Red Wine 101
January 26, 2019 / Stephanie Miskew / 0 Comments
Lots of wine lovers’ New Year’s Resolutions include learning more about wine. Unfortunately, with such a general goal, it can seem daunting when trying to decide where to dive in. If you happen to find yourself in this vinous quandary, I’m here to help with White Wine 101 which I posted last week and this week I’m happy to share Red Wine 101!
There’s no way to know everything about wine; however, beginning with the basics is a great place to start and that’s what these two companion, 101 blog posts are all about. After reading them you’ll know: (1) some important points of difference between the production of white and red wine; (2) basic information about the most popular grape varieties you’re bound to encounter on wine lists and at your local wine or grocery store; (3) bottles from well-known producers to look for when shopping for a particular grape variety or style of wine; (4) delicious food pairing suggestions for a variety of red and white wines; and (5) helpful lingo that’ll have you “Talking the Talk” of both red and white wine in no time!
Before we dive into Red Wine 101, I wanted to debunk some commonly held misconceptions about red wine:
(1) Only about 3-5% of ALL wine produced improves with age so do NOT think you have to wait for all red wines to “age” before you drink them. But how can you tell if a red wine is an age-worthy one? If the wine is sealed with a screwcap, and/or falls within the $25 and under price category, go ahead and drink away. Red wines intended for aging are usually $35 and over and are generally always sealed with a cork to allow the oxygen transfer to occur.
(2) Removing the cork of a wine from a wine bottle does NOT allow a red wine to breathe and will do nothing to help it “open up.” The only way to do this is to decant the wine, a process in which the liquid is poured from the bottle into a crystal decanter. For more information on the benefits of decanting and how it’s performed, please scroll down to the “Talking the Talk” section.
And lastly, (3) If you suffer from the dreaded Red Wine Headache (RWH), it is NOT the sulfites that’s causing them! White wine has almost twice the sulfites of red wine and while there’s still some debate as to which exact chemical it is in red wine that’s causing them, you have a better chance of avoid these headaches by opting for lighter-bodied, lower tannin red wines like Pinot Noir or Gamay which contain lower amounts of the suspected chemicals which are the likely culprits.
As I mentioned in my previous post, White Wine 101, before we get into the differences between white wine and red wine, let’s talk about what they have in common first, namely: fermentation! Please check out my previous post for more on this relatively simple, yet crucial chemical process. While white and red wines have fermentation in common, red wine differs from white wine in a few important ways:
(1) MACERATION: This is the major difference between white and red winemaking! Unlike white winemaking where there’s essentially no contact between the grape skins and the juice, maceration, the period of contact between red grape skins and their juice is crucial! During this time, essential color, tannin and flavor components are extracted from the skins of the grapes and infused into the wine. The period of duration is ultimately determined by the winemaker and depends on the style of wine he is trying to make.
(2) GRAPE VARIETIES: Since the color of red wine is largely determined by the color of the grapes used to make it, red wine is generally made using only red grapes. The more intense the color of the grape, the more intense the flavor and color of the finished wine. White wine on the other hand, is made from white grapes, and while it is possible to make white wine from red grapes, this process is usually only reserved for sparkling wine production. For more on that, please check out this post.
(3) WARMER FERMENTATION: Unlike white wines which undergo cooler, temperature-controlled fermentations which run around 50-60 degrees, red wine fermentations run much warmer at approximately 60-95 degrees. The warmer temperature facilitates the extraction of color, tannin and other beneficial phenolic compounds which are important in the finished red wine.
(4) MALOLACTIC FERMENTATION: While we hear about this secondary fermentation being used in the production of buttery Chardonnays, it is actually crucial to the production of most red wines! During this process, lactic bacteria converts harsh, bitter, malic acid into creamy, buttery lactic acid which makes the wine more palatable and imparts a richer, creamier mouthfeel. So the next time you pop the cork (or screwcap) off a bottle of Australian Shiraz and smell buttered popcorn, now you’ll know why!
As far as style goes, red wines can range from light-bodied and fruity to full-bodied with oodles of tannin and oak. This largely depends on the grape variety used to make the wine as well as where the grapes were grown.
Here is my Red Wine 101 list of the top 5 grape varieties you’re most likely to encounter on restaurant wine lists as well as at your local retail or grocery store. They are a good place to start if you’d like to learn more about red wine. Simply scroll down for helpful information on these grapes including what they taste like, what foods you should pair them with, and a few of my own favorite bottles to try. Remember, if you can’t find the exact wine listed here, be sure to ask your local wine shop to suggest a similar alternative:
1.) PINOT NOIR (Burgundy, California, Oregon): This delightful, yet difficult to grow grape variety produces lighter-bodied red wines that are velvety and delicious with notes of cherries, raspberries, earth and spice. It is the legendary grape of France’s famed Burgundy wine region but also performs beautifully in California and Oregon. Since Pinot Noir is infamously finicky and a challenge to produce, this is one grape variety where you might want to spend a little more money to get a good bottle. If you’re in the mood to splurge, Pinot’s the place to do it:
PAIR WITH: Pinot Noir is one of the most versatile food pairing grapes on the planet. This is largely due to it’s fruity flavor profile, lighter body and friendly, supple tannins. For that reason it pairs brilliantly with dishes ranging from grilled fish to a Burgundian classic like Coq au Vin. It also pairs nicely with difficult to match veggies like Brussels sprouts, beets and broccoli rabe.
GG FAVE PINOT NOIRS (please click on name of wine for purchasing information):
2.) MERLOT (Bordeaux, California, Italy): Since falling from grace back in 2004 as a result of Mile’s Merlot-phobia in the movie “Sideways,” I’m happy to report Merlot has officially made a comeback! And why shouldn’t it? Merlot is SO easy to love with its lush, plush notes of dark, ripe fruit and uber-alluring tannins. And while it originated in Bordeaux, France where it is still the most widely planted grape today, Merlot performs well in many exciting wine making regions around the world. So if you prefer bold red wines with oodles and fruit and firm, yet supple tannins, it’s time to give Merlot another try!
PAIR WITH: Merlot is a lush, full-bodied red wine with lots of ripe fruit which make it perfect for pairing with savory, flavorful fare like burgers and BBQ as well as more refined dishes like seared duck breast with blackberry gastrique and roast leg of lamb.
GG FAVORITE MERLOTS:
3.) CABERNET SAUVIGNON (Bordeaux, California, Italy): This legendary grape is the basis of many of the most expensive and age-worthy red wines on the planet – most notably in the Bordeaux region of France and California’s Napa Valley. This is largely due to its reliably high levels of tannin which contribute greatly to a wine’s overall structure and ageability. That being said, wines made from the Cabernet Sauvignon grape are available at many price points and the resulting wines display flavors ranging from tart red currants and graphite to rich blackberry, plum and cocoa depending on where it is grown. So for those of you who adore big red wines with intense tannins, Cabernet Sauvignon is the grape for you!
PAIR WITH: Cabernet Sauvignon is best matched with dishes that are equally as hefty as the wine itself – anything lighter would simply get blown away by its sheer power. Opt for dishes which are relatively high in fat and flavor such as a juicy, flavorful New York strip steaks, braised beef short ribs or savory grilled lamb chops.
GG FAVORITE CABERNET SAUVIGNONS:
4.) SYRAH (Rhone, California, Washington): This intense red grape is the source of some of the most robust, deeply colored, full-bodied red wines on the planet. While is can be found as a varietal wine, Syrah is usually blended with other grapes (both red AND white!) to round out its spicy, exotic flavor profile. In cooler climates such as France’s Rhone Valley, Syrah produces bold, complex wines with notes of black and red fruit accompanied by savory notes of herbs, bacon fat and olive tapenade. In warmer climates like Australia and South Africa where it is know as “Shiraz,” Syrah produces lush, sometimes jammy wines with notes of cherry, blackberry and chocolate with a spicy, peppery finish.
PAIR WITH: Full-bodied Syrahs are perfect for pairing with luscious, flavorful dishes such as BBQ, burgers, braised beef dishes, juicy steaks and savory roasted leg of lamb.
GG FAVE SYRAHS:
5.) CABERNET FRANC (California, Bordeaux, Australia): Cabernet Franc, along with Sauvignon Blanc, is a parent of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape and while it might not be nearly as popular, it is certainly worth exploring! While it can be found as a varietal wine in places like France’s Loire Valley and California’s North Coast, Cab Franc is usually a part of a blend, most notably in Southwest France where it is one of the five classic Bordeaux grape varieties. Here it is most popular on the famed Right Bank where it is usually blended with Merlot, most notably in Saint Emilion at the legendary Chateau Cheval Blanc. Cab Franc can display very different aromas and flavors depending on the climate in which it is grown. Cool climate Cab Franc displays notes of tart cherry, sweet herbs and mushroom accompanied by a delightful earthiness, while in warmer climates it reveals the grape’s capacity for red berry fruit such as cranberry, pomegranate and strawberry along with notes of moss, forest floor and black tea.
GG FAVORITE CABERNET FRANCS:
TALKING THE TALK: As with any type of wine, red wine has it’s own “lingo.” These terms refer to different winemaking tools or specific vinicultural techniques employed by winemakers when making this type of wine. No Red Wine 101 post would be complete without a list of those you’re most likely to encounter when talking about red wine:
TANNINS: These phenolic compounds set red wine apart from white wine and are imparted into red wine from its grape seeds, skins and stems as well as time spent in oak barrels. Tannins allow red wines to age with grace because they are a preservative. They also add critical texture and mouthfeel to red wine, when you have the sensation of the moisture being sucked out of your mouth or a chalky feeling on your tongue after tasting a red wine, that’s the tannins!
SEDIMENT: As red wines age, their tannins tend to bind up with color molecules and precipitate out of solution and collect at the bottom of the bottle in the form of sediment. Sediment looks like a layer of small, sand-like particles covering the bottom of the bottle. Generally, the more tannic the wine, the more sediment there will be. While sediment won’t hurt you if you drink it, the texture can be off-putting so it is often advisable to decant wine off of its sediment before drinking it although in very old wines, taste the wine first. While all youthful, tannic red wines can handle it, old wines tend to be more fragile.
DECANT: Decanting is the process of transferring a wine from the bottle into a crystal decanter and there are two main reasons to do this: (1) decanting a youthful, tannic red wine infuses it with oxygen thereby softening its harsh tannins and making its aromas and flavors more readily perceptible. A super creative option popularized by Nathan Myhrvold in his books Modernist Cuisine utilizes a blender to “hyperdecant” young red wines – for my video demonstration of this process, please click here or click play on the video above, and (2) as red wines age, sediment often forms at the bottom of the bottle. These older red wines often need to be decanted off of their sediment for maximum enjoyment. While decanting a youthful red wine should be done vigorously, decanting an older red wine is a more delicate process. You don’t want to risk over oxygenating the wine or stirring up the sediment.
OAK: The majority of red wines receive some degree of oak treatment during which the wine actually spends time in an oak barrel. While there are quite a few different types of oak, the most popular are French oak and American oak. French oak is used with the majority of red grapes such as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc and imparts notes of baking spices (i.e. clove, nutmeg) and vanilla to a finished wine. American oak on the other hand has a special affinity for certain red grapes such as Tempranillo and Zinfandel and manifests in the finished wine as notes of dill pickle, coconut and sweet vanilla.
RESVERATROL: This natural phenolic compound found in red wine is believed to have heart-healthy properties which help prevent damage to blood vessels, reduce bad (LDL) cholesterol and prevent blood clots although it’s not entirely understood how this works. Resveratrol is also found naturally in peanuts and berries which aren’t nearly as much fun and you can now find it in skincare products as well such as the Caudalie line!
I hope you found this post on Red Wine 101 helpful in your understanding of this delightful, and imminently enjoyable style of wine. For even more on the topic, check out my podcast episode, Red Wine 101, where I answer some interesting viewer questions and dish on some humorous personal experiences as well. In you missed my previous post, White Wine 101, please click here to get all caught up and check out some of my favorite Winter White Wine Recommendations as well!
January 26, 2019 / Stephanie Miskew / 0 Comments
Stephanie Miskew thinks life is better with wine and she wants to help you enjoy it to the fullest! As a Certified Sommelier, her real world advice on tasting wine like a pro, discovering which wines you truly love, picking the perfect bottle for any occasion and creating magical food and wine pairings will have you looking like a wine expert in any situation.
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