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Wine Appreciation Course

© Tom Cannavan, 1998

Part 3: Red wine

The grape

Red wine can only be made from black (or red) grapes. To make red wine the skins are an integral part of the recipe, whereas in whites they are often little more than packaging.

The skins of black grapes are important because of their "phenolic" compounds: a complex mix of colouring agents, flavouring agents and a substance called tannin. Tannin is the essential difference between red and white wines. It is a powerful preservative, and since red wines are often made to mature over many years, tannin is required to ensure the wine does not grow old prematurely.
  black grape

Tannin also has a taste - slightly bitter - and an effect that dries and puckers the mouth. Another substance containing large quantities of tannin is cold, stewed, strong tea. A mouthful of that will give you an idea of what tannin is all about.

The classic red wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy (and their new world counterparts) are made with a hefty dose of tannin that preserves the wine and balances against the other flavour components of fruits, minerals and acids. Such wines are designed to improve over many years until they reach their peak - the point when the tannins have mellowed and the components have integrated perfectly. You need patience, suitable conditions and a healthy bank balance to get into the business of cellaring the great red wines until they each their peak.

Red wines destined for early or short term drinking (and not for "laying down") are made with little or no tannin in their composition. Traditionally these were lesser, peasant wines, made to be drunk with the daily meal and without ceremony. However, tastes and needs change, and many fine, modern wines are made for immediate consumption. Since these wines don't need to last several years, the bitter tannins are excluded and the wine tastes fruity, fresh and approachable upon release.

Making red wine

The winemaker has at his disposal a far greater range of techniques, and must make a far greater number of decisions, when making a red wine. The process is essentially the same as the white wine process: gathering the grapes, fermentation, maturation and bottling. At various stages the winemaker can intervene to change the style of the wine he is making.

  The grapes are crushed, but a proportion of the stalks may be left in place. The resulting mash is run straight into the fermentation tank without pressing. Unlike white wine, the skins are part of the fermentation. Fermentation temperature varies between around 18 and 28 celsius, as does the length of fermentation between a few days and six weeks. The fermentation vats may be concrete, steel or, traditionally, oak.

The high quality "free run" wine is poured straight into barrels or stainless steel to rest and mature. The remaining mulch of juice, skins, and stalks is pressed, to extract a strong, tannic liquid known as "press-wine", a proportion of which is often blended back in at a later stage to add body, tannin and strength to the finished wine.

Most of the great red wines are matured in oak barrels. This is an expensive and labour intensive process. Oak from ancient French forests is generally agreed to be the finest, imparting a subtle vanilla, toasty flavour. Each 200 year old tree produces only 2 barrels, so they are expensive at £350.00 each. The forests are managed with a re-planiting policy.

American oak is also very popular and is cheaper. It is regarded as imparting a "bigger", less subtle, spicy flavour to wine. Oak from the Ukraine, Poland and Slovenia is very old and fine and is the cheapest of all, but many experts find it is not flavourful enough.

Prior to bottling the wine must be cleared. Traditional fining is widely practised, but use of filters and centrifuges to remove absolutely all micro-solids from the wine is highly controversial. Wine is a living thing. Tiny biological changes take place over years as the wine matures in the bottle and many people believe that heavy handed filtration destroys the wine's ability to age and improve. This is why many red wines must be decanted before serving: to run the wine off from solid deposits.

Factors affecting the styles of red wine

As I have said, the winemaker has a great deal of freedom to make choices in making a red wine. Decisions will be affected by the style of wine the winemaker is aiming to make, and the raw materials the vintage has given. Some of the options open to the winemaker are listed below:

Special considerations for fine red wines

As well as offering a world of choices to the winemaker, red wine also offers extra challenges and complications that must be overcome to make a great wine.

* Carbon dioxide given off during fermentation causes the skins to float to the surface of the tank and form a "cap". This must be regularly submerged to ensure the wine keeps extracting elements from the skins. This can be achieved by "pumping over" juice from the bottom to the top of the tank, by manually pushing down the cap, or by fitting a mesh filter below the surface of the wine)

** For all the time the barrels are in the cellar the wine must be "racked": wine is drawn from one barrel into a clean barrel. Only around 90% of the barrel is drawn off, the remaining 10% is full of dead yeast cells and is discarded. This process is carried out every 3 months or so and the fresh barrel must be topped back up to 100% with reserved wine

Red wine styles and characteristics

There are just as many flavour profiles amongst red wines as white. Some grapes, like the cabernet sauvignon take quite easily to a variety of growing conditions, whilst others, such as the pinot noir, seem unhappy anywhere outside their home in Burgundy. A few places are starting to produce credible pinot noirs, notably in cool climates such as Oregon on the northwest coast of the United Sates and on the south island of New Zealand.

Cabernet Sauvignon - the classic Bordeaux wine grape. A "serious" wine, with intensity and ageing potential which marries very well with the flavour of oak.
blackcurrant, cedar, pencil shavings, peppers, mint, chocolate, tobacco

Merlot - the 2nd great grape of Bordeaux - most Bordeaux is a blend of these 2 grapes along with small amounts of some others. It is a very rich, plummy, spicy grape which lends softness to the sometimes rather serious cabernet.
plums, roses, spice, fruit-cake, blackcurrant, pencil shavings

Pinot Noir - The great red grape of Burgundy. It is a very fragrant and should be silky with heady fruit and sometimes gamey complexity.
raspberries, strawberries, cherries, violets, roses, game, compost, manure

Syrah - the great red grape of the Rhone. Planted outside France it is known as the Shiraz. Huge and complex, rich, spicy and "manly".
raspberries, blackberries, pepper, cloves, spice, leather, game, tar.

Other important red wine grapes include:

Cabernet Franc - green peppers, blackcurrant, leaves, chocolate.
Gamay - the grape of Beaujolais. Beaujolais style wines employ a unique method of fermentation called Carbonic Maceration, or whole berry fermentation, which produces light bodied and coloured wine that is fruity, low in tannin and made for early drinking.
Sangiovese - the grape of Chianti. Full, firm, dry, spicy, tobacco and herbs.
Tempranillo - the grape of Rioja, usually with plenty of spicy, vanilla oak.
Zinfandel - unique to California. Its origins are a mystery, but it is believed to be descended from the Italian primitivo. Full blooded, spicy, powerful, alcoholic.

Red wine tasting terms and descriptors

There are even more words for taking about red wines, largely because red wines can cover such a variety of colours, textures, aromas and tastes. A few examples are listed below:

Austere - tannic; lacking fruit. The wine is too young, or too severe in style
Baked - from a hot climate. Not necessarily bad, but can mean "not fresh"
Coarse - rough and ready - should be cheap
Dense - positive. Solid colour and packed with flavour
Earthy - tastes of earth but can also mean simple and rustic
Finesse - used for wines of high quality, showing a silky and refined nature
Firm - a positive term for a wine with a good balance of tannins and acid
Flabby - not a compliment. The wine is over-oaked, or lacking acidity
Green - raw & un-ripe, often a characteristic of cabernets from poor years
Grip - used as a positive term for young wines with good tannins
Heavy - full bodied and alcoholic, usually means too alcoholic: out of balance
Jammy - not a compliment. Too obviously fruity without great finesse
Meaty - rich & full-bodied, maybe literally with an aroma of meat
Silky - smooth, velvety mouth feel. Usually the sign of a quality wine
Stalky - bitter tannins evident. A fault in some pinot noirs and cabernets
Structure - very positive. Is balanced, well made and will last.
Thin - lacking some flavour and usually some weight in the mouth.

Some descriptive words often used to conjure up the flavours and scents of red wine:

Blackcurrant - along with cedar, the classic Bordeaux/cabernet taste
Cabbage - mature Burgundy. This cabbage smell is a positive aspect!
Coffee - comes from well integrated oak, associated with top quality wines
Green Pepper - a distinctive note of the two cabernet grapes
Leather - classic shiraz, tough, big, spicy
Liquorice - many full bodied, tannic young wines
Olives - usually slightly under-ripe cabernet sauvignon or cabernet franc
Pepper - Rhone wines are often very peppery on the tongue
Spice - many "big" reds, including Rhone, zinfandel and Rioja
Strawberry - Beaujolais & lighter Burgundy
Tar - a heady, rich wine, probably from a hot climate
Tobacco - a lovely rich, warm taste from good Bordeaux
Vanilla - oak ageing