I’m certainly not the first person to blog about the benefits of light-bodied red wines, and I hope I’m not the last. A crusade like this is worth fighting for. Not only are such wines easier on the palate, but they pair with the largest variety of dishes. The secret lies in the high acidity of the wine, which stimulates the saliva in the mouth, rather than tannins, which can dry out your gums. In his heyday, Robert Parker was said to taste up to 150 wines a day. Talk about palate-numbing. Towards the end of his career, the fact that most of the well-scored wines were also ones with the biggest tannins did not go unnoticed. It’s not that tannins are bad—au contraire—they are essential structure components to the long-term aging of a wine. It’s just that big clunky oak-bombs are going to overpower virtually every dish but red meat, which might have you reaching for more water rather than wine. Where’s the pleasure in that?
Since global warming has raised temperatures around the world, sugar levels in grapes—and thus alcohol levels in wine—have been soaring out of control. This increased percentage of alcohol is immediately noticeable at first sniff and can overwhelm the palate, prompting experts to criticize a wine for being “hot.” It may be okay if you like that huge flavor profile, but it also means you’ll get tipsy faster…and not in a good way. If you've been "overserved," high sugar and alcohol will pack a wallop on your head the next day. As someone who has tasted for many years with very biased leanings toward organic and biodynamic wines, I’m starting to see an exciting trend where natural winemaking and traditional whole-cluster fermentations are helping to bring our taste buds back into focus. Whole-cluster fermentations are most often used in the Beaujolais and give delightful buoyancy to the Gamay grape. And other producers around the world are using this method with other varietals such as Carignan and Grenache, lending a playful expression of aromatics and a juicy, thirst-quenching acidity.
Wines made from organic or biodynamically grown grapes are not only good for promoting biodiversity and sustainability in the vineyards, but they can sometimes react better with one’s biochemistry. Over the years, my customers have complained more and more about red wines and their inability to tolerate them. Often, it’s an allergic reaction to sulfites and histamines. While sulfur is a natural part of winemaking, most producers add additional sulfur to the wine either during the fermentation process and/or at the time of bottling to stabilize the wine for transport and to prevent it from oxidizing. But growers who farm organically and biodynamically are bound by strict principles, and as such, believe in low (or no) doses of additional sulfur dioxide. When it’s done well, it can often mean fewer hangovers. However, some of the principles of natural winemaking have gone so far in the other direction, popularizing a heavily oxidative style, that the wine sadly resembles sherry more than it does wine. In between these two extremes is a huge range of wines worth exploring. Perfect with food of all kinds, from eggs and bacon to steak frites, they are ideal to have around as your house pour. And they also happen to make easy host(ess) gifts to bring along to dinner parties or picnics when you don’t know what will be served, only that you’ll need something versatile and delicious.
So without further ado, here is a checklist of what to look for/ask for on your next wine-buying adventure:
- A light- or medium-to-light-bodied red, with high acidity.
- Low alcohol levels, generally found in cooler climate wine regions like the Loire Valley, New Zealand, Argentina, and the Beaujolais.
- Wines made by whole-cluster fermentation
- Organic or biodynamic = less sulfites
- Ask your wine purveyor for wines made from grapes like Pinot Noir (from anywhere but the United States), Gamay, Cabernet Franc, Pineau d’Aunis, Rossese, Nielluccio (Corsica), Dolcetto, Carignan and Grenache. The grapes don’t necessarily mean they will taste light, but can be when all the above conditions are met.
- Chill it down a bit—anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes in the fridge before serving. Chilling a bottle brings it to cellar temperature and enhances the refreshing acidity.