Long before I started drinking whisky, I was enjoying a glass of red wine with dinner. Growing up in a Jewish household, red wine was something we were served (in small amounts) from a young age. In fact, one could argue that my first experience with red wine was during the bris ceremony at just seven days old.
In many cultures and religions, red wine plays a very important role. In my home today, the only role it plays is that of enjoyment, and occasionally, during the holidays, a far more important role as described in the prayer books. Of course, our standard “Jewish” wine is Manischewitz which is basically like drinking sugar, but at home, I prefer a far drier red, only reverting to Kosher wines when I truly have to.
History of Red Wine
The history of wine itself dates as far back as the antiquities and is closely intertwined with the history of civilization and agriculture. While new information can always be brought to light, most historians believe that the earliest markings point to wine first being made around 7000 BC in China.
The problem with this date is that there really is no way to accurately predict when wine was first invented as the beverage predates all forms of written record. It’s not as if grapes needed to be cultivated as wild grapes have been known to grow in areas around the world. While it certainly could be argued that fermentation of the grapes would have been easier following the invention of pottery in the neolithic era, there is still arguably, numerous ways in which wild grapes could have easily been fermented into a rudimentary alcohol.
The first actual evidence points to wine being made in Georgia in the Caucasus around 6000 BC, followed by Iran in 5000 BC. Heck, an entire winery was found in the “Areni-1” cave in Armenia where vats, jars and cups were found and dated all the way back to 4100 BC. Unfortunately there really is no way to backdate wine to its initial findings.
What we do know is that as long as wine has been around, it has carried with it certain religious connotations. The Book of Genesis first mentions wine right after the great flood when Noah, in a drunken state, exposes himself to his sons, thus resulting in the Curs of Ham. While many continue to realize the importance of wine in areas such as Egypt, Israel and Mesapotamia, as well as other civilizations in the near east, wine was also considered to be one of the proudest and earliest productions of both the Greeks and the Romans. One can sit down to watch almost any historic movie and find wine in many of the climactic scenes. One area we know wine was prominent in was Rome and other regions the Romans conquered. There were a number of styles of wine produced by the Romans using a variety of grapes. Typically, like today, the more rarified wines were consumed by the elitists whereas the common fermented drinks were enjoyed by everyone else from the working class man to the beggars in the street.
It was in fact, the Romans who invented the barrels used for shipping, as with the development of their empire in other geographical locations, the leadership that took hold wanted to be able to enjoy the grape wines they were accustomed to drinking back in Rome.
Red wine has long been considered a religious beverage, dating as far back the Greeks, the Romans, and of course, Biblical times where the consumption of red wine was compared to that of blood and part of Jewish custom the world over. The Turkish were pioneers in the field of wineology, reintroducing wine to China. In fact, while we may today consider Islam as a wine-forbidding culture, in centuries past, alchemists such as Geber were responsible for developing wine distillation that was used for both medical and industrial purposes. Even in the more modern Christian church, we find wine being used to commemorate Jesus’ Last Supper.
Since the dawn of the fifteen century, wine has played an increasingly vital role in our culture, wellbeing and even religious ceremony. Despite the philloxera outbreak in the late 1800s, wine continued to maintain itself as a primary beverage in all areas of the world, including Europe and North America.
For many years, water was a secondary beverage to wine, and just as we discussed in our Sangria guide, wine was the primary liquid consumable due to the disease found in water and the inability to properly filter it from bacteria.
It was commonplace for not only adults to enjoy the fermented grape, but even for children who had past the stage of drinking breast milk, to partake in the consumption of wine the way modern societies children drink water, juice or milk.
Today, while wine is primarily consumed by adults, it is still commonplace in certain regions around the world to find children drinking it as well. Even in North America and Europe, it is common for children and teenagers to consume small amounts of wine for religious ceremony. I have very clear memories of guests who were not Jewish at my Bar Mitzvah, shocked that I drank red wine during the religious ceremony, and friends of mine even more surprised to find that it wasn’t my first time having a small sip of the grape nectar.
How it’s Made
In this particular guide, and as an introduction to our series on wine, we are going to focus on the most common varietals of red wine, which of course are made from the dark or black grapes, as opposed to the ones used to produce white wines.
To discuss the production of wine is a difficult task as there are in fact, many ways that wine has been manufactured since the dawn of man. From rudimentary wines to superlatively crafted wines, while the process can differ, the basics remain somewhat the same.
The first job of course when setting out to produce wine is to cultivate the grapes and pick the variety that best suits the style of wine you intend to make. Once the grapes have been picked, they’re typically processed using a bin that receives them and moves them to the processors. Since grapes come off the vine, they are then destemed as the stems can leave a very bitter taste in the wine, not to mention cause additional sediment that is undesirable. While grapes would traditionally be destemmed by hand, today a mechanical tool does it automatically. The machine looks very similar to a rotating cage that moves on a concentric axle with its arms pushing the grapes through holes just big enough for the grapes to fit effortlessly through. As the grapes are pushed through the holes, the leaves and stems catch and fall through the open end of the cage.
Once the grapes are pushed through, they move towards a crushing machine, a process traditionally done by foot, where a pair of rollers automatically extracts the juice and pulp from the skin. It’s this crushed mixture of juice, skin and seeds that is called the “Must”. Each of the rollers can be pre-positioned to determine exactly how hard each grape is crushed, which makes the use of a machine ideal for wineries that produce multiple types of wine.
At this point, at many wineries, sulphur dioxide is often added to the must to help preserve the wine. What this does is helps prevent oxidation and also, in some cases, is done to delay the fermentation process. If the grapes are completely healthy, this process may be scrapped, however, if the grapes have began to rot, even a little, up to 70mg per litre may be added to assist the winemaking process.
In addition to the sulphur dioxide, two other ingredients are sometimes added during this stage. One is a macerating enzyme such as glucanases which aids in extracting the color and ripe flavors from the skins, and also tannins which helps to keep those bright colors stable as the wine ages, prevents oxidation and also successfully combats potential rot if smaller amounts of sulphur dioxide are used. While most wineries will add these ingredients at this stage, there really are no hard and fast rules.
One option that some of the more modern winemakers opt to utilize is what’s referred to as “cooling the must” where the winery will chill the must at around 50°F in an effort to allow the wine to do what winemakers call “cold-soak” that lasts anywhere from one day to a week. During the cold soak, the color and flavors of the wine are extracted without the extraction of tannins which takes place during the post-fermentation maceration after the alcohol is already there.
Once the must is made and ready for fermentation, it gets pushed into a tank that’s typically made of stainless steel in newer wineries, or concrete or oak in some of the older, more historic ones. It is this vat that the fermentation process takes place in.
Since the skins already have a natural yeast on them, once the must is placed in the vessel it will naturally begin to ferment, however, many of the wineries will opt to reclaim more control over the process by using saccharomyces cerevisiae or another of the hundred or more varieties of yeast. It’s this process where the sugars in the must convert into alcohol using carbon dioxide and heat as catalysts. During the fermentation, many winemakers will also add diammonium phosphate which acts as a nutrient and helps aid the process.
As the fermentation process begins, the skins will begin to float to the surface of the vessel forming almost a lid over the liquid below. This is a really important factor that in most cases needs to be encouraged as it ensures that the colors and flavors of the wine are fully extracted. The problem is that it’s sometimes difficult to maximize the contact between the solids and liquids, so winemakers will pump over liquid from the bottom of the vessel on top of the skins a number of times each day. Another method to ensure contact between the skins and the wine is to punch the skins down into the juice or submerge it using a restraint system. Another final option, which is actually often built in to the vessel is to have a drain that automatically drains the liquid from under the cap of skins and then pours it back on top of the cap. As the fermentation continues, the skins will continue to float to the top of the surface, which is why the process needs to be repeated over and over again. Since fermentation continually produces heat, the winemaker needs to refrigerate the wine to ensure it doesn’t go over 104°F, or otherwise, they’ll risk killing the yeast which will ruin the flavor of the finished product. There are a variety of methods used to control the temperature, which in part, is due to varying standards of temperature. Many winemakers feel 76-82.5°F is best, whereas others prefer 82.5-95°F. Usually, this preference is based on whether the producer is aiming for a fruitier and younger wine, or a drier, aged red.
The fermentation process is not one to be overlooked, and it’s vitally important to understand that this isn’t a “sit back and wait” procedure. Winemakers will check the product continually, constantly monitoring temperature, color, density and a variety of other factors. One area that’s often misunderstood by the consumer is how important the density of the must is. Typically, this is something that needs to be checked at least every half day. The density is actually proportional to the sugar content in the must and since the sugars are what turn it into alcohol, the density will fall each day as its fermenting. By checking the density and comparing it to the previous levels, the winemaker can monitor how quickly the wine is fermenting and work more fervently to control it if needed.
The next step in producing red wine is one that differs for white. As opposed to white, while making red wine, the “pressing” stage is typically done either near the end or after the fermentation process, whereas with white, it’s typically done during the destemming process. Pressing is where the actual juice is extracted from the grape. This may seem confusing, but rest assured, this does vary from the crushing process we discussed previously.
Since the skin and the grape is vitally important in enhancing the color and flavors of red wine, roughly 30% of the juice in the grape isn’t actually released until after the wine has begun to ferment. This juice, in comparison to the juice released during the crushing process has higher pH levels, higher volatile acidity and phelonics, but lower titratable acidity than the juice extracted during the crushing period. This is especially useful when the winemaker is trying to make a more astringent and harsher wine, hence the reason it’s not typically done at this time with white wine.
Typically, wineries will use different types of presses based on how modernized their facilities are. Ideally, the winery wants to use a tank press which is far more gentle than a continuous press. In either case, most successful winemakers will keep the pressed wine separate from the free-run wine so they can bottle them separately or blend them strategically to ensure the wine is more balanced for the consumer. By the time the finished product is made, most will typically be 90% free-run wine and 10% pressed.
Once this fermentation process is complete, a secondary fermentation process is often undergone called the microbiological transformation. Typically, this process is only done for red wine, and it’s the process in which malic acids are converted into lactic acid using bacterias. This process can be done naturally or with the aid of an introduced bacteria, not found in the natural grape juices.
Once it has finished, the wine is decanted from the dead yeast and other sediments or solids which we call “lees”. It is at this time that the sulphur dioxide can be added if it wasn’t previously done which prevents the wine from rotting and hinders oxidation.
Finally, the wine will be aged from anywhere from just a few days to upwards of two years before being bottled. The aging process will generally take place in a large steel or concrete tank, or in some cases, wooden casks. In some cases, the wine will have a fining agent such as egg whites or gelatin added to it to assist with correcting any issues such as increased levels of tannin or even just visual clarity. Then, if the wine is going to be consumed when its still young, some of the wineries producing less costly wines will chill the wine to get rid of sediment that uneducated consumers typically find unappealing.
The final stage prior to bottling is the filtering of the wine. The only goal of filtration is to ensure complete visual clarity, although it also helps with removing unwanted leftover yeast or bacteria. Despite this being common practice, many wine enthusiasts will argue that the presence of some sediment is actually preferential and can really improve the quality of the finished product. Finally, the wine is packaged, typically in a glass bottle, but sometimes, and much to my chagrin, in boxes or plastic containers.
Types of Wine Varietals
There are many varietals of red wine, but in this particular guide, we’re going to focus on the most commonly consumed and bottled varieties.
Quite possibly the most well known of the reds, the cabernet sauvignon is made in just about every region that produces red wine. It is often consumed as its own, or blended as the primary ingredient of the famous Bordeaux in conjunction with the merlot and the cabernet franc. Originally from France, the wine is actually quite famous for being one of the predominant grapes in Napa Valley and Sonoma, California. Despite being grown around the world, in my own opinion, the wine is rarely of high quality, thus being the reason it’s often used as a blender to combat its tannic taste. To clarify, tannic is that astringent taste where you feel like the wine is puckering the tip of your tongue. One area that has been very successful with it is of course the Napa Valley as mentioned above, and it’s often sold as a very dense and inky wine that is full of cedar, currant and black cherry flavors with strong notes of green bell pepper and hints of mint. It quite often has a very thick mouthfeel and is chock full of oakyness with a long musky finish.
Lighter than cabernet sauvignon, it is often sold as a varietal or used as a blend across North America. It’s a black grape that has a very big grapey flavor with strong peppery notes. As a cigar smoker, I often notice wafts of tobacco in it as well as its predominant raspberry and bell pepper flavors. Another part of the great bordeaux wine, cabernet franc isn’t one of my favorite varieties, but is certainly a top pick when blended to perfection.
This is a really tough wine to perfect, but when it’s done properly it can be quite captivating to the palate. Well worth its weight in gold if done properly, the pinot noir is a light to medium bodied wine that is usually quite fruity, yet dry in a very appeasing way. It can be quite earthy which I like, but also has some sweet fruit flavors like strawberries and raspberries in addition to the black cherry and currants you can find in more astringent wines. It’s very herbal with spicy notes and hints of leather, tobacco and cedar. As I said, when it’s perfectly crafted it can be an exceptional drink. It’s quite versatile when it comes to pairing with food and does well with everything from pork, poultry and fish to cream sauces and spicy delicacies from the east.
Another member of the wine trifecta of popularity, this particular varietal is dark blue in color, and many believe, named after the bluebird itself. Ideal for blending with more tannic wines such as the Cabernet Sauvignon, the Merlot is rather light and soft, even what some refer to as a fleshy wine.
Despite Merlot being produced on a global scale, there are typically two styles that the vast majority of Merlot wines fit into. The first being the a style that tends to emphasis ripe and inky wines using late harvesting in order to try and achieve a full body wine, high in alcohol and velvety to the point of being somewhat oily; something I really enjoy in a wine. This particular style tends to be very fruit forward with intense blackberries, cherries and plums on the palate. The second style of Merlot is more of the bourdeaux style which is a more traditional form with medium body, some acidity and leafy, vegetal notes infused with fresh fruits like raspberries and strawberries. This lighter red pairs exquisitely with a variety of foods including hard cheese, roasted vegetables, some poultry, as well as red meat and cured meats, especially the fattier varieties.
Known as the “red burgundy”, the Pinot Noir grape is perhaps one of the worlds most revered and temperamental grapes that when perfectly cared for, can produce some superlative light to medium bodied wines often characterized by many notable wine critics as being some of the most elegant wines from Burgundy.
Despite hailing from France, like many, the Pinot Noir is grown in many regions around the world, including the United States. In fact, the grape is actually quite notable in Oregon. Since it’s such a temperamental grape, it’s typically grown in smaller quantitates when compared to that of its counterparts. It is often for this reason that costs of Pinot Noir can be considerably higher than that of other red varietals. Despite that increase in price, there are still some wineries that have managed to sell bottles at the $10 mark and under – none of which I’m prepared to recommend.
Also called Syrah, this is actually one of my favorite wines as defined by a broad category. Typically, a robust medium to full bodied red, the shiraz, depending on the climate, is usually quite high in tannins and has remarkably pronounced flavors of blackberry, pepper and mint. In hotter climates, shiraz is very consistent for the most part with jammy fruits as opposed to fresh. Often, the wine will have strong hints of anise or fennel and a beautiful earthy and vegetal undertone with bursts of tobacco, leather and coffee.
It pairs beautifully with rich foods as well as some hard cheeses. I often enjoy it one its own as well.
An Italian wine and the basis of my absolute favorite blend, the Chianti, Sangiovese varietal is unusually capable of being fruit forward and fresh with bursts or fresh strawberries and raspberries, or quite oaky and earthy, which I love, when blended or aged in wood casks. I especially recommend trying a Chianti Classico, but almost any of the more tannic wines in this style will make me quite happy indeed.
Known as the monster of reds, the Malbec is very inky and purple wine varietal that I, in past, have often been underwhelmed by. Why? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s due to how inky the wine appears, that I catch myself preparing for it to be a fuller mouth feel than it really is, thus letting me down slightly in comparison to my expectations. However, when it comes to reds, the malbec is not one to take lightly. It is incredibly robust and full bodied and the Mendoza malbecs are something worthy of praise and fear at the same time.
When local sommeliers heard I was writing an article on red wine, they opened the doors to their locked cellars and graciously invited me in for a chat, even sending me home with a few bottles to sample. A very special thank you goes out to Banville & Jones as well as De Luca Fine Wines.
I have long been a fan of red wine, typically preferring it over white, blush or sparkling. I enjoy the warmth, the tannins and the punch it often inflicts when you get hit by a perfectly aged, full bodied red. These are a few of my favorites, a couple of which were provided to me for sampling by the aforementioned wine stores.
Whitehall Lane 2010 – Tre Leoni
One of my favorite wines from Napa Valley’s 2010 vines, this particular wine gets much of its appeal – and my attention – from its almost two year aging in French and American oak barrels. A little fruit forward for my tastes, it is slightly light but nevertheless one of the best wines for its price point from the well regarded California region.
Bramosia 2010 – Chianti Classico
From the Donna Laura estate, the Bramosia is an absolute beast of a chianti. Glorious and witty, it takes its namesake’s discerning palate and matches it with precise punches of superlative earth and leather with a rarified touch of jam and pepper. There are many chianti’s I love, but the Bramosia is one I could drink on a daily basis.
Sottano 2009 – Mendoza Malbec
From beautiful Argentina, this is one malbec that didn’t leave me wanting. Exquisitely inky, it was matched perfectly with a robust full bodied taste and enchanting full mouth feel. As far as malbecs go, if you want something that will take your breath away, this is the one to consider.
Montes – Cabernet Sauvignon Carmenere
My daily drink when it comes to wine, this wine was initially introduced to me as “the monster”. If you enjoy a full bodied wine at an incredible price, there really isn’t anything that beats the Montes in my humble opinion.
The biggest rule of thumb I can give you when it comes to red wine is to serve it in its proper glass. Other than that, here are a few suggestions:
Maintaining the red wine at room temperature or just slightly below is ideal. I often suggest, if you don’t have a cellar, to quickly chill the wine about 10-15 minutes before serving. Many people suggest decanting wine for an hour. While I agree, I also believe you should try it first once the bottle is opened. Have a glass before decanting and again after. By doing so, you can discern whether you prefer the specific bottling when it’s had a chance to open up or right from the bottle. Keep track with notes. I use a great app on my iPhone called Libations. It allows me to input all of my tasting notes in an easy-to-read format.
One tip that I got which has served me well is to immediately pour half the bottle into a fresh mason jar and secure it tight. That is, unless you plan on consuming the entire bottle in a night or two. While some reds certainly taste better the second day, most won’t last very long, and unless you’re having company, keeping the unused portion in a closed jar will prevent it from oxidation if you separate it quickly. I also own a pump that removes the oxygen from the bottle. They’re inexpensive but they work well.
Enjoy this video all about how to properly taste your wine.
Finding the Right Red Wine Glass
In the last couple of years, manufacturers like Riedel or Schott Zwiesel have emphasized the importance of different glasses for different wines, in order to get the best flavor and Aroma out of the wine. They are very different from the crystal cut glasses of Victorian times, so the question is, what wine glasses should you get?
Basically, you have the choice of glass and crystal. By definition crystal is glass with lead monoxide, which is the reason why it can be very heavy, but it really depends on the manufactuerer. Typically it varies from 1% in the U.S . to 30% of lead monoxide in Europe. Lately, manufacturers of glassware often advertise lead-free crystal, which uses magnesium or zinx oxide instead. Technically it is not crystal anymore but the metal oxides enable the manufacturers to create thin, elegant glassware that sparkles.
Regular glass on the other hand is more dull, thicker, less expensive and chunkier but also prone to last longer.
If you can afford it, go for the nicer metal oxide crystal or lead-free crystal glasses.
If you look at the lineup of Riedel, Schott Zwiesel, Spiegelau etc. you will quickly see that you can buy a lot of glasses for every type of wine. If you want to test wine, it makes sense to invest in some testing sets with different glasses for different reds. However, most people have just one or two kinds of red wine glassed for entertaining purposes.
If you just want to invest in one kind of glass, I suggest you get the large Schott Zwiesel Tritan Crystal Cru Classic Bordeaux glass. With its size of 27.9-Ounce it stands 9.5″ tall, 3.75″ wide and a set of 6 costs $72, so just $12 a glass, yet it looks elegant on your dinner table and is suited to basically all reds. They are also available in many smaller sizes, if that’s too big for you. Of course, if you know that you only drink one kind of red wine, get the glass that is recommended for that wine, otherwise, these Bordeaux glasses are great!
For budget conscious students, I suggest you checkout Ikea where you can find glasses for $2. They won’t look as nice and the wine will taste a bit differently in them but you can’t beat the price.
In case you are not sure, I encourage you to get this set of testing glasses with stems, and settle on a set once you have found your favorite.
Fans of casual dinners sometimes prefer stemless glasses, though I find glass with stems preferable because you will neither heat up the wine with your hands, nor will your body scent impact the aromas of the wine. Always bear in mind, that the shape of the glass impacts the flavor while the material is just secondary. When you buy Riedel Sommelier glass for $ 85 a piece, you get a marvelous glass that is handmade in Austria with super thin walls and stem, that looks superbly elegant and classy, yet it might break more easily and it will taste as good as one made out of glass in the same shape.
Red wine is a topic I could talk about for ages. It’s a broad topic and therefore to summarize it in a single guide would be doing it an injustice. This is just the first primer on red wines, so stay tuned as we delve into the world of wine and discuss each varietal and blend individually, before providing some fairly in-depth reviews and ratings.