In this second week of October, we are heading towards the end of grape harvesting season in North America and Europe. We are also heading towards National Red Wine Day, which is on October 15th. Wine is an ancient drink, known to be created as early as 6000 B.C., and has been popular throughout history. Red wine has been the base for two very historically popular drinks, sangria and mulled wine, as well as the center of a debate around the health benefits of wine specifically and alcohol in general. There are plenty of red wines out there for you to enjoy, so a little knowledge is key to helping you find the right red wine for you.
Red wines are wines created from grapes that are dark in color, ranging from red to purple, with some blues thrown in for good measure. These are also known as black grapes. Now, grape juice in and of itself is clear, no matter what grape you get it from. What gives red wine its vibrant color is the presence of the skin during fermentation. Not only is the juice being transformed into a tasty delight, it is absorbing the color out of the skins. Skin color is not the only thing that is being absorbed into the wine. Another defining characteristic of red wines is the presence of tannins, something that is found primarily in the skins and seeds of grapes. Along with the ruby color, tannins are a defining characteristic in the difference between white and red wine. Tannins are still present in white wine, just not dominant. Tannins also help define how bold a wine is on the palate; it can range from lower tannin, sweeter flavor to a strong tannic, dryer taste. They also are a reason that red wines are served closer to room temperature; as tannins get cooler, they also start to drift from a dry taste to a bitter taste. Tannins and acids have a similar drying effect on your mouth, and red wines possess qualities. Acidic wine will go down dry, but your mouth will start to salivate soon after you take a sip. A wine that is tannic dries out the mouth…and leaves it dry.
Another factor in how a red wine tastes is the type of grape that is used. There are between forty and fifty different grapes that are currently favored in wine use globally, but most people look to six major grapes to do the heavy lifting:
– Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet, or just Cab to close friends) is grown globally, from California to Chile, from France to South Africa. It is very high in tannins (due to the grape having a thicker skin), which gives it a very powerful flavor profile. It also makes it very susceptible to blending, Merlot being a very popular partner. Those wily Australians like to blend their Cabs with Syrah. Cabs typically have notes of black currant in their flavor.
-Merlot is the most planted grape in the Bordeaux region of France, but it is also popular in Italy, New York, and California. Merlot grapes produce a sweeter (most describe the flavor as chocolaty or plummish) and full flavored red wine, which make it very popular with wine drinkers. Some wine makers feel the need to blend it with a fuller bodied wine. Merlot grapes typically produce a wine with higher alcohol content.
-Pinot Noir is a bit delicate. Not in flavor; it falls in the middle of the road in terms of tannins, and often tastes of berries. It also falls into the middle ranges of alcohol content. Its delicacy comes from the grape. It is temperamental, and does best for growers looking to produce a small yield. It is much harder to grow that many of its red brethren, and has travelled to New Zealand, Australia, and California with some success. But, the French are the ones that rely on it most, especially in the Champagne region.
-Syrah (if you are in France) or Shiraz (if you are in Australia) adds some zest to the red wine world, offering hints of black pepper, smoke, herbs, or berries in its various incarnations. It stands well on its own, but in some regions it is blended with other wines. The grape has a thick skin which puts the wine very high on the tannin scale and very deep red in the color spectrum. It is most famously grown in France and Australia, but can also be found in Chile and, of course, California.
-Zinfandel (it really is a red grape) makes its home in the United States, primarily in California. Italy also grows the grape, but not like we do here. There are some hints of blackberries and raspberries in the flavor profile. Zins can have a very high alcohol content, getting up to 15% ABV, and higher than average tannins. White Zinfandel, which has sales that are six times that of Zinfandel, is a byproduct of this grape.
-Nebbiolo has enjoyed a great deal of success being grown in northern Italy. It is a thick skinned and durable grape, but oddly does not travel well to make a good wine. The Italian wines it does make, though, can be a little rough on the tongue due to its high tannin content, but has black cherry, herbal, and floral notes to help smooth out the ride. The high alcohol content goes a long way to win some favor as well.
There are plenty of other popular red wine varieties, like Sangiovese (Italian) and Malbec (French). The above mentioned are the most commonly found, discussed, and seen as good examples of the red wine family. Many feel that the color of the wine has some bearing on how it tastes, and the darker the better. Some wine makers cater to that by artificially darkening the wine. Pinot Noirs are naturally lighter reds, yet still have interesting flavor and complexity.
Red wines are served at warmer temperatures than white wines, but not quite at room temperature. Unless the room we are discussing is in an English castle. Red wines are best served between 60⁰ and 68⁰ F. If you go too much warmer, it saps the life out of the wine. Cooler, and you could be bringing more of the dryness out, which may mask some of the subtle flavors of the wine. To bring out those flavors, red wines are served in a glass with a wider bowl, which serves a few purposes. It allows more oxygen to get to the wine, which helps release the more subtle flavors. They are designed to be held by the bowl, not the stem, which allows the body to warm the wine ever so slightly, also opening the wine’s flavors.
There are many questions people ask about red wine and wine in general. One of them is “When do I drink red wine?” The best answer to that is “Whenever you want to!” Many people will drink a red wine with a meal, to balance out or enhance the stronger flavors of the wine. More often, though, people are just drinking red wine to enjoy the flavor of the wine. Traditionally, red wines went with red meat, and white wines went with fish and poultry. Red wines, as noted above, have a wide range of flavors, and can go with a wide range of foods. It becomes a question of do I want to balance out the flavor of the food with something opposite, like something sweet with something salty or sour, or do you want to enhance the flavor of what you are eating, like drinking a spicy wine with spicy food. Another question people will ask is “What is the best red wine?” Everyone, including the experts, has a different palate. That means a wine one person may find delicious, another person may find awful. And higher price does not mean a better wine. There are plenty of wines out there that can be purchased for a low price that can stand up to the most expensive ones. There is a red wine for every palate, and it is worth the time to explore the wines yourself to see which one is right for you.
And how do you explore these wines? One method is to find wine tastings in the area, and chat with the people that frequent them. Arrow Wine offers pay-per-taste sessions every Saturday from 11 AM to 4 PM, and their Far Hills location offers them Monday through Friday, 9 AM – 9 PM. Keep an eye on Dorothy Lane Market’s website, as they also offer frequent wine tastings, as well as downloadable guides for food pairings and ratings charts. Rumbleseat Wine in Centerville offers a weekly wine tasting menu. Another good way to try out wines is going to bars that specialize in wine and ordering flights. The Wine Loft offers many flights of wine, grouped by style or region. The Wine Gallery offers flights of wine as well as an amazing view of downtown. There are many other bars that specialize in wine in the area, and that is another opportunity for you to explore what each has to offer. Just check the DaytonMostMetro.com calender wine category for the latest tastings.
So go out this weekend and try out some red wines. Have a flight, visit a tasting, or buy a bottle or two from a friendly and knowledgeable vendor and have a wine tasting of your own. If you try red wines long enough, you may find this website to be particularly useful as well. Accidents do happen. Cheers!