Red Wine 101: Some Basic Facts about Red Wine
Lots of people love red wine — maybe it’s just because it just looks so cool swirling about in those fancy glasses. But red wine also tastes fantastic. And, although it’s definitely a warming drink to enjoy in the winter in front of a log fire, red wine is also perfectly at home at a summer BBQ or a pizza night with friends.
But if you’re new to this drink, things can be a bit confusing. Red wine seems to come with a heap of ‘dos and don’t’ — and some of the stuff on the label is downright unhelpful.
The good news? You don’t need to be a wine snob to enjoy a glass of red wine.
We’ve put together some basic information to help you understand some of the weird language and customs that go along with this popular drink. That way you’ll feel a whole lot more confident — whether you’re taking a bottle around to a friend’s house, just having a quiet night in, or want wine that will match a particular meal.
Red Wine: a Few Fairly Interesting Facts
The Juice from Red Grapes is Actually Clear
It’s the skins that produce the colour in your glass. Winemakers decide how long to leave the juice on the skins — anything from just a few days or up to a month. The colour of red wine comes from a pigment in the skins.
The actual shade of red varies a lot, from ruby, to crimson, garnet or even soft pink in the case of Rosé. As red wines age, they become less bright. Older red wines can be the colour of dark garnets or even brownish, so brown looking wine is not always a sign that it’s gone off. If it has, your nose will let you know — all wine eventually turns into vinegar and it should be pretty obvious. Even if you did drink vinegary wine, it’s not going to kill you — after all, that’s pretty much what red wine vinegar is.
The addition of the skins is also responsible for tannin in the juice. Tannin is a huge part of the red wine experience. Tannin helps give the wine a bigger, fuller texture in the mouth. As in black tea, tannin has a drying effect in the mouth. It should be said though, tannin is not everyone’s ‘cup of tea’ — especially those new to the taste of red wine. Fortunately, tannins soften over time. That’s why many young wines are better when left to age in the bottle for a few years.
Wines high in tannin are also the highest in antioxidants. So puckering up can be good for you — at least when it comes to red wine. You probably shouldn’t take that as a general rule…
Red Wines are Always Bottled in Green or Brown Bottles
That’s so they don’t get damaged by ultraviolet rays.
Red Wine and Structure: The Quick Version
There are Five ‘Dimensions’ that Contribute to a Wine’s Structure
Sweetness, acidity, body, tannin and flavour notes. That’s what they’re trying to tell you about on the label.
Here’s some quick tips on how these dimensions relate to red wine in particular.
While there are quite sweet red wines, most red wines enjoyed in New Zealand are dry. The ripeness of the grapes is what gives red wine its fruity or earthy flavours. Wines from hotter climates with longer summers tend to taste sweeter.
This is a bit of a misleading word. What they really mean is that the wine has a nice ‘zing.’ Acidity in wine always comes from the grape juice itself — it’s not like adding a squeeze of lemon when you’re cooking. A good balance of acidity is essential for a great bottle of wine. Full-body red wines are usually less ‘zingy’ than lighter varieties. The variety and climate where the grapes were grown makes a big difference to acidity.
As we’ve mentioned above, tannin gives red wine a ‘drying’ feeling in the mouth. This is a good thing, because it creates interesting textures.
Body is a key descriptor of red wine. The wine’s alcohol level, sugar, tannins and flavours all contribute to the body. Light-bodied red wines tend to have higher acidity. Full-bodied red wines will have more tannin. Alcohol content also has a role to play — you’ll taste this at the back of the throat as heat.
You Might Want your Red Wine to Chill Out…
You’ve probably heard that you should never chill red wine — that it should be drunk at room temperature. Not true! It depends entirely on the temperature of the place where you’re drinking. Bringing wine to room temperature in Bali is completely different than in a flat in Dunedin.
Most red wines should be served between 12-18 degrees Celsius. So popping your wine in the fridge for a while is sometimes a good thing. If your wine has been stored in a chilly garage, then that’s the time to place it somewhere warm to bring it to the right temperature.
If you really want to bugger about with a thermometer, or if your crazy-rich uncle left you his wine fridge, here are the guidelines:
- Serve light-bodied red wine slightly chilled. That means around 12-13 degrees Celsius (54-56 F)
- Serve medium-bodied red at around 14-16 degrees Celsius (56-19 F)
- For full-bodied reds, aim for 16-18 degrees Celsius (61-65 F)
If by some strange chance you end up with an unfinished bottle of red wine, try storing it in the fridge with the lid back on. It’ll stay nicer for longer.
An opened bottle of red wine should last for 3-5 days. You can still drink it if you want — it just won’t taste as good.
But what about that bottle that got lost behind the couch last New Year? Yeah, that will definitely taste like vinegar. Your only option, in that case, is to try turning it into fancy red wine vinegar — which is actually quite easy.
Let it Breathe, Darling.
You’ll hear a lot about letting red wine breathe. This just means aerating the wine so it can release its rich flavours and smells.
Your friends might tell you that opening the bottle half an hour is the go. But that actually doesn’t make a lot of difference — only a small amount of air can get at the wine through the small neck opening.
Usually, just swirling the wine in your glass will do the trick. That’s why you should choose a large glass if you can. Just remember to only fill it up halfway — you won’t look nearly as cool if you end up sloshing wine everywhere.
A good trick for making a cheaper bottle of red wine taste better is to add more air by decanting it. You don’t need a fancy decanter — you can just pour the wine into a glass jug and back into the bottle. Just make sure the jug is clean, and be as gentle as you can. You’re not aiming to add bubbles. Pouring it slowly down the inside of the bottle works best. This is obviously better done before you drink any wine and without an audience.
You can also decant older wine to get rid of sediment. Most people don’t bother, because sediment can be avoided with careful pouring — and it’s not going to kill anyone.
Be Brave, my Friend! But not too Brave…
Red wine varies a lot between different styles, and there are more than you can poke a stick at. Hardly anybody likes them all. To work out what you like — which is obviously the most important thing — it’s a great idea to start with the most popular red wines. There are very good reasons why so many people love these varieties.
Don’t feel pressured into liking what your friends like, even if they tell you they splashed out on an ‘expensive’ bottle. You might love a fruity Pinot Noir but not be at all keen on a bold Cabernet Sauvignon. Or vice versa.
Visiting a vineyard is a great way to try some different red wines, without the risk of ending up with a bottle you don’t like. Just remember that every winery will specialise in different grapes and styles. Chat to the winemaker if you can — and don’t think you have to pretend to know everything. Those guys will talk about wine with literally anyone!
So, that’s it! You’ve pretty much got the red wine basics under your belt. All you need now is some red wine — and some friends to impress with your amazing new knowledge.