The Mofo Guide to Red Wine Varieties

By Steve Leszczynski

There are literally hundreds of options when it comes to choosing a variety of red wine. So it’s easy to play it safe and stick to the classics like shiraz, pinot and cabernet sauvignon. But with a number of alternate varieties making Australia home - things like gamay, sangiovese and nebbiolo - it’s time to explore the delicious spectrum of red wine on our doorstep. Here are a few worth seeking out, to get you started.

Barbera

Known to some as ‘nebbiolo’s baby brother’, barbera is a smooth operator. Think Sade with a street stylin’ swagger. Cool, charismatic, it’s super fine with a long and lingering finish. Its naturally high acidity makes it ideal for pizza and pasta dishes – no surprises being a native Italian variety from Piemonte. The ideal Australian climate for it is debatable, but regions such as the Hunter Valley, Orange, McLaren Vale, Yarra Valley and King Valley are all vying for authority.

Cabernet Franc

A calm, soothing variety with smooth texture and attractive perfume. Less oak is key when it stands on its own, and more recently, winemakers have cut loose with no oak, revealing an expressive wine full of bright and fragrant dark fruit characteristics. It’s fairly tannic, slightly less so than cabernet sauvignon, it can still be soft and velvety when handled well. Coonawarra and Margaret River are the hot spots worth targeting.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Often called ‘the king’ of red varieties, cabernet sauvignon is the most widely planted variety in the world. A thick-skinned grape, it’s quite tannic young so ageing is firmly in its genes. Also referred to as a ‘doughnut wine’, not because of its solid morning tea matching capabilities, but due to the fact it tends to have a ‘hole’ in the middle of the palate. To counter this, cabernet often hangs with merlot to fill the void. Shiraz sometimes comes to the party too – the cabernet shiraz blend is uniquely Australian. The good ones can be best described as liquid Cherry Ripe. Hunt down great cabernet from Coonawarra, Margaret River and don’t forget the delicious Yarra Valley and Clare Valley examples. Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand is producing some exciting cabernets worth tracking down too.

Gamay

Gamay is bringing sexy back. More and more wineries are dropping it in the dirt, and deservedly so. There’s so much pleasure to draw out of its simplicity and soft touch. Juicy pinot noir-like fruit, with low tannin, moderate alcohol, bright acidity and fine spice, gamay wines are ridiculously approachable. Lazy Sundays and sunsets with a glass or two of this for the win. Some wonderful examples can be found in the Yarra Valley, McLaren Vale, Mornington Peninsula, Tasmania’s Coal River as well as New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay.

Grenache

Snuggle up to a variety that cranks the drinkability dial high. Grenache is one of the most widely planted grape varieties in the world and is also affectionately known in some parts as ‘poor man’s pinot’. Plantings in Australia date back to 1850 – the oldest in the world. What makes grenache so attractive is its alluring florals, medium body, fine spices, plus a dusting of earthiness for good measure. The best examples see old oak used to ensure the fruit sings. Versatility is what makes grenache such a good option for your table. Chill slightly in warmer months or pair with barbecued meats through to duck. Bigger styles can easily handle a roast or casserole. It’s hard to go past McLaren Vale and the Barossa Valley for these beauties.

Malbec

Malbec is one of the Bordeaux classics where it’s widely planted. In simple terms, it is to Argentina what shiraz is to Australia. They love the stuff and when the South Americans are tucking into a big slab of meat, a glass of this isn’t too far away. Smooth but big, brooding purple fruits, ballsy with firm tannins and a polished finish - no surprise for a food match here… beef and barbecues! Due to its thick skin, malbec is often used to blend as it adds tannin and colour. Regions worth keeping an eye on are Margaret River, Langhorne Creek and the Clare Valley. 

Mataro

Mataro has a bit of an identity crisis and goes by three names: Mataro, mourvedre and monastrell. All mean the same yet you can see how some may get confused. Rustic and earthy, rarely does it like to hang out on its own and prefers to hang with a posse – best friends being shiraz and grenache to be blended together. Depth is mataro’s middle name and for that reason it makes a solid contribution when blended with other varieties. Top examples are often above the $30 mark and well worth shelling out the money for. Best regions to seek out are the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and Clare Valley.

Nebbiolo

It’s a well held belief that Italian winemakers make nebbiolo for their children to drink – such is its ability to age. Having been in Australia for around 30 years, nebbiolo traditionally possess tense tannins that settle with age. Many Australian winemakers are changing all that by making softer styles, urging that drinking window be sooner versus much later. The Yarra Valley, King Valley and Hilltops are the dance floors for this great variety it seems, but there’s plenty of good things coming from other cool climate regions too. Expect earthy, leather, forest floor characters, but you know you’re on a winner when soft, powdery tannins hit your mouth and explode like a firework.

Nero d’Avola

Here’s a variety gaining some serious traction on Australian shores. A medium-bodied wine originating from Sicily, wines from sandy soils are pretty with attractive perfume, whereas those from sites with elevation deliver more muscular styles. Great producers of nero d’avola can be found in McLaren Vale and the Riverland and it seems to be popping up more often across the country too – this variety has great potential in the Aussie climate. Possessing naturally high acidity, it’s bold and bright. Expect buckets of cherries, plus a dried herb twist to riper examples.

Pinot Noir

Dainty, delicate and pretty on its feet, wine aficionados fall head over heels for pinot noir, the rouge hero of Burgundy. It can be elegant, it can be brooding. The greatest challenge this variety presents is ripening and it has sent many a winemaker into a tizz as result. Red berries and cherries plus forest floor and undergrowth are to be expected. Australia’s best can be found in the Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley, and Tasmania. New Zealand has certainly staked its claim as an excellent producer, too. Be sure to check out Central Otago, Wairarapa and Martinborough.

Pinot Meunier

Known as ugly sister of pinot noir. Delicious when it stands on its own two feet. In the right hands, this is a gorgeously, quaffable type. Once relegated as a minor blending component in Champagne, clever winemaking has captured its bright fruit and savoury appeal as a standalone delicacy. Cool climate regions are doing it best – check out the Grampians, Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula. 

Sangiovese

Pizza and pasta dishes consume your mind when sipping on great sangiovese (‘sangio’ to its mates), thanks to its food-worthy, delectable acid crunch. Expect flavours of bitter chocolate and rich tomato, plum, mulberry and black cherry, as well as distinctive tobacco and spice. Head to the King Valley where the Italians have found it a happy home, although some good wines can be found in places like the Adelaide Hills and Clare Valley, too. 

Saperavi

This native Georgian variety is making some serious noise. Dark-skinned and pink-fleshed, it produces crunchy, acidic wines with dark colour and big tannins, though these are being tamed by savvy winemakers. Such is the interest, a saperavi symposium is held in McLaren Vale every two years for like-minded winemakers. Some great examples can be found in the Alpine Valleys, King Valley, McLaren Vale and the Granite Belt.

Shiraz

Australia’s darling, shiraz can be found growing in every region across the country. From big, brooding styles in Barossa and other warmer regions to the charming medium-bodied styles of the Hunter Valley, or the softly spoken cool climate styles of Victoria, there’s so much to explore with this variety alone. A Tasmanian example even won the Jimmy Watson trophy once. A spicy finish is the variety’s signature, but a consumer shift from full-volume belters to more medium-bodied styles has been noticeable. Swim in wines with dense dark fruit and chocolate through to blueberries framed by pretty violet aromas. With so much goodness to explore, it’s no wonder this is a classic.

Tempranillo

A Spanish variety and the main player in Rioja, tempranillo is a great food partner. Low in tannin and low in acid helps crank the delish factor high. Expect red fruits and berries, pretty aromas with a savoury finish. Add to that a touch of spice to close, and its appeal to a variety of tapas and cuisine is endless. Regions across Australia have warmed to tempranillo – from the Great Southern, to several in South Australia, across Victoria and north through New South Wales and Queensland’s Granite Belt.


If you’re still here then good work, mofo - the curiosity is in you, and fortune favours the bold. Let us know your wine wins and losses, we’re here for you!