Coming up to the Christmas period, wines of all kinds are being pushed in shops and supermarkets with cliché titles like ‘festive fizz’ and ‘winter warmers’ etc, and it is the perfect season for those big, bold reds that are a) suited to rich holiday foods and b) will warm you up and can be enjoyed even without food.
So what makes a big red?
A few different factors go into the creation of a bold and rich red wine. The main components are somewhat inextricably linked, but can be at least conceptually divided into body & structure, sugar and flavour profile.
Body & structure
When we use the term ‘body’, we describe the structure and depth of the wine to the touch of the palate, rather than the flavour (though, inevitably, they are linked). This is determined by a number of factors including tannin, sugar, but probably most importantly, alcohol. When grapes are being grown, the more sunlight that they receive, the riper they become, the more sugars they build up, which is converted to alcohol in the fermentation process. Wines with high alcohol (for the sake of argument, 13.5%+, though this is contested), tend to feel much fuller on the palate and contribute to a depth and structure that make wines on the other end of the spectrum seem almost weightless. Some overly alcoholic wines lose precision and the burn from alcohol can overpower flavours in the wine has not been made without balance, although done correctly can form some of the most delicious and rich wines in the world – think big Aussie Shiraz, Amarone and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The structure of the wine involves the components that provide the wine with balance, such as sugar, acid, tannin and length. Tannins are molecules present on the skins of grapes (and therefore seen predominantly more in red wine as skins are used more) that bind to proteins and thus the sensation of ‘grip’ when drunk. When a wine has lots of tannin it may contribute to a heavy mouth-feel as they stick around and grasp to any proteins they find in your mouth. This is why a Nebbiolo can seem huge in terms of weight despite the delicate colour of the grape itself.
Sugars in a wine also produce a heavier mouth-feel, despite a relatively lack of alcoholic content from many ’big’ dessert wines. Residual sugar can produce a slightly viscous feeling on the palate, that creates a depth and richness of texture. That’s why wines like Tokaji and sweet-style Rieslings that use grapes with generally low body (dry riesling, from cooler climate countries such as Germany or New Zealand) can be very delicate indeed.
The flavours that a wine contains can also affect the way that your brain perceives weight; rich, tropical fruit notes that tend to be found in wines from warmer countries contribute to a perception of sweetness and body, even if there is little to no residual sugar. Bitter flavours like coffee and cocoa that linger in the mouth can also create perception of depth or richness.
Bold reds as a trend
Interestingly, big, heavy reds are becoming somewhat unfashionable in the wine community. When Robert Parker created the Parker Points system (a simple way of rating a wine out of 100 that is reductive, but simple and easily communicable), wine magazines, merchants and makers adopted the measure as a convenient marketing tactic. One man’s palate globally shifted the wine world. The effect of this was that for years, winemakers began to grow their wines in ways that would suit his palate; the perception of which was that he liked richer, fuller numbers with a little more residual sugar and higher ABV. These wines would be made from grapes that were left to ripen a little longer, losing a little acidity and gaining sugar. However, as wine has become less of a domain for individuals, and more expressive of terroir, nuance and cultural peculiarity, a more subtle and elegant approach to winemaking is beginning to trend; with winemakers often harvesting earlier to create wines with freshness and acidity, and a capacity for age and structure.
When to drink or serve them
Obviously, taste is subjective, and if your preference is to sit outside in the baking sun and have a bottle of South African GSM, then that’s your prerogative! But generally, big reds have been paired with richer foods, are drunk much more prolifically in cold conditions, or late in the evening. Amarone della Valpolicella is served by the Italians for Christmas and New Year’s Eve feasts, where rich foods need a powerful and flavoursome wine to accompany them. Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux Blends are often served with grilled and barbequed foods that have the protein and fat to counterbalance the protein and acidity in the wine as well as complement the smoky flavours that the food and wine often exhibit. Rich Californian Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon are wonderful for matching with big, fatty cheese boards (hard cow’s milk cheeses and blues especially – shy away from pairing with goats, sheep or soft cheeses). Argentinian or Cahors Malbec are often touted as perfect for steak – but consider the cut and the fat/protein/ageing behind it – fillet, with high protein but little fat may want something more delicate.
In front of a fire, in winter with friends, and for flowing conversation (followed shortly by nodding off), there is little better than a bold red wine; we served a few examples to our guests in a recent tasting and discussed the above and more. Below is what we served, but we have plenty more if you ever drop in! Just ask the team for advice on what to drink and what to pair with. If you’re interested in attending one of our monthly wine tastings, or would like suggestions on what to wine to drink with certain foods, just ask a member of the team, or sign up for our newsletter via our website.
Pairings hosted ‘Amarone through Zinfandel: Big Reds!’ on Sunday 9th of December 2018, the wines that were tasted were:
Zinfandel, Sebastiani – Sonoma County, California, 2014
Bush Vine Grenache, Chapel Hill – McLaren Vale, Australia, 2017
Toro de Piedra, Viña Requingua – Maule Valley, Chile, 2016
Amarone della Valpolicella, Guerrieri Rizzardi – Valpolicella, Italy, 2012