Learn About Wine
Red is for Love
The color red is almost always associated with passion and love, so in honor of Valentine’s Day, this article is dedicated to the king of wines: those wonderful, rich and flavorful reds. And, while we’re on the subject of February, we’ll take a little detour in Spain to cover the red Rioja specifically, which is the theme for our February 2006 event.
Red wine comes from red grapes. If that sounds obvious, allow me to point out that white wine can also come from red grapes. What makes red wine red is not the grape juice, but rather the skins. To make red wine, winemakers ferment the grapes’ red skins along with the golden juice. The longer the contact with the skin before and during the fermentation process, the more flavor and color the skins impart into the wine.
The Art of Making Red Wine
Making red wine is, without question, more difficult (not to mention far more messy) than making white wine, in part because the skins add a wildcard into the process. But, let’s start from the beginning so you can have a better understanding of the manner in which red wine is crafted. It all starts with the harvested grapes being added to the crusher to break the skins. Depending on the style of the wine being made, and the amount of tannin needed, the stalks may or may not be removed at this stage.
From the crusher, the grapes go into the fermentation vats—skins and all—along with the yeast, where it will stay for several weeks or longer until the juice has fermented into wine. In general, red wine is fermented at a higher temperature than white wine. The higher the temperature, the more color and tannin is extracted. For this reason, cooler wine regions commonly use higher temperatures during fermentation than warmer climates in an effort to coax more color, flavor and tannin from the grapes. After the fermentation process has ended, many producers, especially in Europe, will even allow the wine to remain in the vats for a couple of days to a few weeks to extract just a bit more color from the skins. By contrast, in warm regions such as Australia, some producers will go so far as to remove the wine from the vats and separate the skins before fermentation is over in order to prevent the wine from becoming too tannic. When this technique is used the fermentation finishes off in the barrels, hence the name barrel fermentation.
With few exceptions (Beaujolais being one), this is the basic process of making red wine. The best wines however, will be transferred to oak barrels at this stage for aging. While only a fraction of the world’s wine will end up in barrels, the oak itself is a key ingredient in the wines that do. Oak is highly revered for its ability to impart its own flavors into the wine, most notably a flavor and aroma of vanilla. In fact, the barrels will also contribute to the color and tannin in the end-product. As a result, they like the grapes themselves are carefully selected for their properties. Winemakers will seek out barrels from particular forests, made from a particular aged oak, even made by a particular cooper to ensure that they compliment their wines best. Another attribute of the barrel is the amount of toasting it receives by the cooper. A light toast will give off more oak flavor and tannins, whereas heavily toasted barrels can infuse the wine with a kind of caramelized flavor. Though highly prized, the life span of a barrel is relatively short, as they will lose most of their flavor after the first time they are used.
Red wines, like white wines, are almost always blended. It could be a blend of different vineyards, different clones of the same grape, a blend of two tanks of the same wine that have been made differently, or a blend of different grape varieties. This is how the winemakers truly define and control the style of the wine.
Once blended, all that is left is fining and filtering (or not). Fining and filtering help to stabilize the wine and protect against unwanted bacteria, as well as get rid of any particles that might settle in the bottom of a bottle. Some winemakers opt to skip the fining and filtering altogether however, because they feel that this process strips the wine of its character.
Red Grapes to Know
When it comes to red grapes, there are thousands that are suitable for viticulture, but only a handful that are considered the staple of red wine production. These classic red wine grapes are mostly known to even the novice wine drinker, as they are made into wines with the same name. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah or Shiraz, Zinfandel, Malbec and Dolcetto all fall into this category. Others that round out the most common red wine grapes include Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Gamay, Grenache, Nebbiolo, Pinotage, Sangiovese and Temparanillo.
Of the grapes mentioned, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah are the principal red grapes you should know. So here’s a quick primer on these popular red grapes and the wines they are famous for producing:
Cabernet Sauvignon is perhaps the world’s most famous grape. It is grown just about everywhere there are vineyards. Even with other grapes in the mix, and differences in the climate and soil of the growing region, Cabernet Sauvignon, with its powerful blackcurrant aroma manages to retain its character. When it comes to wines, Cabernet Sauvignon leads the way in full-bodied red wines. The biggest Cabs of all are produced state-side in the Napa Valley, where they are high in alcohol and big on flavor.
The Merlot grape is known for being fat and juicy with not too much tannin. The lower tannin of this grape and fruit forward of Merlot wines give it universal appeal. A range of fresh flavors such as plums, cherries, blueberries and blackberries mixed with black pepper tones, typically dominate the smooth red wines Merlot grapes are famous for producing. These wines generally fall into the medium-bodied, full and fruity category, though U.S. Merlots are often full-bodied with lots of dense tannin chocolatey fruit. It is fairly versatile when it comes to food pairings handling poultry, red meats, pork, pastas, salads and cheese well. Merlot is grown the world over but chiefly in France, especially in its place of origin in Bordeaux, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Chili, Argentina and the United States.
Pinot Noir is by far the most difficult grape to cultivate. Nevertheless, when it is at its best, the wines it produces are second to none. Aside from being especially finicky about temperature, sunlight and soil conditions, one of the key reasons Pinot Noir grapes are so hard to grow is that the pinot vine mutates very easily. A parent vine often produces offspring that bear fruit nothing like the parent’s in the size and shape of the berry or cluster, and will frequently even have different aromas, flavors, and levels of productivity. It is estimated that as many as 11,000 Pinot Noir clones exist worldwide—in Dijon France alone there are 46 recognized genetic variants. By comparison, Cabernet Sauvignon has only twelve identifiable clones. Outside of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, New Zealand and the west coast in the U.S. from central California to Oregon are the key growing areas.
The Syrah, or Shiraz in Australia, is another grape with loads of personality and flavor, and excellent for making world-class wines. Its home is principally in northern Rhône, but it is Australia’s most planted red variety. The Syrah grape is also commonly planted in California, and has new followers in South Africa, Spain, South America and New Zealand. Blackberry, damson, plum fruits, a bit of smoke and a hint of chocolate often describe the Syrah flavor. While this grape can shine on its own, they also blend well with other varieties. The wines produced from the Syrah grape tend to be characteristically full-bodied.
Because February’s theme is Red Rioja, the Tempranillo grape deserves a special mention here. This is Spain’s best-known grape and the dominant flavor in the Rioja, though it appears in many other Spanish wine regions. Outside Spain, this grape is not particularly common, but it has recently taken up in vineyards from Argentina to California and Oregon. Its strawberry, toffee and spice flavors are delicious when young, but it also matures well.
Rioja itself is both a region and a wine. The wine is strictly governed by law in Spain with only seven grape varieties that can be used. Nonetheless, the most used is the Tempranillo grape, which is viewed as the mainstay of Rioja region and usually backed up by a helping of Garnacha as a minor part in the blend.
Rioja wines fall into a number of different classes. Each class is dependent on the age of the wine and the time it has spent in oak barrels. Young, barely oaked Rioja is called Sin Crianza. The age and oaking increases through Crianza and Reserva to Gran Reserva, which must be at least five years old and have spent at least two of those years in oak barrels.
Knowing what you now do about red wines, you might suspect that the classic Rioja taste is that of soft strawberry fruit with vanilla, and you would be correct. You would also be right to assume that Gran Reserva Rioja will have a much more discernable vanilla flavor given its longer time aging in those oak barrels.