Wine 101 - Part 2B - Red Wine

Red, red, good to meeeee!

**sorry, it was stuck in my head, moving on...

The story continues with the ever-so-intricate world of reds. So many people swear by only drinking reds, and whether or not I agree with that, [SPOILER ALERT, I DONT!], I think it is a topic that needs some extra focus.


The Process:

I previously mentioned in another post (Wine 101 - How its Made) the basic process of making red wine, but I think for the purpose of this section it is worth reviewing and going into a bit more detail. The main difference between white and red wine making lies in the use of extended skin contact, and that's really about it. The reason this is necessary is that, whether or not the grape skin is green, yellow, red, purple or nearly black, the juice on the inside is all the same - clear. There is a social lesson that can be taken from that last sentence...Anyway, the process of extended skin contact or "maceration" is done in a variety of ways and each one of them performed with a multitude of variation. To keep it simple, I will break down the three most common methods and their basic process. 

Punch Down: Also referred to as "pigéage" (french winemaking terms, such as this one, tend to get used quite often globally) is quite self explanatory. The skins will float to the top of the fermentation vessel and form what is called the cap. Once the cap is formed, the winemaker can employ the punch-down method to promote extraction of colour and tannin from the skins, among other things. This is a rather delicate process and does not allow heavy oxygen contact during the process. The method is simple and requires a rather strong person to essentially push the cap down into the grape must with what looks like a giant plunger. If you ever want to get a great workout, volunteer at your local winery to perform punch-downs and you will be sweating up a storm in no time. 

Punch down.jpg

Pump Over: Also referred to as "remontage", although curiously I hear this much less than pigéage...just a thought. Pump-Overs are also rather self explanatory. This is performed by hooking up a hose to the bottom of the fermentation vessel and pumping the grape must back over the cap to promote extraction and even contact with the skins. This method allows more oxygen contact to a smaller surface area of juice as it is being pulled out of the tank and poured back in. This process described as being less delicate. I personally have always enjoyed the smell that you get to enjoy when a pump over is being done, and it always puts a smile on my face. 

Pump Over.jpg

Racking or Rack and Return: Also referred to as "délestage", and this one I hear often once again. One of the more confusing wine terms, and almost always gets mistaken for something completely different, racking is the process of emptying the tank and pouring the must back over the remaining skins to promote extraction. It is NOT stacking your barrels, or bottles, or pouring the wine in to some special rack as I have continuously been asked and understandably so, considering the name. Racking also allows a large amount of oxygen contact since you are pouring the must in to an empty vessel. This is usually described as the least delicate method for promoting extraction. Racking is also used to remove the wine and leave its "lees" (dead yeast cells) behind after fermentation is complete, but lets focus on the extraction method for now. 


Each of these three methods can be done in a variety of different ways. A big decision that a winemaker can make when employing any of these methods is the schedule that they decide to apply. The more often you perform any technique to promote extraction, the more extraction you will get, no matter how delicate the method. It is also important to understand that all of these methods allow some amount of oxygen contact, and that must be considered as well. To be truthful, I don't believe one method to be far superior to the other and I have had great and terrible examples of wines that have been made using all three. These are simply pathways to arriving at the desired destination and each of them have a few nuances they can add (or take away) from the final product.


Barrel Aging

The wonders and mystery of oak, how so many people can smell you, and yet just as many have no idea what you smell like. Okay that sounded a bit fesicious, but seriously, why is it there is always one person in the group that gets "beautiful oak" on the nose of every red wine? Well probably because it is talked about way more than it should be and so many people have drank the Kool-Aid. I actually adore the topic of wooden vessels that are used to age wine and it is almost as complex as the wine industry itself, so this will undoubtedly be a whole topic I shall write about all on its own but I just wanted to quickly touch on it here. Most red wine spend some amount of time in barrel, yes, that is true. What most people don't realize is that most of the barrels used to age these wines are not being used to add any flavour at all and they are usually rather old and therefore pretty neutral in said flavour. There are many variations in size of oak vessels and even more variations of origin of tree, amount of toast (how much the inside is charred), seasoning, and so on. The reason I wanted to touch on this was basically to say cool it on all of the oak talk. As a somewhat experienced taster I will say that oak on a red wine is probably one of the most commonly screwed up things even good tasters get stumped on. I do promise to cover this topic in much depth, but for now...Feggett-about-it!


The Grapes

We all have our favourites and some are loyal to a fault, but with so many grapes being used for winemaking it can be hard to narrow down a few that are worth looking a bit further into. With that being said, I think it is best to get to know some classics, find out what seems to agree with you, and follow your curious palate from there. So, without further delay, here are five good grapes to start with. 

P.S. A lot of wines made around the world are actually blends of a few [or a lot] of different grapes, so don’t turn your nose up just because it isn't made with a single varietal as you will undoubtedly miss out on some real show-stoppers. Bordeaux, Chateauneuf du Pape, Chianti, Amarone, catch my drift. 


Merlot - Please, please, please don’t be the "I don’t like Merlot" person as it is getting old and it sounds ridiculous; I don’t want to come across as angry, but there are some seriously delicious wines that are made with, or based around, Merlot (hence its popularity). If I could go back in time and stop Paul Giamatti from uttering those words in Sideways, I just may...even though I love the movie. Anyway, Merlot is a grape that is delicate and not overly aromatic with a very approachable texture on the palate. It tends to show aromas of plum and other red fruit, although it commonly has ample black fruit as well (blackberry, cherry) and does rather well with a solidly implemented oak aging program, taking on flavours of sweet spices like vanilla. It also has the tendency to hold hints of chocolate in one form or another as a nice little nuance...and who doesn't like chocolate? It is the most heavily planted grape in Bordeaux and some of the world’s best examples come from the right bank regions of Saint-Million and Pomerol. It is also heavily planted worldwide, finding great success in the US with California and Washington.

Cabernet Sauvignon - If it were up to me, I would probably not include Cabernet Sauvignon as it is almost a no brainer these days. It has risen in popularity throughout North America to the point where the term "Cab Sav" has become recognizable shorthand in almost every circle. Much like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon is a part of the Cabernet family, so they do share many similarities and are blended together almost routinely around the world based on complementing each other very nicely. Expect a more intense aroma profile than Merlot that will almost seem to jump right out of the glass. Often synonymous with black currant (and a very dark fruit nose all together), this grape also enjoys spending time in barrel taking on smoky and often sweet spice aromas. The structure of Cabernet Sauvignon is also much more intense; high tannins (the stuff that dries out your mouth) and high acidity are almost a guarantee and this allows the wines to age a bit longer than some of their softer counterparts. This is a wine that does best accompanied by a robust meal and will usually sing next to a BBQ steak or rack of ribs...hungry yet? This is also another grape we can thank Bordeaux for, but sees less planting in the region and generally finds its home on the left bank. Also finding great success worldwide and once again enjoying a cozy home in the US, it tends to be more concentrated in the warmer climate of California. It has also been quite successful in Australia (Goonawarra and Margaret River are worth giving a try) and Chile.

Syrah/Shiraz - Mmmm mm mmmm Syrah! I don’t want to make it obvious, but I really dig Syrah. A grape that most of us North Americans know as Shiraz (the Australian name for Syrah [French name]). This is a grape that has possibly fallen victim to mass production and giving a lot of people headaches from a bottle that may have a yellow label...I am not accusing, just observing. Syrah can show a wide range of fruit, from red to blue to black, but what makes it so pleasant is the floral aromas like violet and lavender; and then just as you think this is a delicate and feminine wine, it slaps you in the face with black pepper and cured meat. Syrah is that nice girl that you bring home to your parents, but she brings a change of clothes [aka, a mini skirt] to put on in the car on the way over to the movie. Structurally, Syrah is generally quite robust with medium to high tannins along with elevated acidity, once again, making it a rather age worthy wine. You will find Syrah dominating the plantings in the Northern Rhone Valley (France), where they are making some benchmark examples. Of course, Australia has welcomed Syrah with open arms and fondly changed its name to Shiraz, while also making some absolutely stunning wines in regions like Barossa and McLaren Vale. An interesting note on Syrah/Shiraz is that it is often blended with a white grape called Viognier. In the highly respected and premium region Côte Rotie [Northern Rhone], it is permitted to blend up to 20% (though usually less) Viognier with Syrah to make the finished wine. This has also been adopted worldwide and is used frequently in the McLaren Vale. Viognier can add an elegance and delicacy to the wine and usually enhances the floral aroma being that it too is highly floral itself. 

Pinot Noir - The heartbreak grape; an appropriate name for a few reasons. Firstly, it is very difficult to work with in the vineyard thus being deemed the heartbreak grape for breaking so many winemaker’s hearts, and because of this, it can also be quite heartbreaking when you spend a good pile of dough and are left with an otherwise uninteresting kills me in the worst way. I am extremely fond of a good Pinot Noir as it is delicate and elegant while still possessing power, and can also be extraordinarily complex. A grape that is extremely rarely blended and left on its own to stand tall, Pinot Noir is responsible for the majority of the world’s top 10 most expensive wines. Expect to find an abundance of red fruit on the nose with red cherries usually being quite distinct, but it often doesn't stop there. Another red wine that has a tendency to be a bit floral, although usually a little more subtle, Pinot Noir has a distinct, earthy nuance that can smell of compost, damp forest, or mushrooms, and if you’re really lucky (as I always love this smell) truffles. The structure of Pinot Noir is quite delicate other than its elevated acidity. Tannins are usually low to medium and the body is often not overbearing with the lower levels of alcohol. You can find some of these uber expensive wines (or some affordable ones) in the French region of Bourgogne [Burgundy] where it is the only permitted black grape alongside its white counterpart, Chardonnay. There are technically a few other grapes permitted to plant but for this blog, I don’t think it is important to mention them. New Zealand has found that Pinot Noir does rather well on its Southern Island, particularly in the region of Central Otago. The US has also been successful in making world class Pinot Noir, once again, most notably in California; though Oregon, as of late, has become highly sought-after land for planting the heartbreak grape so look for wines from the region of Willamette.

Cabernet Franc - I have been sitting still and flipping through my mental rolodex of black grape varieties all-the-while considering what should be my fifth. It should not be so difficult since there are thousands of them planted around the world, but when I sit and rack my brain only so many of them are planted and recognized worldwide. So I skipped past Malbec, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Zinfandel, Grenache, Nebbiolo, Gamay and a handful of other completely worthy considerations and quite selfishly decided to highlight Cabernet Franc. It will be no surprise to anyone that knows me personally since I have devoted a big part of my life to Cabernet Franc, so let’s get on with it. Cabernet Franc is a very old grape that is perhaps responsible for many other grape varietals by way of crossing. For instance, it is definitely responsible for Cabernet Sauvignon when Cab Franc got it on with Sauv Blanc some many years ago. Cabernet Franc has long been the bridesmaid (and rarely the bride) as it is often used as a smaller portion of a Bordeaux style blend or "Meritage", but that seems to be changing. Cabernet Franc is an aromatic varietal that can show both red and black fruit character, and where it really sets itself apart is with its tendency to have high levels of herbal and vegetal aromas; because of this, it can be difficult to work with as you need to be careful that those aromas do not become overbearing. When done right, it creates a wine that is complex and deep with nuance of red and purple flowers, savory herbs, tobacco, bell pepper, and hints of leather. The structure is generally on the medium to high side with elevated tannins and acidity. This grape is planted heavily in the Loire Valley [France] as well as Bordeaux again, both on the right and left banks (though heavier on the right). It has also found success in the US, once again mostly in California, and notably being made with great success in the Canadian Regions of Niagara-on-the-Lake [Ontario], and starting to find its place in the southern regions of the Okanagan Valley [British Columbia].


Now I am positive that I have left out some grapes that certainly need mentioning and some questions that certainly need answering, but this is to be used as a starter guide. So comment below and tell me what grapes you want to know more about or what questions are burning a hole in your brain. I will be sure to include them in my extended guide to red wines, or maybe I will just riff on some popular requests during a long flight or a boring night...Either way, I certainly hope this is a good start! 


-TJ Harstine