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This chapter is from the book

Making Dry Red Wines

Essentially, red wines are made from black grapes, which have been crushed and de-stemmed to get the black skins that contain all of the red color and flavor in contact with the clear juice inside the grapes. All grapes, no matter what color the skins—whether black, green, or pink—contain clear pulp or juice inside. Peel a grape to see for yourself!

Red wines must be fermented with their black grape skins for approximately 10–14 days, and sometimes much longer for the greatest reds. This prolonged maceration and fermentation allows for the maximum extraction of red color and flavor from the skins, and tannin comes along in the bargain. A winemaker is careful not to extract too much tannin from grape skins or stems (if the whole cluster is used and not de-stemmed), or the wine will taste very astringent and bitter from hard tannins. Soft tannins, however, add a desirable tactile dry complexity to the taste of the wine and contribute to its longevity, since tannin is a natural preservative.

Micro-oxygenation is the fairly new and controversial winemaking technique of introducing tiny amounts of oxygen into fermenting red wine, or red wine aging in the barrel, through a small tube. Advocated by famous Bordeaux enologist Michel Rolland, who recommends it to hundreds of his consulting clients worldwide, micro-oxygenation softens the tannins in red wines, making them jammy and the darling of wine critics, even when they are young. The wine movie "Mondovino" by Jonathan Nossiter carries a running joke about this technique.

The carbon dioxide that’s produced during fermentation pushes the black skins up to the top of the fermenters, forming what is called the cap of skins on top of the juice. This cap of skins must be continually punched down or circulated back through the juice. There are several ways to do this, including some new techniques. (See the following note.)

Red wines also benefit from some of the heat that is released during fermentation, which is why many wineries not only age or mature their red wines in oak, but also ferment their reds in oak barrels as in the European tradition. Barrel fermentation and oak aging add a great deal of complexity and flavor to the red wine, as well as another dose of tannin from the wood tannin in oak. These two sources of tannin (black grape skins and oak barrels) give red wines greater aging potential than whites.

Many people confuse dryness (no sugar left after fermentation) with high tannin. When they say they don’t like dry red wine, they really mean they don’t like tannic or astringent wines. Acidity doesn’t seem to bother them as much since they like white wines and whites are usually higher in total acidity than red wines.

Nouveau and Whole Cluster Reds

For less tannic wines, winemakers have developed other types of winemaking, such as carbonic maceration or whole berry fermentation, the process used to make nouveau or "new" wines, such as Beaujolais Nouveau in France. Though how or why it works is still a mystery, nouveau wines are made from grapes that ferment while they are still whole and attached to their stems. They sit on top of fermenting crushed grapes, releasing carbon dioxide in closed containers. Nouveau wines can be made from any red grape, even Zinfandel in California, but they are always much grapier, more deeply purple and very much yeastier than normally fermented red wines made from the same grape variety.

Nouveau wine is made in just a few days, and then rushed to market. We receive Beaujolais Nouveau before our traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner in November every year, and the nouveau red is a perfect complement to the meal.

Other modern winemaking techniques for making less tannic, fruitier reds include whole cluster fermentation of Pinot Noir, once widely practiced in Burgundy, which is a popular technique today in Oregon. Instead of de-stemming the grapes and fermenting just the grape must of juice and skins, these fruitier Pinot Noirs are made using the entire cluster of grapes and stems during fermentation. Of course, most winemakers agree that using too many stems will make the wine taste too green or bitter and tannic. So a delicate balance is called for, like in any winemaking decision; for example, some of the wine in a batch may be whole cluster fermented, but the majority may not be for this reason.

Aging Red Wine in Oak Barrels

The alcohol that’s produced during red wine fermentation also helps to extract the maximum amount of deep purple color, flavor, and tannin from the black skins. Red wines are then aged in wood, usually oak barrels, to soften their tannins and pick up more complexity. Each kind of oak—such as limousin oak used in Burgundy, France, for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; or nevers oak used in Bordeaux, France, for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot; or even American oak barrels made in Missouri—adds its own flavor to the wine. Barrels made from new oak add a lovely vanilla aroma to the wine.

Fining, which clears the wine by removing tiny particles and floating in the wine, is done while red wines age in the barrels. Two of the most-often-used fining agents are egg whites, clay, and a type of earth. Fining also removes some of the tannin and may be done more than once. The final step may be filtering done with biological filters, which remove any yeast or other impurities left in the wine. This prevents the wine from re-fermenting once it’s bottled, and it gives the wine a brilliant, crystal-clear appearance.

The wood tannins that the barrels add to the wine during aging further preserve the wine. Young red wines have the most tannin, but as red wine ages in the bottle, this tannin will precipitate as sediment. The wine will then taste smoother, but this means older reds will have to be decanted or poured off their sediment, strained through a funnel with built-in filter or coffee filter paper. Since wood barrels are porous, they also allow a very slow process of oxidation. After the wine throws its sediment in the barrel, the wine is racked (transferred) to a set of clean barrels, leaving the sediment behind. Racking is done every 6 months during the period of up to 24 months that the best red wines are aged in oak barrels.

Great oak-aged reds and some exceptional white wines can survive long enough in the bottle to reach a peak of perfection after several years of cellaring. That’s why the finest older reds command such high prices and why they taste so much smoother after bottle aging. They have developed secondary characteristics of raisin or cooked fruit aromas, and their tannin has softened. Older reds are more delicate, so they are usually served on their own or after dinner with the cheese course.

Please note that almost all red wines are fermented dry; that is, until there is no residual sugar left after fermentation. Yes, there are some famous sweet red wines—such as Porto from Portugal, Mavrodaphne from Greece, Maury or Banyuls from France, and Black Muscat from California—but the great majority of red wines made in the world today are dry, meaning close to zero residual sugar. This is why I like to call red wines "main course" wines. Nothing is finer with filet mignon, veal chop, pork tenderloin, venison, or crown roast of lamb.

Buying the Best Reds

The finest dry red wines have lots of concentrated fruit character—what I call the divine extract of the grape. Wine magazines call these wines "jammy," and the fruit concentration in these great reds balances their tannin, alcohol, and acidity. If we are lucky in our choices, we can sometimes find this concentrated fruit quality in bargain reds. But usually, you will have to pay a minimum of $20 to $35 a bottle for a better red that’s a wonderful, deeply extracted example of that grape variety. If you spend $50 to $75 on a bottle of red, it had better be one of the very finest of its type. Collectors’ items cost even more because demand far outstrips supply and because they have a greater pedigree. By pedigree I mean they usually come from a single vineyard or estate name—what we call terroir. (For more information about terroir, see "Vineyards Determine a Wine’s Style and Price," in Chapter 2.)

To do list

  • Define the process of fermenting dry white wines, such as Chardonnay, from un-oaked to buttery

  • Discuss tartrate crystals, balance and fruitiness in white wines

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