’s perfect for a party. This bottle is a Lambrusco di Sorbara, the lightest and most delicate of Lambruscos.
The wine will be an extremely light red, almost pink, and full of light floral flavors like orange blossom and violet. It is best enjoyed slightly chilled, so try refrigerating the bottle for around 20 minutes before drinking. This particular bottle comes with an unusual closure. The best way to open it is to take a dull butter knife, or the blunt end of a wine key, slide it under the metal bar, and gently wiggle the knife to pry the bar open.
Celebrating a promotion? An engagement? Just craving a treat? Some nights call for a very special bottle of wine. Part of wine is romance, and at this price point you can afford to get a bottle that’s well made, delicious, and from an important region in the history of winemaking: Bordeaux. Red wines from Bordeaux are made from a blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The blend gives them a balance of the strength of cabernet and the softness of merlot, but that’s only a small part of what makes them so special.
The vines that would become part of the Puy Lacoste estate were first planted around the year 1500. These wines are fermented in steel vats, and aged in oak barrels for 18 months. The result is a serious wine with soft fruits, well-integrated tannins, and a softly spiced edge.
This pinot noir has a slightly unconventional backstory: it’s made with grapes from 50 different vineyards across the state of Oregon. The result? Rather than a hyper-local expression of one specific vineyard's terroir, this bottle embodies the flavor of Oregon. The big, ripe fruit, the zippy acidity, and the spicy oak are typical of a new world pinot noir.
Expect true red fruits like cranberry and cherry, along with darker notes of blueberry, and hints of coffee and earth. For pairing, this wine will show true versatility and would be delicious with anything from stewed chicken to duck to game meats. Think of light meats or heartier fish dishes. In 2002, the A to Z pinot noir was awarded “Best American Pinot Noir Under $20” by Food & Wine Magazine.
Sometimes you just need a big red wine, there’s simply no way around it. If you’re serving a steak dinner, prime rib, or pot roast, you should look for a tannic and powerful wine to stand up to it. For those nights, the 2016 Stone Street Cabernet Sauvignon from California’s Alexander Valley will do the job nicely.
The high tannins make it a great match for rich red meats, and the dark fruits will complement the carmelized and smoky flavors from a grill or other high heat cooking. Aged for 19 months in oak barrels, this bottle packs the flavors of cooked dark fruits like cassis and plums, paired with warm vanilla and baking spices.
Here’s a free wine tip: if you find shopping for wine overwhelming (The grapes! The regions! The vintages!), then focus on finding an importer you like. Wine importers work with a hand-selected portfolio of winemakers, and they test each wine rigorously. If you find an importer whose taste you trust, it’s likely that you’ll enjoy many of the wines in their portfolio.
Kermit Lynch is perhaps the most famous example of this. He’s built his portfolio on clean, classic wines. This Italian Chianti, imported by Kermit Lynch, is no exception. Expect a tart wine with notes of red cherry. The juicy acidity in this bottle makes it extremely food-friendly. It has enough ripe fruit flavor to pair well with saucy pasta, and it will make any tomato dish sing.
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Madeline Muzzi is a food writer and wine expert. In 2015, she completed an advanced course in wine at the International Culinary Center in New York City and passed the test to become a certified sommelier.