For the past 20 or so years, North America welcomed new wine drinkers into the fold with big, sweet, juicy, oakey red wines. These wines – almost always from some far-flung southern destination – had labels adorned with a ‘critter’ of some sort (kangaroos or penguins or goats) and often sported bright, cheery labels and easy-to-remember names.
Critter wines as they became known, were cheap. Sometimes, ridiculously cheap. But ultimately, that served as the catalyst for encouraging the uninitiated to up their ante away from beer, hard lemonade, and vodka coolers, and instead try something new with very little risk of a downside.
For a drink with a reputation often associated – rightly or wrongly – with elitism and snobbery, these red wines were populist, approachable and helped democratize the appeal of wine. And that’s been a great boon to the red wine business, more generally because there are now lots of people drinking and appreciating red wine on this continent.
However, in the spirit of last month’s wine column, to expand your tastes is to travel the world. It’s super easy to fall into a red wine rut by grabbing the same big, Californian or Chilean or Argentinean wine without second thought. Big fruit. Big oak. Plus, no need to speak French, Italian or Spanish and no need to bother figuring out intimidating labels.
With a little bit of guidance and some courage, you can actually transform your drinking experience. Red wines produced in moderate and cool regions/climates naturally translate into a very different experience in the glass, on the nose, and on the palate.
One thing to note: the wines listed below have names associated with either their grape or their place name. Where the place name is listed – for example, Chianti or Beaujolais – the grape name is also given in the description for edification and clarity.
Go ahead and reward yourself with a pleasant red surprise by stepping outside your comfort zone. Get out your corkscrew and try some of these wines you might not otherwise think to bring home.
Blaufränkish (pronounced blau-FRAIN-kish) is a dark and spicy grape varietal that produces the eponymous wine from Austria. It does have many synonyms outside of Austria: Lemberger, if you’re in Germany, Franconia in Italy, and Kekfrankos in Hungary, among many other names in neighbouring countries. But don’t get too mired in these details. Instead, seek out an Austrian beauty as a way to introduce you to this delicious and versatile red wine.
Let’s stay in Austria for another unique red suggestion. Zweigelt (pronounced ZVEYE-gelt) is a relatively new grape varietal, having been developed in 1922, and taking its name from creator, Fritz Zweigelt. In the hands of a good quality producer, this grape will provide a nice, crisp glass of wine filled with minerality, bright berries, and nicely balanced florals and spices. It’s a great summer wine to add to your repertoire.
Never equate the wines from the Beaujolais (pronounced boh-zhoh-LAY) region of France with the uber-young, uber-fruity Beaujolais Nouveau released on the third Thursday of November each year. OK, the grape is the same – Gamay – but that’s really where the similarities end. Without trying to be judgmental (Beaujolais Nouveau has its place and can be a lot of fun to drink, especially when Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé is declared!), the more sophisticated Beaujolais comes from 10 distinct growing regions. These are known as Cru Beaujolais wines and they’re absolutely delicious. Some top Crus to look for include Fleurie, Morgon, St. Amour and Moulin-à-Vent. As would be expected, each has its own distinct terroir. Try all 10, if you can.
If you see a wine label emblazoned with the word ‘Chinon’ (pronounced SHE-nohn) it will tell you two things: it hails from the Loire valley in France, one of the most important agricultural areas in that country; and, it is a red wine made predominantly from Cabernet Franc grapes. This is a cool climate wine, so expect flavours of sour and under-ripe red fruits, plus some tannin and good acidity. The growing soils, a combination of gravel and limestone, are beautifully highlighted on the palate, as well. This is a wine best paired with food, rather than sipped on its own. Think small game birds, pork and charcuterie.
Dolcetto d’Alba (pronounced dole-CHET-oh dal-bah) is a dry red made of Dolcetto grapes – the little sweet one, as its name translates. And, it comes from the village and environs around Alba, in the Italian province of Piedmont. The nice thing about Dolcetto is that the wines are typically juicy, with low levels of acidity and mild tannins, so they are equally at home as a sipper, with antipasti or with lighter pasta dishes. In fact, Dolcettos are meant to be enjoyed young, when they showcase their typicity: black cherry and violets, finishing with just a tinge of bitter almond. A deliciously approachable wine.
Chianti (pronounced key-AHN-ti), the Italian winemaking region in Tuscany, has a pretty bad reputation. Everyone remembers the Chianti ‘fiasco.’ Not an actual event, but the name of those straw-wrapped bottles found on the shelves of wine stores in the 1970s and 80s, filled with awful plonk. These created an unfortunate reputation for Chianti wines. Made predominantly with Sangiovese grapes, Chianti is only just starting to recover, thanks to winemakers in the region (and more broadly across Italy) embracing technology and more rigourous production and vinification techniques. Being forced to compete in a global arena, with high-quality wines from other parts of the world, doesn’t hurt either. Many will argue that Chianti Classico (the very heart of the Chianti winegrowing region) produces the finest expression of this wine. That is probably true. But the price of a bottle can also reflect that. On the other hand, high-quality Chianti producers do exist – seek guidance from your wine store expert. Best ask for Chianti ‘Riserva’ or ‘Superiore’, both of which have greater age, slightly higher alcohol levels, and show greater development of flavour. This is a wine a made for cheese, charcuterie, and tomato-based pasta dishes.
At a recent tasting in New York City, Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson introduced six red wines from Spain’s Cariñena (pronouced car-ee-NYEH-nah) – a region boasting the most old-vine Garnacha (pronounced gahr-NAH-chah) vines planted in that country. The main takeaway, after tasting six different producers, was simply: these are amazing value wines. Juicy wild berries, cherries and raspberries, some spiciness but most importantly, balanced acidity. This combination makes Garnacha well suited to the BBQ season. Cariñena is actually the name of a grape as well, so don’t worry if you see a Garnacha and Cariñena blend. You will see them and you should try them. If possible seek out those from the Cariñena region, but if not, from Spain, more generally.