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  • 06 April 2020
  • Wine 101 Guides

Red Wine 101

A Breakdown from Purple to the Colour of Mud

DJ Khaled broke the i̶n̶t̶e̶r̶n̶e̶t̶ wine internet when he posted this YouTube video expressing his soft spot for Domaine Dujac. 

We love Domaine Dujac too, DJ Khaled is spot on.

Outside of the realm of fine Burgundy, however, we love a lot of other red wine too. We often sit around trying to guess whether the wine served blind in front of us is Syrah, Blaufränkisch, Mondeuse or Nerello Mascalese, but what makes it taste and appear the way that it does?

Image 1: Nerello Mascalese at Frank Cornelissen's winery, Mount Etna, Sicily, Italy | Image 2: Mission harvest, aka "Listan Prieto," Southern California

Skins

Red wine grapes aren’t just red. Technically, they’re known as “black.” Some, like Blaufränkisch, have a blue sheen; indeed blau means blue in German - the German word for Pinot Noir is Blauburgunder. Flame Tokay, traditionally a “table” or “eating” grape that you’ll find less often in wine is a bright pale pinky red colour.

Mission, also known as Listan Prieto, a variety brought to Peru, Chile and California in the 1700s from Spain, has a tendency to ripen unevenly and hence a bunch of grapes can look like the Skittles’ Taste the Rainbow adverts.

Most “black” grapes tend to fall on the purple/blue spectrum, but what’s really variable is the thickness of the grape skin, which in turn impacts the colour of the wine. 

Pigments

There are specific pigments in black grapes called anthocyanins. Anthocyanins appear in the skin, and they exist in various forms (measured in mg/L) and give the grapes their colour. Certain varieties have far more than others. Studies have shown, for example, that Cabernet Sauvignon can have double the amount of Pinot Noir, and Mission owes its extremely pale colour to its very low number of anthocyanins. 

This red "inside" flesh is rare: this is Alicante Bouschet, also known as Garnacha Tintorera, in Contra Costa, California

Clear Flesh vs Red Flesh

Almost all grapes used for wine production are clear fleshed; that’s to say their inside pulp is translucent. This means their colour will come from the skins, and this is how you can make rosé or even white wine from red grapes. There are, as always in wine, some exceptions to the rule. These come in the form of teinturier varieties.

Teinturier varieties have anthocyanins in their flesh also, turning their insides red, and so even an incredibly fast and gentle press would still result in red wine. Perhaps the most well-known of these is Alicante Bouschet, also known as Garnacha Tintorera, followed by Georgia’s ancient Saperavi. Red fleshed hybrids also exist such as Rubired and Salvador. 

Tannins

Tannins; the textural, almost dusty or gritty element of a wine that you can feel on the inside of your mouth. These are polyphenolic compounds that come from grape skins, seeds and stems, as well as from wood. During winemaking, the tannins actually change from their original state in their “berry forms,” so while certain grape varieties will naturally have more tannins than others, how the winemaker transforms the grapes into wine also has a result on the resulting tannin.

In the Cellar

As with white wine, there are hundreds of decisions to be made in the cellar. The greatest ones that will influence the wine are…

A sea of Cinsault soup, skins macerating with the juice

Maceration

Once your grape juice is on its skins and left to ferment (the berries are broken up, releasing juice - either via crushing or foot stomping), the decision of “how often to touch it” will result in a change in both the colour and the tannic structure of the wine. The initial primary fermentation (when the yeasts work to turn sugar into wine) is the stage where the skins are left with the wine, although the wine can be pressed and drained and left to finish fermentation also. Here, it is typical to leave the wine on its skins for anywhere between seven to 40 days. You’d think that the latter would be more tannic and extracted, but this is not always the case…

Foot stomping: a gentle way of releasing the juice inside the berry

Extraction vs Infusion

First, how you get the fermentation going (ie. getting the juice out of the berries) varies. The most gentle way is by foot stomping, and this is still common practice in artisanal winemaking. 

In red winemaking, certain technical terms such as pumpover (moving the wine from the bottom of a vat to the top with a hose) and punchdown (manually or mechanically pushing the floating berries back down to the bottom of the fermentation) tell you how much a winemaker is moving the wine around. This is usually done to extract tannin, colour and flavour - either a lot or a little - as well as to introduce oxygen or even solve problems in the fermentation and to homogenise it. 

Generally speaking, the more punchdowns you do, the more extracted the wine will become; more colour, more tannin. Pumpovers are a gentler way of moving the juice around, and some winemakers use a tube of sorts that is able to release small amounts of oxygen into the wine (known as microoxygenation). The less you do, the more the wine will be “infused in style”, like tea; less colour, less tannin. It is entirely up to the winemaker how they wish to do this and there is no right or wrong; think of it as making a broth and what the aim of that broth is... delicacy or power?

To Stem, or Not to Stem?

Red winemakers have the choice of whether or not to include their stems during primary fermentation, and if so - whether to include all of them or none of them. Stems need to be handled correctly - too much punching down for example may result in too many tannins being released. Gentle handling, however, can produce wines with wonderful perfumed, floral characters that can give a wine the impression of lift and elegance. 

Before: whole bunch Pinot Noir harvest at Claus Preisinger's winery, the Burgenland, Austria

During: Halfway through Pinot Noir whole bunch fermentation at Jamie Kutch's winery, Sonoma, California

Carbonic Winemaking

If you include your stems, you will have either a lot or a small amount of carbonic maceration, also known as “intracellular fermentation”. This is when a complex enzymatic reaction occurs within the berry in an atmosphere full of CO2, forcing the berry to transform sugar into ethanol. The process produces certain aromas that can vary from floral aromas, to tea-like aromas, to banana. Some actively seek this for the aromas, others to produce a wine that is particularly juicy and low in tannin, and may even seal the tank with entire clusters inside in order to encourage this type of fermentation. 

Abe Schoener at LA River Wine Co
Photograph by Michael Sager

Pressing

Various methods of pressing are used. The most old school, called a basket press, also known as a vertical press, may be used as it is very gentle and thus extracts less tannin. However, they're less common these days, as their cycle is very slow, and they have no electric buttons to automate the process. A modern wave of electric presses achieve very similar results, but nonetheless, some stand by the basket firmly.

The key aspect of pressing is how much "free run juice" versus "press juice" you collect. The "free run juice" pours out from the vessel as a result of the grapes simply pressing down on themselves, as a "gift from gravity." It appears entirely on its own - before the press cycle even begins. This is usually siphoned off separately. This juice tends to be fresher and more acidic, whereas the press juice, which appears as a result of the press cycle, will be richer and more dense. Finding the balance here is crucial; eventually the press juice that appears will be more bitter and higher in pH, which can reduce the overall quality of the wine.  

Basket press: before pressing at Timothée Stroebel in Champagne

Basket press: after pressing. The remnants are known as "the cake"

Oxygen, Vessels & Ageing 

As in white winemaking, oxygen also plays a key role in the wine’s evolution. The more oxygen the wine sees in its youth, the faster its tannins will polymerise. This may mean that the wine is more drinkable in its youth. Others shy away from oxygen, wanting something very crisp in style, or hoping that in doing so they will produce a wine that may be more ageworthy.

This already commences at the very first phase of winemaking. In hot climates, when the grapes are being transported and the juice is being processed, winemakers may choose to use temperature-controlled trucks and containers, or the simple method of dry ice, to keep everything cool. If the grapes or wine get too hot, this can kill the yeast, and by adding dry ice, the carbon dioxide displaces the oxygen as carbon dioxide is heavier than oxygen, thereby preventing the juice from oxidising. 

The eventual vessel that the wine will go into also has a defining say. New oak may contribute some tannin, as well as certain aromas (think toast for French oak, coconut for American oak). The wine can breathe more in oak, so for higher tannin wines, this will aid in the softening and rounding of those tannins over time. Some high tannin wines will stay in barrel or foudre for many years.  

Slightly more neutral vessels such as stainless steel, concrete or clay, may also be used. Stainless steel is predominantly used for very fresh wines as it provides an inert environment where oxygen cannot enter, whereas concrete or clay permits the wine to breathe more.  

Using dry ice during Zinfandel fermentation | Photograph by Michael Sager

Microorganisms: Friend or Foe?

Throughout the winemaking and ageing process, fungi and bacteria can have a role to play. Yeasts, whether “cultured yeast” (added from packets of yeasts either selected from nature, cultured and freeze fried, or yeasts bred for certain characteristics/manipulation) or “wild/indigenous/native yeast” (yeasts living naturally in the vineyard and on the grapes, as well as in the cellar), are what turn grapes into wine. Over forty species of yeast have been found in grape must. The key player is Saccharomyces cerevisiae (of which hundreds of strains exist), which always finishes the ferment.

However, there are some microorganisms that can quickly turn a blooming ferment into a wilting one.

Brett: can be friend, can be foe

Brettanomyces

Red wine pH sits higher than white wine pH, which is a more hospitable environment for fungi and bacteria to play in. The most famous of these is the fungi, brettanomyces, which in small doses gives slightly saddle-like, leathery aromas. It’s argued by some that in small doses, it may come from the vineyard and play a tiny part in the wine’s microbiology, and this can speak of that wine’s “terroir.” The most famous of wines affected by brett are many wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

However, in large doses it can render a wine undrinkable. For lack of better phrasing, it can make a wine taste like cow shit. 

"Mouse taint"

Bacteria

There are growing numbers of wines affected by lactobacillus, as well as some other species of bacteria. It would seem that perhaps this bacteria is occurring more than in the past. It is known today as “mouse taint.” It is undetectable until the wine reaches the pH of our saliva - in our mouth. There are various strains, so if you are tasting a wine and suddenly, as much as five seconds later, either there's the faint hint of sawdust, or in the worst cases, it tastes like a mouse died in there, you’re detecting this bacteria. There is not a lot to do if this happens; for a winemaker, they can hit the wine with SO2, or wait it out (although whether it can ever really go away is still uncertain). For the rest of us once it’s in bottle, we can only hope that it might dissipate with age. Not everybody can detect it; if you can’t, consider yourself lucky. 

Perhaps the most evil and tricky of all the bacteria in the cellar, is acetic acid bacteria. These are able to turn wine into vinegar, and they multiply furiously in the presence of oxygen. Once they have started multiplying, they can interfere with yeasts and wreak havoc. They almost always exist in tiny doses and can contribute to fruitiness, but when present in higher volumes can give the wine a certain bitterness or whiff of nail varnish remover or paint. 

It's all about Balance

As with white wine, it all comes down to the equation of farming and human decisions. The winemaker is the artist of their juice; and how they decide to use their juice is up to them and will ultimately reflect their minds, personalities and stances. Whether that be the vinous versions of the deep simplicity of Yves Klein, or the abstract trains of thought of Kandinsky, these notions all appear in wine too; and it is up to us to be open minded and to embrace them.

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