Friday, October 12, 2007

Wine (Red)

This is the second of two postings that I have done on wine and is covers what is usually the most misunderstood of wines. There is so much more to red wine than Cabernet, and very few understand that. I will attempt to uncover the various varieties as best I can, but I may be a bit less forthcoming in some areas. It's not that I don't want to provide good information, but I don't want to deal with all of you competing for the wines that I like and driving the prices up. 

A little bit different from the way that I handled the whites, I will cover these from the mildest to the boldest. 

Merlot - this is a wine that has fallen on unfortunate times in my opinion, though its popularity is very high. Often used to make Cabernet more drinkable, it has become a pretty generic red for the most part, in order to suit US tastes. Once produced on a level to rival Cabernet, with some very complex flavors, most of the varieties are now "mostly harmless" (those of you who have read Douglas Adams will understand the reference). There are still some good ones out there if you want to spend the time and effort. Look to the Russian River Valley and some of the Washington state wineries.  

Syrah - this is a mild and very fruity wine that is is gaining in popularity. Berry flavors tend to dominate on this wine without any acid or oak. You will see this listed as Shiraz in the Australian wines. (There was an argument between the French and Australians on the name, so the Australians just started calling it something else.) It is often used for blending to make Cabernet drinkable more quickly as well, but is a great wine in its own right. Australia does a great job with this, and California and Oregon are beginning to do equally well in the US.  

Pinot Noir - this is another of the berry wines and also a lot of fun. Blackberry and raspberry come through, with sometimes a hint of oak. This wine can be a real treat, with the best coming from the Carneros and Russian River regions of California, but the Oregon coast is the best in my mind. Definitely worth the effort, and the more you spend, the more complex and better the wine will be.  

Zinfandel - this is not White Zinfandel, for those who missed my white wine posting. It is however, one of the greatest of the reds, and mostly ignored. Topping out the berry wines, this one can also have hints of chocolate, coffee, or even black pepper. Extremely complex, without the Cabernet bitterness and oak, it is one of my favorites. When you can, look for the "old vine" varieties, where the vines are at least 40 years old, producing very small quantities of very small grapes. All of this concentrates the flavors into something special. If you are really lucky, you might find some "ancient vine" Zinfandels, where the vines are over 100 years old. Grab them. The best of these come from the Russian River in California, though there are a couple in Napa.  

Sangiovese - this one is relatively new in its use in this country at least and is making some powerful wines. Originating in Italy, it is sometimes called "Super Tuscans". These can approach the oak and tannin of the Cabernets, without costing nearly as much or being nearly as bitter. They have a little bite, but are drinkable right away. They are appearing all over California, with some spreading to the Northwest. 

Cabernet Sauvignon - this is the king of red wines and justifiably so. Often blended with other red grapes to speed up its drink-ability, the flavors can be all over the place. There are a few inexpensive blends that are good, but many of these carry a heavy burden of tannin and oak (the stuff that makes you make a face when you drink it) If you want the real thing you will have to pay the price and / or sit on the wine for a while. Aging of a Cabernet causes the bitterness of the oak and tannins to slowly disappear, leaving behind an exceptional wine. Be prepared to store it for at least 5 years though (10 is better if you can stand the wait). The best are called Reserve or Grand Reserve wines, which means that all of the grapes come from the same vineyard. Australia does as good a job as anyone with the blended variety, but Napa and Sonoma are king for the top wines in my opinion. 

Port - this should almost be in a class by itself. It is a fortified desert wine with a hint of berries and sweetness. It also has a higher alcohol content, which means that you don't have to finish the bottle right away. Purists will tell you that you need to finish the bottle in a couple of weeks, but I have had some open for months without it going bad. There are a number of versions based on aging in the barrel (6, 12, 20 year old), and vintage ports as well. The 2000 vintage, if you can find it, is particularly good. Most of the best come from Portugal, but there are some US examples worth trying.  

Madeira - this is a desert wine as well, though it is sweet without being overwhelmingly so. It is also a fortified wine and can remain open for long periods due to the higher alcohol content. Be careful buying this one, as most of the cheaper varieties are suitable only for cooking. There are a few from California out there that make this well worth the effort to obtain. In addition to the mystery of the wines themselves, there are a lot of myths about the storing and serving of red wines (or white ones for that matter), and some hidden truths as well.  

- Red wine should be served a little below room temperature, not at it. Like the whites, the wine will change as it warms and also as it is exposed to air "breathes". If you want to save it past one night however, you should invest in one of the vacuum pumps and pull the air out. These are relatively inexpensive and will by you an extra day or two at least. (this holds true for white wine as well) 

- All wine should be stored below room temperature (around 60 degrees), hence the wine cellars. This slows and enhances the aging process for better wines. - All wine should be stored on its side. This keeps the cork moist. If the cork dries out, it will shrink and let air in, turning the wine into vinegar. My best advice is to take the foil that is over the cork off when you put wine in storage. This will allow you to see if the wine "creeps up the cork". If you see this, open the bottle before the wine seeps to the end. 

- Decanting is not always necessary to serving wine, but can be worthwhile. It exposes the wine to air and allows it to breathe more quickly. It also allows you to either filter out or trap any sediment that might be in the bottom of the bottle. Most of us will never see this sediment, but it is in some of the better, older wines. 

- Wine glasses are important. Some people like the smaller ones for white wine, the bigger ones for red, and champagne flutes for ... champagne. I have all of the different sizes, but personally I like the bigger ones for all of my wines to concentrate the vapors in the glass. A lot of the "taste" of the wine come through the smell or "nose" of the wine.  

- Likewise swirling the wine in the glass can enhance the experience. It coats the sides of the bigger glasses, which enhances the aroma. (It also makes you look pretty cool if you do it right.) 

- Never put your wine glasses in the dishwasher. No matter how good it rinses the glasses, over time the soap with permeate the glass and affect the taste of the wine. You should be able to keep them clean enough by washing them by hand in hot water. OK, end of the lecture. Go out there, experiment, and have some fun.


Hooda Thunkit said...

Again my tastes lean towards Cherries, blackberries and the occasional concord.

Dry wines never pass these lips.

I like the fruity flavors and the sweetness of the wines I drink.

Of course, I'll sample an occasional Madeira or Port ;-)

Tim Higgins said...

That's the great thing about wine. There's enough diversity for everyone to find something and if or when your tastes change, find something again.

You may want to sample the Gamay Beaujolais or Gamay Rouge variety if you haven't already.