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Friday, January 11, 2013

Red Wine Basics

I am going to begin my exploration of wine types with red wines. I must confess that red wine is my least favorite. The flavors are very bold and seem bitter on my palette. I like the lightness of white wines better. I also have a sweet tooth, so the sweeter the wine, the better. So what gives red wine its particular flavor?

English: Graps of Slovenian Red Wine Variety Z...
Grapes of Slovenian Red Wine Variety  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Red wine is produced from grapes that range in color from red to purple to blue. The flavor of red wine is typically described as being more complex when compared to white wines. This complexity of flavor is due to the length of time that red grapes stay on the vine. The growing season is longer, allowing the grapes to remain on the vine for a longer amount of time. Red wine complexity also comes from the skins of the grapes. The skins remain in constant contact with the juice as the grapes are processed into wine, releasing tannins and giving the wine its red color.

Tannins
Tannins give red wine flavor structure. A wine is described as tannic when it makes the mouth pucker and has a bitter aftertaste. Wines which are younger are much more tannic, but as the wine ages, the tannins dissipate and the wine tastes less bitter.

Wine Body
Red wines are often characterized as being either full-bodied or light-bodied. Light-bodied wines contain less tannin and have less presence in the mouth. That is, the wine feels lighter on the tongue, more similar to the weight of water. Full-bodied wines contain more tannin and feel heavier on the tongue, similar to the weight of milk on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Sweet vs. Dry
Red wine can also be considered sweet or dry, dry being the opposite of sweet. A wine may be made sweet or dry during the fermentation process. Sugars are converted into alcohol during the process, so dry wines are left to ferment longer so that most of the sugar is converted to alcohol, making it taste less sweet. The presence of tannins and higher acidity are also perceived by the palette as dry. So now when you are out wine tasting, you will be able to perceive the sweetness/dryness and body of your wine!

Common Flavor Descriptors
Other flavor descriptions typical of red wines are spicy, earthy, herbal and fruity. Hints of cherry, strawberry and blackberry can often be detected in the fruitiness of the wine. There are many flavors that can be picked out in wine as your palette becomes more flexible and sensitive. The specific types of wine each have distinctive flavor characteristics that you can practice detecting as we explore the various types.

Serving Etiquette
Connoisseur Red Wine Glass Red wine is best served in a large, wide glass. The largeness of the glass allows room to swirl the wine, and the wideness allows more surface area for the wine to breathe. As the wine is given time to aerate, the wine warms up, which allows aromas and flavors to open up, softening and mellowing the wine. The distinct flavor characteristics of the wine should be more detectable after aeration as well. Red wine is best served at between 60 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. A red wine that is served too warm will exhibit a stronger taste of alcohol. Red wines served to cool taste overly bitter and astringent.

A Note on Titles
As I started to research the various types of red wine, the titles began to confuse me. It seems that European wines are often named after the region in which they are produced, while U.S. wines are named by grape varietal. When I walk into the grocery store I typically see Chardonnay and Merlot, which are grape varietals. In the U.S., we name our wine specifically by varietal. Bordeaux, on the other hand is a European wine, and the name lets the buyer know that it was made in France. Specific wine varietals are used to make the Bordeaux, but the wine is not named by these varietals, as it would be in the U.S. I’m still a bit lost on this concept, and hopefully as we progress, things will become a bit clearer. If any of you have anything to add, please feel free!

Below is a list of the types of red wine that I will be discussing as the series progresses. Join me next time for a discussion about Barbera wines, made from an Italian grape variety.

Barbera
Gamay
Cabernet Franc
Cabernet Sauvignon
Carmenere
Dolcetto
Grenache
Lagrein
Malbec
Merlot
Mourvèdre
Nebbiolo
Pinot Noir
Sangiovese
Shiraz and Syrah

Tannat
Tempranillo
Zinfandel

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