Sunday, November 23, 2008

Wine 1, 2, 3 - Part III: Rich, Ravishing Reds

Happy Monday, wine lovers!

I have been so excited to research and write this third installment of Wine 1, 2, 3!  After going over some initial basics, and touching on a few of the Wonderful Whites, we’ll now tackle the rich and satisfying world of red varietal wines.  Click back to the last post for a refresher on the definition of this term – in short, we’re focusing on wines named for the grape they’re made from.

Red varietal wines are fascinating and unique – not to mention delicious.  Today I’ve narrowed the field to five of the most popular reds, and we’ll discuss what makes each one special.  But first, we’ll have a short talk on tannin, as it often figures into the equation when exploring this family of wines.  And so, on with the show:

1. So, what exactly is tannin?

Tannin is a chemical found in wine that originates in the stems, seeds and skins of red grapes, and in the barrels used for aging.  Tannin gives wine structure, and also acts as a preservative.

For starters, it’s important to know that we perceive tannin as a feeling, rather than a flavor.  This feeling is often described as “astringent” – a palate-drying sensation that occurs to varying degrees in different wines, depending on the naturally occurring level of tannin in the grapes themselves, the length of time the juice was left to hang out with the skins and seeds after pressing, and whether or not the wine was aged in oak barrels.

Another tannic beverage is black tea, and a good way to grasp the tannic sensation is to imagine sipping some strong-brewed black Lipton’s, as opposed to a cup of calming chamomile.  The difference between the two, that distinctive drying sensation you get from the former but not the latter, is a result of tannin.

We’ll delve into this subject in more detail when we explore the elements of tasting.  For now, remember:

Bottom line:  Tannin is a chemical found in red wine that creates a distinctive, palate-drying sensation.

2. Rich and Ravishing Reds

Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot

Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot make up a dynamic duo of reds that dominates the market when it comes to familiarity and popularity with wine consumers. When discussing red wine, they’re often mentioned in the same breath together, so we’ll cover them as a pair today. Cab is the more assertive of the two, known for it’s knock-your-socks-off big, bold red qualities. Merlot is comparatively softer, but a real knockout in its own right.

I chatted with Kert Platner, one of the owners of Dallas’ Times Ten Cellars, and Michael, the top man in their tasting room, about Cabernet Sauvignon recently, and both men mentioned the flavors of “dark fruits” and the color “garnet” right off the bat. These qualities are classic when it comes to Cab. The flavors of dark fruits – think blackberries, currants and plums – indicate a rich, ripe and luscious wine.

We also touched on oak, everyone being in agreement that subtle oak was best, as well as what Kert described as a “dry herb component” often found in Cabs. This vegetal quality can range from pleasant to off-putting, as when it veers into green pepper territory. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll confess that I can’t remember ever clearly detecting these herbaceous notes in Cab, but we all have different palates and, frankly, I don’t drink it very often. I’m going to keep tasting though, because it’s important that I experience it for myself.

As we transition from Cabernet Sauvignon to Merlot, imagine turning down the volume just a touch. In the Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, Kevin Zraly sums up the difference between these two wines succinctly when he states, “Merlot’s tannins are softer and its texture is more supple.” In other words, it’s a little more reserved than its common companion. Merlot is well known for being crowd-friendly, and if you’re hosting a holiday party, you’ll be in safe territory selecting this varietal wine as your house red.

Pedigree-wise, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are both traditional components of the long-celebrated blends of Bordeaux, which we’ll discuss in a future post. It should also be noted that here in America, the Cabs of California are king, and many of them have achieved cult collector status – or, as one wine writer put it, they have “snob-appeal”. There’s no need to feel like a snob, however, when choosing one of these classic reds. There are many excellent bottles within an affordable price range, and if you plan to enjoy a juicy steak or other succulent, savory meal at dinnertime, one of the pair will make an ideal match.

Pinot Noir

Subtle and elegant are two words that come to mind when thinking of Pinot Noir. Pinot, as it is often called for short, is lighter in color and body style than the first two reds we discussed, and is known for a more delicate flavor profile. For this reason, it pairs beautifully with a wide variety of foods, providing the palate with hints of flavor and acidity that enhance rather than overpower a meal. Pinot is also known for requiring additional attention in the vineyard, much more so than hardier varieties. For this and other reasons, it often carries a higher price tag.

All the red wines of the famed Burgundy region of France, except for Beaujolais, are made from Pinot Noir grapes. In researching this post, I was also reminded that Pinot is one of the grapes used to make French Champagne. Here in America, this red varietal wine is produced to great acclaim in California and Oregon (I wrote about Ponzi here, for instance), and either state’s versions would be a great starting point for an exploration of one of the wine world’s most celebrated stars.


FoodiePrincess summed it up when she used the words “spicy and peppery” to describe wines made from this red grape. Michael at Times Ten also noted its often “inky dark” coloring. Syrah is definitely bold in both color and flavor, especially so if the winemaker has also introduced the element of oak into the mix. (Remember that oak bumps up the tannin factor as well.)

Perhaps the most popular versions of this varietal wine right now go by the name Shiraz and hail from Down Under, but Syrah has a long history in the Rhone River Valley in France and is also quite popular in vineyards here in America. Whether you choose an Aussie, American or other version of this red, pair it with strong flavors at the table, or simply enjoy it on its own.


While I hate to play favorites, I really must admit that Zinfandel is near the top of the list of my most beloved varietal wines. When I think of Zin, I think of a wine with a sturdy foundation, strong character, and an outgoing personality that’ll charm the pants off of just about anyone who takes the time to get to know it. (Come to think of it, that also describes some of my favorite people!)

Zin has an All-American reputation, with a long history in California, and its style can vary from one producer to the next. I love a Zin that’s jammy, with bright, vibrant flavors ranging from ripe red to rich dark fruits. For a special treat, choose a bottle that’s been made from older vines (often noted on the label). Many California vineyards have been growing this grape for generations, and they produce some of the best Zin you can find.

*Special thanks to Kert and Michael at Times Ten Cellars for their knowledge and expertise! Also, due to space considerations, this post was limited to two sections. Three next time, though – I promise.


Anonymous said...

Excellent, informative post C&S! I feel like personally I know what red wines I prefer with certain dishes but it's hard to put that detail into words to describe to friends. Thanks for the those details!

Food Czar said...

Great job, C&S! I'm glad you selected cab, pinot, merlot, shiraz/syrah, and zin as your five reds. I know you were tempted by tempranillo, but it doesn't yet have the wide appeal as the others. Its time will come.

For myself, I've started using the term shiraz to discuss this varietal when it comes from Australia, and syrah when it comes from France. Honestly, I think they are now almost two totally different grapes with two distinct flavor profiles. (When discussing this wine as made in other parts of the world, I simply use the term the winemaker uses.)

I'm really looking forward to your upcoming post on Bordeaux, as clarets are some of my very favorite wines.

Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

I'm a wine idiot. I had a feeling that's what tannin meant. But, now I know for sure. It even sounds like what it is, doesn't it?

I'll have to try more Zinfandel. I'm really not that familiar. Any affordable rec?

Classy&Sassy said...

So glad you liked it guys! This one was kind of hard (so much to say, so little room before the post turns into a novel!).

Margie, I totally have some recommendations. Check out "Wine of the Week: Feeling Fallish" from last month for one, and also maybe start with Rancho Zabaco? It's popular and widely available. I also really like Deloach. You could see at CM or WF what they've got on special from California, too, and have a little adventure!