“Red or white?”
It’s presented as an either/or question, one that produces staunch loyalists on both sides of the fence. Take white wine lovers, for instance; it may be thirty-five degrees and snowing outside, with a spread of Pasta Bolognese and dry-aged steak on the table, but try to pour a hearty red in their glass instead of a chilled white, and they’ll look at you as if you have two heads (hi, Mom!). But as hot summer sunshine gives way to crisp autumn breezes, the season lends itself to comforting, warming reds. For those white wine lovers looking to dip a toe in the other side of the pool (and effectively double the amount of wines to explore), what are the best reds to ease the transition?
There are a few things that create hesitation when it comes to diving into the world of red wine. At the most basic level, there’s the matter of temperature: red wines are served warm. For those who are used to drinking wine chilled, this is a whole new experience that, frankly, can be off-putting. The fact is that, while most people agree that room temperature is ideal, red wines actually benefit from being served slightly cooler – around 65 degrees. Certain reds also taste delicious with a full chill, making them excellent choices for first-time red wine drinkers.
Structurally, red wines have a different mouthfeel than whites, mostly due to body and tannin. Body-wise, red wines are typically heavier than whites, which means that they are usually more alcoholic as well, since alcohol and body often correlate. Lighter-bodied reds are the place to start; going from a delicate, 12% ABV white to an easy-drinking, 12.5% ABV red is less jarring than going straight to a 14.5% ABV monster.
Most red wines also contain tannins, structural compounds that create a drying sensation and texture in the mouth. Because tannins are found in grape skins, seeds, stems, and other ligature, they are not usually present in white wines. This is because, when grapes are crushed for whites, the juice and the solids are typically separated immediately, whereas in red wines, the solids are soaked in the juice for some period of time in order to extract color, flavor, and, yes, tannin. Some winemakers choose not to soak the solids in the wine for too long, creating a less tannic wine, and some grapes simply have fewer tannins. These low-tannin wines are the ones to look for.
Fruit flavors can also be helpful when it comes to trying red wines for the first time. Though the general types of fruit flavors differ from white to red wine – think lemon, apple, and peach as opposed to cherry, blueberry, and blackberry – the sensation of fruit is a security blanket. Earthiness in red wine can seem much different than in a white, sometimes making a red seem overly dry and harsh, so fruit-forward reds are friendlier.
To summarize: lighter-bodied, low-tannin, fruit-forward reds are excellent wines for white wine drinkers to transition into red. Plus, happily, these types of reds taste delicious chilled! Here are six key reds to seek out:
An oldie but a goodie, Pinot Noir is a wine that tends to be medium to light bodied, easy drinking, and importantly, available almost everywhere. Though its birthplace is Burgundy, Pinot Noir is grown in a variety of different styles around the world, including California, Oregon, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Italy, and more. In general, cooler-climate, Old World Pinots will be lighter and earthier, whereas warm climate, New World Pinots will be bigger and more fruit-forward.
Try: 2013 Thevenet et Fils ‘Bussieres Les Clos’ Bourgogne Rouge, a light, bright, cherry-filled wine from the south of Burgundy, in the Mâconnais.
Despite its bad rap as the basis for cheap Beaujolais Nouveau, Gamay is perfect for so many occasions. Bright and juicy, with very few tannins, it’s the ultimate chilled red, retaining character even at cool temperatures. To get the full experience, look for village- or cru-level Beaujolais, or seek out examples from the Loire Valley and northern Rhône. New World winemakers like Division and Bow & Arrow have also begun making excellent, slightly more fruit-forward Gamays in the past few years.
Try: 2013 Domaine des Billards Saint-Amour, Beaujolais, a super pretty cru Beaujolais that smells like roses and happiness.
Barbera’s light body and low tannic structure caused it to be thought of as a lesser grape in Italy’s Piedmont: suitable for easy-drinking table wine, but not noble enough for aging. Nowadays, these same qualities cause wine drinkers to fall in love with Barbera’s friendly, no-fuss nature, especially now that winemakers have re-embraced the grape, making more refined versions. Some Barberas can be quite earthy, so this is a great wine for those who want to ease into earthier reds.
Try: 2013 Scarpetta Barbera del Monferrato, Piedmont, a juicy, medium-bodied Barbera with just a touch of earth, made by an American chef-Master Somm duo.
An indigenous grape from the very north of Italy, in Alto Adige, Schiava is a wine that can seem like half-rosé, half-red wine. It tends to be very light and soft, with an air of Alpine freshness from the neighboring mountains. For those who like a full chill on their wine, look to Schiava.
Try: 2011 Nusserhof ‘Elda,’ Alto Adige, a pale, almost rosé-like wine that just pops with fresh strawberry and cherry fruit.
Who says that red wines can’t be sparkling? Once simply a sickly-sweet, fizzy red, the best of today’s Lambruscos (produced primarily in Emilia-Romagna) are dry sparklers with a mix of raspberry, blackberry, and some earth flavors. It’s also perfect for red wine drinkers who are in a bubbly kind of mood!
Try: NV Fiorini ‘Becco Rosso’ Lambrusco, Emilia-Romagna, a dry, cherry-and-violet filled bubbly that is all too crushable.
Warning: Zinfandel is not a light-bodied wine! But for lovers of fuller-bodied whites like Chardonnay, a heavier red that has a touch of oak can be seen as a natural counterpart. Unlike a tannic, structured red like Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel remains juicy, round, and not too tannic, making it friendlier, so that the fruit will still stand out if the wine is chilled.
Try: 2013 Dashe Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, Sonoma, a deep, full-bodied red Zin that packs tons of black raspberry and chocolate flavors without being overly tannic.