Confession. I drink wine. A lot of wine. Most of the wine I drink I’d consider ‘casual’… and also red.
The best red wine for casual drinking is one that doesn’t need to be aged or decanted. These red wines need to be easy to find, affordable, and easy to pair. The best red wines for casual drinking include red table wines, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Dornfelder, Malbec, Merlot, and Zinfandel.
Here’s an overview of how to find the perfect red wine for casual drinking for any day of the week that ends in ‘y’, along with some helpful tips to point you in the right direction the next time you’re shopping for everyday wines.
- How Do You Define Casual Drinking?
- Helpful Wine Terms Worth Knowing Before Shopping
- Best Red Wine For Casual Drinking
- Best Red Wine for Casual Drinking #1 – Red Table Wine
- Best Red Wine for Casual Drinking #2 – Grenache
- Best Red Wine for Casual Drinking #3 – Pinot Noir
- Best Red Wine for Casual Drinking #4 – Dornfelder
- Best Red Wine for Casual Drinking #5 – Malbec
- Best Red Wine for Casual Drinking #6 – Merlot
- Best Red Wine for Casual Drinking #7 – Zinfandel
- Final Thoughts – Best Red Wine for Casual Drinking
How Do You Define Casual Drinking?
First, what does casual drinking even mean? Here’s a quick video to get you thinking about this all-important life question.
The first step to finding the best casual drinking wine is to define ‘casual drinking’. This term means different this to different people.
Here are some common traits for a casual drinking red wine. Read through them and think about what’s most important to you:
- Casual drinking means a red wine that I can pull off the shelf and drink with any food without thought
- Casual drinking means a red wine that’s smooth and velvety
- Casual drinking means a red wine that’s not very complex, that I really don’t need to think about or use a special glass to enjoy
- Casual drinking means a red wine that’s lower in alcohol, so I can drink more (yay!)
- Casual drinking means a red wine that’s inexpensive and that I can afford to drink regularly (also yay!)
- Casual drinking means a red wine that’s widely available at the stores that I can find anywhere
- Casual drinking means a red wine that I enjoy in my loungewear and slippers
- Casual drinking means a red wine that I drink after I’ve already had the good stuff
All of these are great definitions to the “best red wine for casual drinking” category. And each person’s answer will be unique.
What I think of as a casual wine – one that’s affordable and easy to pair, may be different that your definition of a casual drinking red wine.
Helpful Wine Terms Worth Knowing Before Shopping
Before you go load up your grocery cart with cases of red wine, below are a few terms that can help you pick out the right red wine for your drinking preferences. If you end up going to a wine store, you’ll hear the shopkeeper use these words. Or, you may see them on a wine label.
(Skip down to the wines if you know and love these terms already!)
Every red wine has tannins. Tannins are a structural component in wine, meaning you feel them in your mouth. Tannin compounds cause your mouth to dry out when you take a sip. Red wines can have low tannins (like a Gamay) or high tannins (like a Cabernet Sauvignon, or the aptly named Tannat).
Helpful tip: You can’t see tannins, but you can sure feel them! Here’s a 30-second tasting tip on how to taste red wine tannins.
If you’re looking for a casual red wine for drinking like a cocktail without food, for example, while you’re making dinner or sitting around on the couch, a low tannin wine is usually the better choice because high tannin red wines will dry your mouth out and generally be unpleasant as a causal drinking wine.
A wine’s body is the weight of the wine in your mouth. A red wine can have a light or full body. A common analogy is milk. Skim milk has a light body, and feels watery on your tongue. Heavy whipping cream coats the inside of your mouth and has a full body. What type of body in your casual red wine do you want? If this is a food wine, you may prefer a fuller-bodied red wine. If this is a cocktail, sit-on-the-couch and binge your favorite show, then you may want a lighter bodied red wine.
If you see the word ‘fresh’ on a wine label, it’s referring to the fruit aromas and flavors. Freshness is directly linked to the wine’s age and acid level. Acid makes the strawberry flavor in your wine taste like juicy fresh strawberry, instead of strawberry jam or dried strawberry.
Acid levels fall with age, so younger red wines have higher acid levels, and, by extension, fresher fruit profiles. If you like juicy, crunchy fruit flavors, then look for the word ‘fresh’ on your wine labels.
Bright is a synonym for fresh. Bright has nothing to do with the wine’s color. Bright means the fruit flavors in your wine shine through. You’ll get that hit of sour cherry or zippy raspberry.
If you see the word ‘bright’ on your red wine label, know that it showcases fresh fruits.
A wine’s finish is how long the flavors last after you take a sip. If the flavors linger more than a minute, you have a wine with a looooong finish.
If the flavors disappear almost immediately and you want to take another sip, then you have a wine with a short finish. The finish is a sign of the wine’s quality.
Higher quality wines have more flavor intensity and, therefore, longer finishes.
Don’t expect inexpensive, casual drinking red wines to have long, luxurious finishes.
Do expect them to have at least a medium finish. The flavors should stick around for at least 30 seconds and not fade immediately.
Best Red Wine For Casual Drinking
Here’s my go-to list of 7 wines that I consider the best red wine for casual drinking, along with the wine’s general profile, why I think it’s a great wine, price range, and pairing tips
But wait Erin, why don’t you recommend specific wines?
Ah! Excellent question. The reality is that the wines that I can find at my local bottle shop will be different than the wines you can get wherever you’re living. This has to do with the vagaries of distribution channels in the US (or in your country). Unless you’re willing to pay for shipping (and you live in a place that you can have wines shipped), it’s not helpful to give you specific wines. So, I have a broad list here to help get you to the right wines wherever you live!
List of best red wines for casual drinking
- Red table wines
- Pinot Noir
Best Red Wine for Casual Drinking #1 – Red Table Wine
Red table wines don’t list a specific grape type, or varietal, on the bottle label. You can tell it’s a table wine because it says ‘Red Wine’ or ‘Table Wine’ or “Red Blend” or just the name of the wine and nothing else.
This means that the red wine is a blend of grapes, and no one grape meets the minimum percentage requirements to list the grape name on the label.
Sometimes you can find the grapes listed by a percentage on the back of the label, but more often than not, you can’t tell.
Red table wines top the list as the best red wine for casual drinking because that’s exactly what they’re made for.
The maker crafts a red blend that’s well-balanced and easy to drink. They aren’t trying to showcase a particular quality for a certain grape. The goal with a red table wine is a wine that’s friendly and uncomplicated.
What does red table wine taste like?
Expect your red table wine to be fruit-forward, bright, and fresh. Depending on the grapes in the blend, you may have more red fruit, like cherry and strawberry, or you may have more black fruit, like blackberry and plum – or a mix of both, because, it’s a mix! These wines will have medium alcohol, medium tannins, a medium body, and a medium finish. They’re going to be all-around winners in the casual drinker category.
What red table wine should you buy?
Pick a red table wine with a vintage date on it (meaning there’s a year on the bottle); this is a good quality indicator.
If you have a choice between a younger or an older wine, pick the younger wine.
Try to avoid buying non-vintage red table wine, unless that’s your budget, which is fine.
Pick a table wine with 13.5% ABV or lower.
A lower alcohol level means that the wine will likely pair better with a range of foods, and the wine won’t be so full bodied that you have to pair it with food.
Expect inexpensive red table wines without a vintage date to be lighter in body, have non-descript fruit flavors (you can taste something like red fruit), and have a short finish.
Food Pairing for Red Table Wine
The great thing about red table wines is that you don’t necessarily have to pair them with food.
These are versatile wines that are great sippers, as well as meal wines, making a smooth transition between kitchen food preparation and dinner table.
Pair red table wines liberally. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Grilled cheese
Price Range: Inexpensive to mid-priced (very, very affordable), easy to find
You’ll find red table wines for a few dollars, up to $25 USD from small-production wineries. For a good red wine for casual drinking, I’d spend $8-$12 USD.
Helpful Tip: If you’re just getting started out with wine, I put together this helpful overview of food with wine pairing to get you started. Side note – I spend just as much time thinking about food with wine pairing as I do deciding what I’m going to eat every night. Utter hedonism. What can I say?
Best Red Wine for Casual Drinking #2 – Grenache
Grenache, or Garnacha if you pick up a bottle from Spain, makes a great red wine for casual drinking. You’ll find Grenache grown in wine regions around the world, including Spain, France, and California.
What does Grenache taste like?
Grenache comes in two different styles: easy drinking, bright red fruit, and deeply complex with smoke, tobacco, and spice. For a casual red drinking wine, the best Grenache is the first style: bright, fresh, juicy, and uncomplicated.
Grenache can make high-alcohol wines over 14%.
If you’re looking for a casual red drinking wine, then look for a bottle that’s under that percentage. The wine will be more balanced and lighter-bodied, perfect for quaffing.
Best Everday Food Pairings for Grenache
Light Grenache is another red wine that can serve as a loungewear wine that doesn’t need any food pairings. But, if you’re going to pair Grenache with your everyday dinners, then here are some quick tips;
- Fish and chips
- Breaded white fish (like cod)
- Spaghetti carbonara
- Pasta with olive oil, parsley, and parmesan
- Dark green leafy salads
- Turkey sandwiches
- Chinese take-out
Price Range: Inexpensive to mid-priced (very affordable), easy to find
For a solid, casual red drinking Grenache, plan on spending in the $8-$12 USD range. You’ll find less expensive bottles, but Grenache is one of those wines that can easily be out-of-balance at lower price points. You’ll find lots of accessible Grenache from Spain, so experiment with these wines.
If you have more money to spend, stick with the $10-$20 USD price range.
These wines will be fruit-forward, easy drinkers. If you choose more expensive Grenache, it’s likely you’ll start to get into the heavier styles, which make them harder to pair and not great as solo-sippers.
Best Red Wine for Casual Drinking #3 – Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir is a perfect red wine for casual drinking. Pinot’s grown in wine regions around the world, which makes it widely available.
Pinot Noir’s a red wine style that’s earned its reputation as a world-class wine that can cost hundreds of dollars, but it’s also a delicious wine for an everyday drinker.
What Does Pinot Noir Wine Taste Like?
Expect your casual Pinot Noir to deliver bursts of bright red cherry, raspberry, and cranberry. You may get a little cinnamon or warm baking spice, but most accessible Pinot’s are red-fruit-driven wines.
You may detect herbs, wet leaves, and mushrooms in higher quality, aged Pinots. Pinot Noir has a light to medium body, and light to medium tannins, making it the perfect sipping wine and all-around food-pairing wine.
Expect Pinot Noir to have reasonable alcohol levels below 13.5%.
Best Everday Food Pairings for Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir loves food and isn’t picky about pairings, which makes this red wine one of the best casual drinkers. Here are some pairings to get you started:
- Minestrone soup
- Clam chowder
- Rice Pilaf
- Roasted chicken (the kind you pick up at your grocery store or Costco)
- Dark green leafy salads
- Taco salad
- Street tacos
- Asian street noodles
Price Range: Inexpensive to mid-priced (very affordable), easy to find
You’ll find inexpensive, entry-level Pinot Noirs ($3-$5 USD). If this is your price range, expect these red Pinots to taste like bright red cherry and to have crunchy, tart fruit.
Pinot’s a very drinkable wine if you’re looking for a wine you don’t want to think about.
If you’re wanting something that offers a bit more complexity or intensity, and perhaps is a little smoother, stick to the $8-$15 USD range.
You’ll get technically well-made wines that will deliver quality for the price. Because Pinot Noir takes on the hand of the winemaker, experiment with different producers until you find one that you like – then go out and buy a case (or two).
Best Red Wine for Casual Drinking #4 – Dornfelder
If you don’t live in Germany (or near Germany), you’ve probably never heard of Dornfelder, so let me make the introductions. This red wine grape is relatively new, bred in 1956.
What does Dornfelder wine taste like?
This is a deeply pigmented red wine, with bright acidity, and a velvety texture with purple floral notes and, sometimes, just a hint of sweetness and spice.
The wine has a light body and low tannins, making it an excellent sipping wine and a happy companion to most mid-week meals. Dornfelder tastes like cherry, blackberry, spice, and black peppercorn.
Best Everday Food Pairings for Dornfelder
Dornfelder is the epitome of everyday food wines. Here are some pairings to spark your imagination:
- Meatball sandwiches
- BBQ wings
- Onion rings
- Fried egg rolls
- Fried rice
- Linguini with cream sauce
Price Range: Mid-priced (affordable), medium difficulty to find
If you live in Germany or in a country near Germany, you can no doubt find inexpensive Dornfelder red wines.
In the US, however, it’s an import wine.
You’ll need to look for it at a large bottle shop, you won’t find Dornfelder at a corner market, for example. That’s reflected in the price, too.
Expect to pay between $10 – $15 USD for a bottle of Dornfelder. Regardless, Dornfelder gets my vote as the best red wine for casual drinking that no one’s heard of (and it’s just perfect with pizza).
Best Red Wine for Casual Drinking #5 – Malbec
No casual red wine drinking list is complete without Malbec. I actually consider Malbec the best red wine for any crowd because of its approachability.
As the signature red grape of Argentina, Malbec’s soared in popularity over the past 20 years, and for good reason. Who doesn’t want quaffable, affordable red wine?
What does Malbec taste like?
Malbec is a medium-bodied red wine that tends to have softer tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon, and a fruit-forward style with juicy red fruit – strawberries and plums – and also a signature blueberry note.
Malbecs have an affinity for oak, meaning it pairs well with the flavors oak barrels contribute to the wine, so expect to find some evidence of oak in your Malbec wines with vanilla, warm baking spice, and mocha or coffee. Malbec has a deep, inky ruby color thanks to its thick grape skins.
Best Everday Food Pairings for Malbec
Malbec has more body and heft than a Pinot Noir or a friendly Grenache, so it works well with heavier foods. Think rich stews, roasted vegetables, and, of course, meat.
Here are some easy pairing ideas for Malbec:
- Grilled steak salad
- Street tacos
- Smoked cheese
Price Range: Mid-priced (affordable), easy to find
Malbec’s another wine that we mainly import from Argentina, so you’ll pay a little more than rock-bottom prices. Expect to pay between $9 – $15 USD for food-friendly, well-made Malbec wines.
Best Red Wine for Casual Drinking #6 – Merlot
Another smooth red wine that makes the list of casual drinkers is Merlot. In fact, many table wines that don’t list a grape use Merlot as their base grape. Originally from the Bordeaux region of France, you can find Merlot grapes grown around the world, making it easily accessible.
What Does Merlot Wine Taste Like?
Ripe dark cherry and black plum are key Merlot flavors. Expect soft, plushy wine with a medium body, medium acidity, and medium tannins. This is a well-rounded wine that makes for easy drinking in your slippers.
Helpful Tip: Here’s a more detailed post about the history of Merlot wine if you’re curious.
Best Everday Food Pairings for Merlot
Many of the foods that work for Malbec, also work for Merlot. Look to pair your Merlot with heartier dishes. Here are some good Merlot pairings:
- Hamburgers (and fries)
- Pasta with creamy alfredo
- Any dish that uses cream of mushroom soup
- Roasted vegetables
- Stir fry
- Ham sandwiches
Price Range: Inexpensive to mid-priced (very, very affordable)
Every day Merlot hovers between $5 and $10 USD, though it can dip to as low as $3 USD.
The $5-$10 dollar range will get you technically well-made wines that are smooth and go down easily without too much thought.
If you want to move up the quality scale, spend between $12-$15 USD for more complexity and depth.
Best Red Wine for Casual Drinking #7 – Zinfandel
Zinfandel makes the best red wine for drinking wine list. Originally from Italy, where it goes by the name of Primitivo, the grape delivers uncomplicated goodness in your glass.
Today, California’s home to extensive Zinfandel plantings, but if you live outside of California (or the US), look for Italian Primitivo.
What does Zinfandel taste like?
This full-bodied red wine brings the full spectrum of black and red fruits – from blackberry and black plum to raspberry.
Expect these fruits to be jammy and even dried given that the grapes need to sit in the vineyard until fully ripe, soaking in all that sugary sunshine goodness.
Zinfandels do well with oak, so you’ll find cinnamon, cocoa, and warm baking spice in your wine. Zinfandels have firm tannins on the upper end of the scale and acid levels towards the lower end of the scale (again, all of that sugar means lower natural acid in the grapes), making them deceptively easy drinking.
Stick with Zinfandels under 13.5% ABV as everyday drinkers that will pair more easily with your mid-week meals.
Best Everday Food Pairings for Zinfandel
Zinfandel’s the most robust wine on this list, so plan on pairing it with cheese and crackers, if nothing else. Check out these Zinfandel and weekday meal ideas:
- Grilled meat with BBQ sauce
- Lentil soup
- Minestrone soup
Price Range: Mid-priced (affordable)
Zinfandels start around the $8 USD per bottle price point, but you may find entry-level bottlings for around $5 USD. Most casual Zins will be between the $8 – $10 USD. These wines will have smooth tannins, jammy black and red fruit flavors, medium to high alcohol, and a hint of spice that adds depth and complexity.
I’d pick a Zin as an everyday drinker for burgers any day of the week.
Final Thoughts – Best Red Wine for Casual Drinking
The wine world’s ready to offer you a great, casual red drinking wine – all you need to do is find it! First step’s first, though – figure out how YOU define “casual red wine”, and then go from there.
Personally, my everyday casual red wine rack has several bottles of Malbec, Zinfandel, Merlot, and generic table wine.
Can’t go wrong with any of these for Wednesday night spaghetti or Tuesday taco night. Cheers!
Thirsty for more?
Check out this post – What’s that bitter taste after you swallow wine? I think this is an especially good question if you’re looking for casual wines to drink because it’s linked to wine quality. Hint: Your wine shouldn’t taste bitter.
And here’s a post on how to save money on wine. If you’re bulk shopping for casual drinking bottles, then you can definitely save money! Check it out!