Exploring Red Wines is a journey into history, culture, and geography. It is both broad and deep. But surprisingly, not nearly as broad as white wines. This is simply because that there are fewer varieties of grapes (varietals) globally being made into red wine than white. There are about 50 varietals of red wine that you are likely to encounter. When we further refine to what you might find in your local store, the list goes down considerably.
First, red wine is red, but why? Red wine’s color is drawn from an assortment of grape varietals ranging from grapes that are reddish, deep purple, and even a deep midnight blue in color. The grapes produce wine colors described as garnet, almost black, dark red, light red, ruby red, opaque purple, deep violet, maroon and the list goes on. The grape skins are responsible for the red wine’s distinct color. The skins are left in contact with the grape’s juice during the fermentation process, allowing the dispersion of both color and tannins. In white wines, the skins are immediately removed, so even red grapes can produce a white wine. Certainly red grapes are responsible for rose´ wines which left in contact with the skins for a short time. A specific wine’s particular red hue depends on the grape type used in the process and the length of time the skin’s pigmentation is in contact with juice.
Weight or Style of Red Wine
A winemaker will have an influence in the style of wine he will produce, but he is playing a bit part in a very large play in which he has only a modicum of influence. Keep in mind, grapes are grown as a result of enormous and complex forces. Also, grapes will ferment and become wine on their own if simply picked and put in a vat. Native yeasts will work their magic. So a winemaker’s role is simply as a shepherd, guiding the grapes during a natural process toward their destiny and the winemakers goal.
That said, there are many “tools” in the winemakers box that affect the style of the wine. Red wines are often classified by “body-type.” A certain red wine might be described as “light-bodied” – referring to the viscosity, mouth-feel and tannin structure. A light-bodied wine will display fewer tannins and feel lighter on the palate. These wines tend to be overpowered by flavor-filled foods. A light-bodied red wine derived from the Gamay grape varietal, is France’s famed young red wine: Beaujolais Nouveau.
A medium-bodied red wine will display more tannins, but will not have the pronounced structure of a high-powered California Cabernet Sauvignon or an Italian Super Tuscan. Medium-bodied red wines include: Merlot, Shiraz, Pinot Noir, Burgundy and Chianti.
Full-bodied red wines boast the highest tannin (and often alcohol) content. Full-bodied reds include France’s respected Bordeaux wines, California’s top Cabernet Sauvignons and Italy’s dazzling Super Tuscans.
For clarity, light-bodied wines tend to “feel” lighter or more like water in the mouth. In contrast, “full-bodied” wines feel heavier, more like milk. This effect is due in large part to the higher tannin (and again, alcohol) content.
Dry Wine vs. Sweet Wine
The word “dry” when it describes wine can seem confusing. After all, wine is wet, made mostly of water. When someone refers to a dry wine, they are not referring to moisture content, but to sweetness, or sugar content. A dry wine is simply “not sweet”. It does not contain discernable sugar when tasting. In the world of wine, dry is the opposite of sweet. Sweet is an actual taste that.your tastebuds can discern (link to Tasting Wine). Dry is more of a tactile and texture phenomenon that you perceive on the palate in the absence of sweet.
Fermentation Factors: What determines if a wine will end up sweet or dry anyway?
During the process of fermentation, where the grape’s sugar is converted to alcohol, the shift from sweet juice to dry wine takes place. If a vintner desires a wine that is dry, then he will promote the fermentation process to run to completion, allowing the yeast to fully convert the sugar to alcohol. If the winemaker is shooting for a sweet or off-dry (semi-sweet) wine, then he will stop the wine’s fermentation process prior to completion. There are two ways for a winemaker to halt fermentation. The first method for stopping fermentation is to chill the wine. Fermentation demands a warm, consistent environment; when the temperature drops so does the conversion of sugar to alcohol. The second way to stop fermentation is by adding alcohol, also known as fortification. When a wine’s fermentation is cut short, the remaining, unconverted sugar, known as “residual sugar”or RS, remains, resulting in a sweeter style of wine.
The Fruit Factor
When referring to a wine’s “fruit” character, we are describing the aromatics and secondary flavors of a wine. Spoken language is ill equipped to describe the experience of smell, so metaphor and comparison are our primary tools. Smell is the primary contributor to flavor (link to Tasting Wine), so we use words that describe items for which we all know their smell and taste. The distinct fruit-like qualities of a wine, from light to lush, citrus to mango in white wines and cranberry to fig-like qualities in red wines, describe the “fruity” experience in a wine. However, a wine’s tannins and acidity can mask or eliminate the fruit in a wine if they are out of proportion. Some will associate “fruit” with “sweet,” but this is not always correct; all wines generally have some fruit character, but many have absolutely no residual suger. They are not sweet. If the tannins in a red wine are light, the fruit may seem more “forward,” more obvious on the palate. This also applies to light-weight acidity. So red wines with less tannin structure, made from grapes like a Gamay grape or Pinot Noir, will often seem more fruit-filled because the fruit character does not have to compete as readily with the tannins. Likewise, white wines with less acidity may shove the fruit to the forefront and seem “sweeter” because of the lack of acidity. But the residual sugar will likely still be quite low.
Sweet Red Wines
When it comes to sweet wines, it is easy to confuse sweetness with “fruity” character. While a wine’s sweetness is perceived by the taste buds on the tip of the tongue, a wine’s fruitiness is perceived by the olfactory receptors, or through its aroma. You can physically only taste five sensations: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, yet you can smell thousands of scents; so a wine’s fruitiness is the result of the combined effects of taste and aroma. Tannins will also balance fruit. If a wine is overly tannic, it will mask aromas and perceptions of fruit.
Categories of Sweet Red Wines
The most famous sweet red wines are described as dessert wines. The fortified wine known as Port will do its best to complete a meal as one would expect any dessert. Germany’s Dornfelder grape is often made in a lighter-styled, slightly sweet version is worth a try if you are searching for a sweet red wine. Italy’s Lambrusco is a slightly sweet, slightly sparkling inexpensive red wine that was wooed wine lovers the world over for years. It is intended to be consumed young and is readily available in most markets.
The most common red wines available today fall under the following:
|Bordeaux Red Blend|
|Rhone Red Blend|
We will explore each, including where they are grown, flavor profile, and styles. The following spots are most noted for the red wines we will be exploring.
|Finger Lakes NY|
|Rioja and Ribera del Duero|