Picking Pointers: Part 1 - Light Reds
By David Ehrenfried
AS THE TITLE SUGGESTS, THIS IS THE SECOND OF A MULTI-PART COLUMN WITH QUICK ADVICE FOR IDENTIFYING AND selecting red wines. It provided pointers when shopping for lighter dry red wines and included Pinot Noir and others like easy-drinking and food-friendly Dolcetta d’Alba, Agioritiko, Chinon and Cinsault. Let’s turn now to heavier, more full-bodied dry red wines. These include wines from many countries. I’ll cover selected wines from Europe here, and from the United States, Australia, and South America later in Part 3.
My purpose in writing these columns is to give readers a quick guide to basic characteristics of many of the dry red wines you might find in stores or restaurants. The objective is to help remove some of the uncertainty or confusion nearly everyone who enjoys and shops for wine experiences at one time or another. We’ve all seen names or labels for wines we haven’t tried and wonder what they are and how they taste but are reluctant to try. 0There are countless different kinds of wine made in many styles from many varieties of grapes grown under endless combinations of soil, weather, and other conditions. No other beverage is affected by so many variables. This is part and parcel of the endless mystery, enjoyment, and surprises good wine can offer.
Brief Guide to Picking Fuller-Bodied Dry Red Wines
The wines mentioned below are some of the medium to heavy-weight dry wines you might see on a good restaurant’s wine list or in a store with a wide international selection of wines ranging in price from $10 to $150 and more. (Bear in mind, that bar and restaurant wine bottle mark-ups are often two to three times what retail stores charge for the same or similar wines, and a glass of some wines, especially cheap ones, might cost almost as much as what you’d pay at a store for a whole bottle.) These tips are organized by country or region, just as they typically are in stores or on wine lists. So, imagine you’re in a typical wine shop where the aisles, shelves or racks are marked France, Spain, Italy, and so on, and perhaps more specifically, Bordeaux or Tuscany. Labels on European wine bottles typically identify wines each by the region or town they’re from, such as Chianti or Saint-Julian, and sometimes by grape names, such as Barbera or Nebbiolo.
Heavier red wines tend to be more full-bodied, have more intense flavors, and have deeper, darker, inkier red, purple, or even blackish-blue colors. This is because heavier wines are usually made from grapes that grow best in the warmer or sunnier conditions that tend to yield grapes with more intense flavors and skins with pigments that yield deeper, darker hues. (Dark grape skin pigments give red wines their distinctive colors. Just peel any grape and look at its pulp’s color.) The skins also impart tannin, a natural preservative that help give wines structure but also can impart a residual, slightly bitter or astringent taste you might experience when eating walnuts, drinking unsweetened iced tea, or chewing on grape skins.
Fuller bodied wines also tend to have higher alcohol content — in the range of 13-16% alcohol by volume (ABV). This amount, marked on front or back wine labels along with a wine’s name and grape information, is an important clue to how a wine will taste and be perceived. Alcohol content, of course, is one reason people enjoy wine. Just as importantly, alcohol content contributes to our perception of how filling, light or heavy, and weak or strong a wine is. Wines with 15% ABV are not just more potent than wines with less alcohol; they generally feel heavier and more filling, and may taste hotter and more alcoholic as they get warmer. However, none of this means that alcohol content correlates with flavor intensity.
Heavier wines are also more likely to be exposed to oak, ideally in oak barrels instead of wood chips or other substitutes in steel or concrete tanks. Aging in oak may take months or years, changing and adding flavors and aromas, such as softening fruitiness and adding vanilla, cocoa, spice, cedar, tobacco, or other characteristics.
My brief comments and descriptions aren’t perfect or infallible. With wine, there’s always potential for surprise. Many wines are made in multiple styles depending on where, how, and when the grapes were grown and harvested, and how they were made into wine.
Tamer, generally less expensive versions of Mourvèdre or Monastrell are made on Spain’s central Mediterranean coast in areas called Alicante, Jumilla, and Yucla. These tend to share Bandol’s rich, smooth texture but with toned down flavors. Closer to Barcelona, there is a mountainous area call Priorat that makes a unique wine by the same name chiefly from blends of Garnacha (Grenache), Mazuelo (Carignan), and Syrah that’s potent, lushly full-bodied, and full of interesting cherry, floral, spice, earthy, licorice and other flavors and scents.
Other heavier Spanish red wines you’re likely to see in stores come from three areas in Spain’s north: Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Toro. Their main grape is Tempranillo, and they share the same aging designations and requirements, which means you can buy recently released wines from these regions that have been aged for you. They’re often very good values, as well. Rioja is Spain’s flagship wine. It is generally mid-weight and mainly made from Tempranillo; it has modest alcohol content, mild tannins, and inviting cherry, raspberry, dried fruit, herbal, tobacco, oak, and other characteristics. Ribera del Duero wines are made from a Tempranillo clone called Tinto Fino that grows well in that region’s bitterly cold winters and exceedingly hot summers. Ribera nonetheless produces many beautifully elegant wines that match or exceed Rioja’s best wines. Toro’s version of Tempranillo can be like an altogether different wine: powerful, rich, muscular, and more alcoholic.
The nature and intensity of Rioja, Ribera, and Toro flavors depend on how long each wine has been aged. Those marked Crianza must spend two years aging in oak and bottles and are fresh and easy-going. Riserva must age at least three years in oak and bottles and leans toward fuller, rounder, and more interesting flavors. Gran Riserva must age five years or more, often resulting in more deeply nuanced flavors and smells. Crianza and Riserva are good to with and compare.
The Piedmont region in northwestern Italy produces two of the world’s greatest wines, Barolo and Barbaresco. Both are made from Nebbiolo grapes. When poured, they look as though they might be light bodied like Pinot Noir. These are intense, very full-flavored wines that have beautiful layers of red berry fruit and other flavors when properly aged. Unfortunately, they can be very tannic and off-putting if consumed within less than five or six years after the vintage date. Since they’re expensive, it is a waste to buy and drink them too young. However, there are wines made in Langhe and other nearby districts from Nebbiolo and Barbera that are less expensive and delicious when young. They’re mid-weight, easy-drinking wines that are neither as intense nor as tannic as Barolo but full of cherry, strawberry, and raspberry flavors. Look for bottles made by the makers of Barolo and Barbaresco.
Tuscany is home to wines made mainly from Sangiovese grapes. The most popular is Chianti, a mid-weight with a modest 13.5-14.5% ABV that must contain at least 70% Sangiovese grapes. The result is a more acidic wine than most red wines, lightly tannic, and shows off sweet cherry, herbal, coffee, and olive flavors. It’s a perfect match for all kinds of Italian foods and is reasonably priced. I suggest buying Chianti Classico or Chianti Classico Riserva, because of their better quality and longer aging. Single vineyard and Gran Selezione versions are pricier. The Chianti region is near Florence, but to the south and the west are other outstanding wines. Brunello di Montalcino and its lighter and less expensive cousin, Rosso di Montalcino, are pure Sangiovese. Good Brunellos are regal, muscular, and full of intense flavors. Made nearby is Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, another similar mid-weight Sangiovese wine that’s worth trying.
In Tuscany’s western district of Maremma is home to beautiful wines known as “Super Tuscans.” These are blends made chiefly with Sangiovese, Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Some are among Italy’s most famous and expensive wines, but many are pretty affordable. They range significantly from mid to full-bodied and from modest to high ABV. Those blended with Merlot or Syrah are more likely to combine intense fruit flavors and silky texture.
Finally, here are three additional bold, full-bodied Italian wines from warm, sunny places to know about: Taurasi, a black ink-colored wine made in Campania from Aglianico grapes that has dark fruit, chocolate, and some tannic bitterness; Nero d’Avola, another blackish, juicy and filling wine from Sicily; and Cannonau, a bold, red fruit, spicy and herbal flavored wine from Sardinia that’s fun and food-friendly. All have ABV between 13.5-14.5%. Let us know what you think.
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