Why You Should Take Super Light Red Wine More Seriously

 


Super light reds sometimes get a poor reputation with serious wine drinkers, partly from a misconception that a good red wine needs to have a rich body and deep concentration. But that is not always true – depending on what we are looking for. Super light reds can give lots of red berry fruit intermixed with other herbaceous and/or spicy notes with a feather weight body and refreshing finish. After Labor Day, super light reds are perfect wines to transition away from the bright whites of summer.
But the first cardinal rule is to not serve super light reds at room temperature! Light reds can seem thin and lifeless when served too warm. This is sometimes unavoidable in small restaurants that are understaffed due to the fact they do not have the room and/or time to cool down super light reds. But it is important to serve these wines around 55° to 60° F (12° to 16°C) to help show their pretty aromatics. This can be achieved by simply popping the bottle in the refrigerator for 10 to 15 minutes. If you are at a restaurant and you see an ice bucket, politely ask the waiter to put it in for 5 minutes – it is just worth it to see the look on their faces. And if it is a wine nerdy waiter, he or she will look back at you with a knowing smile. 
 
So what should we look for when buying super light reds?
 
First, look for variety; second, look for country and region; and third, knowing the winemaking style of a particular region is helpful as well. 
 
Grape Variety 
Aromatic, thinned skinned grape varieties tend to be ideal when trying to find a super light red. Some versions of Pinot Noir, Gamay and Cabernet Franc are good examples of super light varieties. 
 
Pinot Noir
We need to be careful with Pinot Noir. There are certainly lush versions from California and Oregon, and Burgundy’s Pinot Noir wines have gotten richer and bigger over the past decade. But there are a few cool climate regions that consistently make light wines year in and year out. 
 
The new world regions of Martinborough and Marlborough, New Zealand, typically make super light Pinot Noir. Martinborough is the better respected region for Pinot Noir, but you can find some real value in Marlborough when looking for a light red that will go down easy. These wines express pure cherry fruit and mouthwatering acidity not only due to the climate but also the protective winemaking practices. 
 
And yes, many of us know that Pinot Noir comes from Burgundy, but there is another place in France that produces super light versions, Sancerre. If you are a French wine fan I’m sure you know the white wines of Sancerre well, but red Sancerre is only made in a tiny amount so are unknown to most Sancerre lovers. Sancerre reds are much lighter in body than Burgundian examples and they express an intense chalky minerality also found in their whites. 
 
Gamay
Gamay has certainly become unfashionable due to the backlash against Beaujolais Nouveau. But Beaujolais Gamay has many incarnations, the more serious being the Crus and the less serious, but slightly more serious than Nouveau, being the Beaujolais Villages. Semi-carbonic maceration is employed instead of full carbonic, which still gives lots of sweet strawberry jam fruit and a soft texture with little tannin. 
 
A more hip style of Gamay can be found in Valle d’Aosta, Italy, which is surrounded by the Alps. Valle d’Aosta has some of the highest vineyards in Europe. An edgier style is expressed with pepper and wild strawberry aromatics. 
 
Cabernet Franc
Cabernet Franc is not only a wine that has less tannin than Cabernet Sauvignon but it also produces prettier aromas of purple flowers and raspberry. It is traditionally known as a good blending partner in Bordeaux for its addition of intoxicating scents. Cabernet Franc purists know that its true home is the Loire Valley, France. The specific area of Saumur-Champigny makes some of the lightest styles with moderately aromatic raspberry flavors and a crisp palate. 
 
New York’s Finger Lakes have been producing lovely Cabernet Franc wines for some time now. Also, the 2014s are especially aromatic due to the severely cold winter. The wines are typically fermented in stainless steel which intensifies the fruit. Some of the best examples of 2014 have a pretty floral nose with delicious cassis fruit. 
 
Winemaking
The above grape varieties can still be made into medium bodied wines dependent on winemaking practices and the climate of the area.
 
For super light wines, the crushing of the grapes need to be gentle and the maceration on skins are shorter than fuller bodied reds. Also, the type of extraction technique and frequency will need to be considered. For example, punching down will create more aromatic and flavor extraction, while pumping over will encourage more structural extraction. 
 
Cooler macerations (such as cold soak) and controlled fermentation temperatures will help to make lighter red wines. Uncontrolled high temperature fermentations increase the chances for more extraction while losing precious bright aromatics. Stainless steel vats have more temperature controls, but this is not an issue in regions where the cellars are naturally cool while they are fermenting their wines.
 
Oxidative practices, allowing the wine to be exposed to oxygen, will create a more restrained fruit and sometimes earthier style; while more protective practices, less exposure to oxygen, will help to produce a more fruit forward style. One practice or the other will not lead to more or less body but it will determine the style of a super light wine.
 
Carbonic maceration is an alternative fermentation process that is widely used in Beaujolais and is a process that helps to make a wine lighter. The process encourages partial fermentation to take place within the grape rather than by yeast. It lowers acidity while bringing sweet fruit flavors to the forefront and extracts low tannin, creating an overall softer style. 
 
Some types of oak aging may contribute oak tannin so super light red wines will either have no oak aging, use staves or use a small percentage of oak, which will impart little to no tannins. 
 
Super light reds can add an interesting twist to a fun summer night, as well as being able to hold up to barbeque dishes while keeping our wines refreshing and light – just remember to keep them cool and they will reward you with lots of tasty aromas and flavors. 
 
My bottle recommendations:
 
Cathrine Todd is an MW student in New York City. She is shortlisted for the Roederer 2015 Emerging Wine Writer of the Year, and her blog was a Wine Blog Awards' finalist for Best New Wine Blog. Visit her at www.damewine.com and on Twitter @damewine

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