When we’re young, our culinary tastes are pretty simple: we like fat, and we like sugar. Candy, chocolate, cake, and brownies are all the stuff of desire. As we age, our palates mature, and we come to discover the pleasures of sour, bitter, and savory foods. This is true of wine-drinking, too. Typically, we start our exploration of wine by discovering sweeter wines that are more pleasant and easier to drink. With experience, many people discover that some dry wines, with more complex flavors, including bitterness, are equally enjoyable.
Of course, this doesn’t apply to everybody. Everyone’s tastes, preferences, and palates are unique. I know plenty of senior citizens who have never enjoyed a wine unless it was very sweet. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
I have also encountered people who are looking to expand their horizons beyond sweet white wine and don’t know where to start. Or perhaps, they dove right into the deep end of the pool, beginning with the heaviest, fullest-bodied, most alcoholic, bitter wine, and that may have turned them off to the idea of red wine entirely.
The single differentiating factor between red and white wines is the color that comes from fermenting juice with the grape skins. Regardless of the color of the grape skins, all white wine is made from just the grape juice. When the skins, and sometimes the seeds, of red grapes, are allowed to remain in contact with the juice as it begins to ferment, red wine results. This adds not only color, but also flavor, body, and texture to the final product.
Be assured, there is most likely a red wine out there for you. Knowing which options are the best first steps into the world of reds will be immensely helpful to discovering new experiences in the wine world.
Start with red wines that have many of the characteristics of white wines: light bodied, simpler collections of aromas and flavors, without a bitter aftertaste.
Beaujolais is a great place to start. Beaujolais (bo-zhu-LAY) is a wine-making region of France, just north of Lyon. The red wines produced there are made with a thin-skinned, low-tannin grape called Gamay. The grapes are not pressed, they’re simply piled on top of one another and crush under their own weight. The grapes at the bottom start to ferment and release carbon dioxide, which starts to break down the grapes at the top. This means that whatever tannins and other harsher compounds that are in the skins do not get expelled into the juice, making a very light, fruity product. This is a process called carbonic maceration.
Every year, on the 3rd Thursday of November, the first Beaujolais of the year’s vintage, the Beaujolais Nouveau is released. This is the youngest, lightest, fruitiest of the year’s wine, and is meant to be consumed immediately. I strongly suggest starting your red wine exploration with Beaujolais, especially the Beaujolais Nouveau.
Since this wine only comes from one region in France, there are no Texas versions of a Gamay-based wine. However, Texas produces some excellent wines from Cinsault (sin-SOH) or Carignan (carry-nyan) grapes, which is as close as you can get to this style of wine here. Start at Lost Draw Vineyards to find a Cinsault or Carignan.
The next step is pinot noir. This is a type of grape that was originally grown in the Burgundy region of France and is an essential grape in Burgundy wines, which are blends of multiple grape types. The grape is notoriously difficult to grow; it’s finicky, prone to disease, and reacts dramatically to changes in weather. In America, pinot noir is grown on the north coast of California, Oregon, and Washington. The warmer the climate, the riper the grape becomes, developing more complex flavors. For your exploration, you should try to find a pinot noir wine made from the coolest climate you can; this usually means Washington, Oregon, or New York. You can get Oregon pinot noir at the recently-opened Signor Vineyards on the Highway 290 Wine Trail.
The important characteristic of pinot noir wines, particularly the cool-climate versions, is its acidity. In the cooler temperatures, the grapes build up acids that lend a refreshing bite or tartness, like a crisp cool apple or an iced lemonade, which makes it appealing to white wine drinkers.
Now, pinot noir does not grow consistently well in Texas, because of the warmer climate. However, the Lahey Vineyards in Brownfield, located in the Texas High Plains, is growing pinot noir grapes, and you can find wine made from this vineyard at Messina Hof Winery. This wine has been aged in oak barrels, and this smooths out the acidity of the wine and balances it with some mild tannins. This is not a European- or Oregon-style pinot noir, but you might consider trying it if you’re not too afraid of complexity and structure in your wine.
A good alternative to pinot noir that grows well in Texas is a Spanish grape known as Garnacha. You will also see the French name, Grenache. This grape has the same acidity characteristics of pinot noir but does better in warmer climates. It is a common grape that is blended together with other varieties to make Spanish wines, and in France is a component of Burgundy and Côte du Rhône wines. In the Texas Hill Country, a good place to start is the Grenache made by Ron Yates Winery. Because of its refreshing acidity, you will find multiple wineries with a rosé wine made from Grenache. The wineries that have produced such a rosé change from year to year, based on the quality of the Grenache they get from their vineyards, so you’ll have to search around to see who has one this year. It’s an excellent choice for spring, and for hot summer days. And, if you end up deciding that true red wines are not for you, there’s no shame in settling for a beautiful grenache rosé.
Your next step might be to try an Italian varietal: Sangiovese (san-jee-o-VES-ay). This is a grape from the Tuscany region that is the principal variety blended with others to make Chianti. It grows very well in Texas, even in the Hill Country, and has a good balance between its acidity, body, and very mild tannins. It’s an excellent choice to pair with some light marinara sauce or pizza. You can find some excellent examples, priced competitively, at Texas Hills Vineyard and Messina Hof. An exceptional Sangiovese, with a little bit more complexity and body to it, is the one produced by William Chris Vineyards, which was named one of the 30 Best Texas Wines for Spring 2018 by Texas Monthly magazine.
Finally, if you’ve gotten this far, you’re ready to graduate to Mourvèdre (more-VED). This is a grape from the southern regions of France, such as the Rhône River Valley. It has a little more heft and complexity than pinot noir and is much better suited to warm climates. It has become increasingly more popular among Texas grape growers in the last eight years. In France, it is blended with Grenache and Syrah to make Burgundy and Cote du Rhône wines; in Texas, these blends are known as GSM. But as a single-varietal wine, Mourvèdre can be made in a range of styles from light and fruity to medium-bodied with some complexity that will stand up to pairing with grilled meat or fruity desserts. The champion of Texas Mourvèdres is William Chris Vineyards, and you might be able to find a good one from Lewis Wines or Lost Draw Vineyards as well.
Whatever you try, keep an open mind, and don’t be afraid to admit you don’t like something. The only person you have to please is yourself.