Not all red wines are intense, heavily tannic, highly acidic, oaked to death, or require five years of training to work your way up to. Many styles of red wine are light, even delicate. Many are what I call "beverage wines," as opposed to the big-red "cocktail wines." (See my blog on beverage vs. cocktail wines.)
--MERLOT was for years ruined by excessive popularity. Back in the late 70s and early 1980s, Merlot, because it's so easy to drink and tasty, became "the girl's red wine" that sold well by the glass in bars. So exploitive winemakers started growing Merlot grapes on every piece of land they could find -- Merlot grapes will grow anywhere, but the problem is, if you grow them just anywhere, they won't taste very good.
It got to the point where most merlots are, at best, merely drinkable. There are indeed many good, even very very good, merlots--but now they cost a lot because only the In Crowd knows about the good Merlots. Rule of thumb: It's really hard to find a tasty merlot for under thirty bucks. (Except some Trader Joe and BevMo Merlots!)
--SHIRAZ, made from Syrah grapes, but from Australia (there are some California Shirazes these days too) -- *this* is what Merlot *used* to taste like back in the 80s, before they become overly popular and every cheap vintner jumped on it: Fruity, easy to drink, fun, tasty, yummy, and varied wildly from maker to maker. Rosemount makes terrific Shiraz, though I prefer their straight Shiraz to their blends with Merlot and Cab and other grapes. Yellowtail is another popular, inexpensive, and delicious Australian Shiraz that manages to stay yummy despite booming production. Affordable Shirazes from Australia (we find them at under $10 in California) should be on your 'everyday table wine' list.
--BORDEAUX from France can be shockingly expensive. So much so that you can pay $50 and $75 a bottle and find them not nearly as wonderful as you'd think they should be at that price. It is possible to get third-tier Bordeaux for $20 or less that are entirely drinkable. It's a crap shoot, however. This is one of those wines that is simply too easy to make a mistake with -- and it's always an expensive mistake. So let your friends experiment with and invite you along to help.
When Bordeaux are bad, they are thin and uninteresting, not simply light. When they are good, they can be light yet with enormous depth and "finish," meaning when you take a taste, the flavor lasts and lasts long after you've swallowed. Some Bordeaux can be big, though never as big as a California Zin or California Syrah.
--BURGUNDY AND PINOT NOIR
Burgundy -- made in France from Pinot Noir grapes--can be wonderful. These are light wines, easy to drink, bland when not at their best, but very pleasant and especially good as a wine to accompany a meal, rather than drink by itself.
California Pinots vary a lot from the French style due to the different climate, and Pinot is a hard grape to control, so tastes are all over the map. Decent California and West Coast Pinots can be pricey -- $30 gets you something quite good.
A good Pinot -- say, from Lost Canyon Winery of Oakland, California, one of the best among many -- squares what you would think an impossible circle: The wine is very light, approachable, easy to drink, low in tannin -- yet at the same time, it is filled with flavor! The finish is long, and you sometimes find yourself sighing at the pleasure of it.
There are very tasty Burgundies in the same price range. However, Burgundies go up to hundreds of dollars for the very finest ones -- which I've never tasted, so I have no idea what the shouting is about up there.
--RHONES AND RHONE-STYLE REDS
French Rhones (and California "Rhone-style" wines) are blends, usually with Syrah and a delightful grape called Granache as the main ingredients, plus blending grapes you rarely hear about and can hardly pronounce, such as Carignan and Cinsault. Rhones are lighter-style wines that can be very easy to like -- light and full of flavor, like Pinots, though the flavors are very different from a Pinot. Most notable about Rhones is their aroma, or "nose," which is very distinctive and wonderful -- probably the most noticeable nose among all red wines.
There is quite a variety of flavors among Rhones and Rhone blends. I find that I like certain styles very much, yet I very much don't like others. I have never liked, for example, any of the Chateauneuf du Papes, a classic type. On the other hand, I love ones from an area called Girondas, and I like the Languedoc-region Rhones too. I have no idea why.
This is a good category for experimenting with -- the expensive ones can be very expensive, but you should be able to find off-brand French Rhones for under $20 that are well worth tasting. American Rhone-style wines, so popular that there is a winemaker's club called 'The Rhone Rangers' (heh!), vary in price all over the map -- the more jokey the label, the more reasonably priced and -- hooray! -- the easier to drink! Isn't that great? 'Cote du Bone,' for example, is from Rosenblum, a play on "Beaune," the city that is at the center of French Burgundy/Rhone country (and on the Rosenblum winery owner's side job as a vet). It's pretty cheap (low teens) yet very tasty.
Here there is much too much variety to summarize well, and within any given type of Red there can be quite a variation -- most Italian wines are light, even thin if they aren't good, though a few can be pretty robust (like those Sicilian ones I mentioned earlier). Go online to find out about which 'Barberas' and 'Sangioveses', and especially 'Chiantis', are worth buying -- with Chianti in particular it's easy to buy something too thin to be really interesting. Better yet, check the SavvyTaste.com Find Wines feature to match tasty Italian reds with your own personal taste profile.
--SOUTH AFRICA is making better and better reds these days, keep an eye on them. They are also known for some offbeat grapes, such as something called "Pinotage."
--SOUTH AMERICA, that is, CHILE and ARGENTINA offer familiar wines that are sometimes good and often cheap -- Malbec, especially, is noteworthy here. Malbec is a blending grape in France that got turned into a major grape in Argentina and Chile -- unfortunately, for many years the South American Malbecs are absolutely horrible -- more useful for cleaning your carbeurator than for drinking. Lately, though, thanks to UC Davis (California) teaching the world how to develop good grapes in record time, there are Argentinian Malbecs that will knock your socks off, and stand up to the best California Cabernets you've ever tasted. Unhappily, they know what they've got, and they charge high prices for it: My favorite, Bodega Catena Zapata's Catena Alta Malbec 2002, Mendoza, Estate wine -- a fat and ferocious wine so dark it's almost black, and with so much body it's probably bottled under pressure - costs $55 a bottle. Urk! There are more competitive but much more affordable Malbecs coming to market, so keep an eye on your SavvyTaste profiles.