First of all, the basics. Where does red wine get its luscious colour from? It will probably come as no surprise to you that red wine is made with dark-skinned grapes, but in order for this colour to be transferred to the wine and period of maceration is necessary, whereby the pressed grape must, or juice, sits with the empty skins. During fermentation, the skins impart not only colour, but also flavour and tannins (more about that later) to the wine – and that’s where things get really interesting.
Red and purple grapes give rise to an immense range of different types of red wine. There are robust, spicy reds, light, dry and fruity reds, reds for chilling, sparkling reds and even sweet reds – it’s enough to make your head sore, and you haven’t even drunk any yet. Some varieties are produced in a variety of regions worldwide – think Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and so on – and some are specific to just one region – Sangiovese or Primitivo would be good examples of this. All the different varieties of grape that are used to make red wine have one thing in common however: they enjoy a warm climate (who doesn’t?), where the sun can ensure they reach their maximum potential and are simply bursting with good fruit sugars prior to harvest.
What are the best Italian red wines? When it comes to wine, best is ultimately always going to be a very subjective designation; however, it is widely agreed that some of the most superior Italian reds include Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, and Amarone della Valpolicella, amongst others. But don’t let that detract you from some really interesting wines that be may a little less famous on the international market but are held in high prestige locally. Why not try an Aglianico, Barbera d’Asti or Schiopettino?
Beyond grape varieties used and place of production, red wines are generally classified as to whether they are light-, medium- or full-bodied, and this is where tannins come in. Tannins are naturally occurring polyphenols (also found in coffee and tea) that give rise to a slightly bitter or astringent flavour and a familiar, mouth-drying sensation on the tongue. Although at first that may not sound too pleasant, when well-managed, tannins bring complexity and fullness of flavour to certain foods, and are responsible in large part for what we term the structure, or ‘body’ of a wine. Lighter-bodies reds have a lower tannin content, and more watery mouthfeel. They also tend to have a lower alcohol content. Fuller-bodied reds on the other hand are rich in tannins, generally have a relatively high alcohol content and a heavier, more velvety mouthfeel.
What food goes well with red wine? Again, take structure as your guide here. Fuller, heavier reds stand up to stronger flavours, such as game, steak and aged cheeses. Lighter reds are a great match for vegetable or chicken dishes on the other hand. Chianti is a great all-rounder for many classics of Italian cuisine, as it pairs so well with tomato sauce. The best way to find out what you like is by trial and error – so get sampling, and enjoy the journey.