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Big Red Wines: What Makes a Red Wine BIG?

Updated: Mar 19

What makes wine BIG? There are lots of definitions, but hint: it has nothing to do with the size of the glass. Our favorite description is from Wine Folly: “Big describes a wine with massive flavor in your mouth that takes up all sections of your mouth and tongue. A big wine is not necessarily a fruit-forward wine, it can also mean that it has big tannins.”

If you check out our wine inventory, it’s easy to see that these are our favorite kinds of wine. The list includes Cabernet Sauvignon from about every wine region in the world. You’ll find Big in Italian Barolos, Barbarescos, and Brunellos, as well as in Australian Shiraz or Syrah, or American or French Syrah, Spanish Tempranillo, and Portuguese Touriga Nacional, not to mention Argentinian Malbec. All of these wines are full of big flavors and aromas.

Let’s take a walk through some of these.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet is the most widely produced grape in the world, accounting for roughly 5% of the global wine plantings (∼850,000 acres). Born in Bordeaux, where it built its reputation upon Napoleon III’s famous Bordeaux Classification of 1855, it continues to command high prices, accompany special occasions, adorn just about every fancy restaurant’s wine list, and of course consume space in every wine collector’s cellar.

Origin: Southwest France (Bordeaux).

DNA: Cabernet Sauvignon is a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc

Notable Regions: Bordeaux’s Left Bank, California’s Napa Valley, Italy’s Toscana, Chile’s Maipo Valley, Australia’s Coonawarra

Vinification: Cabernet is usually aged in French oak barriques (225 liter) for extended periods (18-24 months).

Aromas: Dark fruits, bell pepper, earth, leather, tobacco, oak

Flavor Profile: Dark cherry, blackberry, plum, black pepper, tannin (dry).

Cost: $25 to $4,000 per bottle

Additional Note: Old World (Europe) versions will generally be more austere and earthy while New World (everywhere else) versions will be more fruit forward. In either event, they all fit well into the BIG category.

Occasional Wine Favorites:


Barolo is known as the “King of Wines” in Italy. It is the lightest bodied wine on this list to be sure, but the tannins are off the chart, placing it squarely in the BIG category but it’s important to also note the sheer elegance of this wine. It is made entirely from the Nebbiolo grape, which is also called Spanna, Chiavennasca, and Picotendro, depending on the village or subregion in which it is grown in Italy. It is a very old grape, dating back to at least the 13th Century with a rocky history all lending to the stature that this wine commands today.

Origin: Northern Italy

DNA: Unknown

Notable Regions: Barolo, Barbaresco, Gheme, and Gattinara sub-regions of Piedmonte,and the Valtellina and Valtellina Superiore sub-regions of Lombardia, Italy.

Vinification: Barolo has an aging requirement of 38 months, with 18 of those being in large Slavonia oak or Chestnut casks (called Botit, which hold 1,000 liters). For Riservas, the requirement is 62 months, 18 in wood.

Aromas: Roses, cherries, anise, truffles, tar

Flavor Profile: Ripe cherries, raspberries, licorice, high tannin (very dry)

Cost: $15 to $1,500 per bottle

Additional Note: Because of its high tannin and high acidity, Barolo should be aged in your cellar for at least a decade before opening. Younger Barolos should be decanted for at least an hour. Barbaresco is made in the same manner as Barolo, though with less stringent aging requirements, but with the same Nebbiolo grape. It is a smaller adjacent sub-region within the Piedmonte region of Italy.

Occasional Wine Favorites:


Tempranillo on its own would not necessarily make the list of BIG red wines, but because most winemakers use some level of wood, and in many cases the stronger American oak, the tannin levels imparted puts many of these wines squarely in the BIG category, particularly those from on the Rioja and Castilla y Leon regions of Spain.

Origin: Spain

DNA: Tempranillo is a cross between Albillo Mayor and Benedicto

Notable Regions: The Rioja and Castilla y Leon (particularly Ribera del Duero, and Toro) regions of Spain, as well as the Douro Valley in Portugal (where it’s called Tinta Roriz).

Vinification: Spanish Tempranillos are categorized by aging - Joven or Generico = no aging requirement; Crianza = 2 years min/1 in barrel; Reserva = 3 years min/1 in barrel+6 mos in bottle; Gran Reserva = 5 years min/2 in barrel+2 in bottle. The barrels are either French or American oak.

Aromas: Currants, strawberries, cherries, raspberries, tobacco, coffee, vanilla, coconut

Flavor Profile: Ripe cherries, fig, dill, leather, cedar

Cost: $5 to $1,200 per bottle

Additional Note: Tempranillo is the number 1 red grape of Spain, where it is the star of so many wines. It goes by many names - Tinto Fino, Tinta del Pais, Tinta de Toro, Cencibel, and Ull de Llebre in Spain, and Tinta Roriz and Aragonéz in Portugal. In Portugal, Tinta Roriz is usually a blending grape, but can also be the star.

Occasional Wine Favorites:

Syrah / Shiraz

Syrah is one of the biggest grapes in the world, starting with its deep dark color. It has very tough skin that sometimes requires winemakers to soak the grapes prior to starting the winemaking process. In the end, this grape just makes some fantastic wines. No wonder world plantings of Syrah have increased 50x over the last 40 years to nearly 470,000 acres.

Origin: RhôneValley, France

DNA: Syrah is a cross between Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche

Notable Regions: Northern Rhône Valley, France, Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale, Australia, and Paso Robles, CA, USA, among others

Vinification: The best specimens of Syrah are aged in oak for 12 - 30 months

Aromas: Smoke, herbs, ripe red and blue fruits, violets, licorice, tobacco, vanilla, oak

Flavor Profile: Ripe blueberries, plums, chocolate, tobacco, black pepper

Cost: $5 to $2,000 per bottle

Additional Note: Like Cabernet, the flavors and aromas of Syrah vary between those produced in Old World countries (more earthy) versus New World (more fruit). Regardless, though, these wines really bring the flavor and the power.

Occasional Wine Favorites:

Brunello di Montalcino

Brunello is from a specific region within Toscana with vineyards comprising just over 5,000 acres. It is made from the Sangiovese grape. Not all wines made from Sangiovese would make the list of BIG red wines, but wood aging requirement for the Brunellos made in Montalcino put this one squarely on the BIG list.

Origin: Montalcino, Toscana, Italy

DNA: Sangiovese is a cross between Ciliegiolo and Calabrese Montenuovo. There are several clones of this grape with the type grown in Montalcino being referred to as Brunello or Sangiovese Grosso.

Notable Regions: Brunello can only be made in Montalcino

Vinification: Brunello di Montalcino has a minimum aging requirement of 5 years, with at least 2 years in wood and 4 months in the bottle. To be considered a “Riserva,” the wine must be aged a minimum of 6 years, including 2 years in wood and 6 months in the bottle. All Brunellos must be at least 12.5% ABV.

Aromas: Dark fruits, violets, leather, chocolate, herbs, coffee, wood

Flavor Profile: Cherries, blackberries, plums, dried cranberries, figs, licorice

Cost: $20 to $1,200 per bottle

Additional Note: Brunellos really age well and their flavors really evolve like other great wines, but here the fruits evolve from ripe to more dried fruit flavors, while the tannins go from high, sometimes biting to more refined. In other words, these are phenomenal wines at any age.

Occasional Wine Favorites:

Touriga Nacional

Touriga Nacional is the primary red grape of Portugal and best known for its central role in Port wines. More recently, dry red wines, many featuring Touriga Nacional, have been gaining in both importance and stature. The best of these wines come from the Douro Valley, but it’s important to note that the best Douro Valley reds are actually “Field Blends,” which include as many as 60 grapes in a single vintage, many from vines over 100 years old.

Origin: Portugal

DNA: Unknown

Notable Regions: Douro Valley, the Dão, and Alentejo, Portugal

Vinification: There are not nearly as many rules governing winemaking practices in Portugal as there are in neighboring France, Spain, and Italy, but most of the best wines come from very old vines, are hand harvested, foot-trodden, and aged in wood for 10 - 20 months.

Aromas: Violets, black and blue fruits, cocoa, tobacco, baking spices

Flavor Profile: Blackberry, plum, blueberry, mint, black pepper, mineral

Cost: $5 to $700 per bottle

Additional Note: In addition to the fantastic wines of the region, the Douro Valley may be one of the most beautiful wine regions on earth. Again, most wine collectors in the US do not have huge collections of these fantastic Portuguese dry red wines yet, but these are every bit as powerful, ageable, and wonderful as the aforementioned wines in this post.

Occasional Wine Favorites:


Malbec was actually a primary grape in some of Bordeaux’s 1st growth wines at the time of the famous Classification of 1855. While it now plays a much more minor role there, mostly because of its poor resistance to weather and pests, it is the absolute star of Argentinian wine (75% of global vine acreage), particularly in the Mendoza region.

Origin: Cahors, France

DNA: Malbec is a cross between Cabernet Franc and Magdeleine Noire des Charentes

Notable Regions: Mendoza, Argentina, Cahors, France, California, USA

Vinification: The best Malbecs come from old vines (pre-phylloxera) at elevations in regions with lots of sunshine and decent diurnal temperatures, which makes Mendoza perfect. Gentle press, slow fermentation, and long aging in French oak brings out the best in these wines.

Aromas: Violets, blueberry, fruits, cocoa, vanilla, leather, coffee, tobacco, spice

Flavor Profile: Black cherry, plum, blackberry, chocolate, tobacco, pepper

Cost: $5 to $250 per bottle

Additional Note: Not all of these are created equal. You’ll want to

Occasional Wine Favorites:

BIG Red Honorable Mentions

  • Aglianico - the “Barolo of the South” found mostly in Campania and Basilicata, Italy

  • Nero d’Avola - Sicily’s answer to Cabernet.

  • Mourvèdre - a Southern Rhône Valley grape, largely part of the Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre (GSM) blend produced largely in France and parts of California. It’s prominent as a single varietal in Murcia, Spain, where it’s known as Monastrell.

  • Petit Sirah - not the smaller version of Syrah, but equally big. This is a delicious black wine with dark fruit flavors and big tannin. This is mostly produced in California.

  • Tannat - perhaps the biggest tannin bomb of them all, but when made well (and then decanted), these are fantastic. These are originally from Southwest France, and are now also the primary grape of Uruguay. As a bonus, this grape has the highest antioxidant levels of any wine.

Uniquely Curated Subscription Plans and Fine Wines by the Bottle

At Occasional Wine, we are passionate about wine and love sharing our knowledge with others so they too can enjoy the pleasures of an exceptional wine.

We offer three different tiers of biannual wine subscriptions, each with curated selections of six wines from six wine regions delivered each Spring and Fall to give you and yours samples of some of the best wines in the world.

We also offer fine wines by the bottle from our private stock, a constantly updated wide selection of top rated wines from around the world.

Stay tuned for more helpful content in finding that next great wine for you, and as always feel free to contact us with any questions.


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