Mailbag Monday: Red Wine for the White Wine Drinker?

Dear Alleigh:
I love white wine and have never been a huge red fan, but I want to like it more. What is a good starter red for a white wine drinker (Chardonnay)? I want something lighter-bodied. A cursory Internet search has indicated that I should steer toward something low in tannins, such as Pinot Noir or Beaujolais Nouveau (which I’ve never heard of).

This is a great question, and one that I’ve danced around in other Mailbag Mondays (here and here) but never answered directly.

I’m actually going to start off by turning to my fellow wine bloggers because they approached this question in a Wine Blogging Wednesday (WBW #67) back in 2010 (Joe Roberts from 1WineDude hosted.  Here is his wrap-up post). The short answer was that there was no real short answer.  The wine bloggers were all over the place.  Five people suggested trying a Beaujolais, which made that the most popular suggestion (do not mistake this for Beaujolais Nouveau, which is a fun wine, but not one that I would recommend for a novice red wine drinker).   The second most popular suggestion—Grenache—was actually made by four bloggers, including myself.   Unfortunately, the wine I chose (the 2008 Bitch Grenache) was good for a red wine lover, but uncharacteristically acidic and “hot” (too high in alcohol) for a white wine drinker trying to turn to red.

While the particular bottle I opened wouldn’t be a winner for a white wine lover, the idea behind WHY I chose the type of grape is one I think will help as you try to explore reds—go for grapes that are low in tannins and light-to-medium bodied.  The five types of wines I would look at are:

  • Beaujolais or Cru Beaujolais—These are French wines made from Gamay grapes.  They generally have lighter tannins and a medium body, although the acidity can be on the higher side.  You’ll figure out pretty quickly if you need to grow into high acidity red wines.  If that’s the case, don’t let it scare you off of red wines.  It just means you have to try something different.
  • Grenache/Garnacha—This is a type of grape that is common in French wines from the Southern Rhône Valley and in Spanish wines.  You may also find some Australian Grenache, which will probably be a little “jammier” than the French or Spanish wines, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Grenache/Garnacha is known for being a fruity grape with low tannins and is often blended with other wines to help make them more approachable.  As finding a 100% Genache/Garnacha might be a challenge, don’t shy away from trying a blend.  That said, if you find a single grape bottle, grab it and go for it.
  • Carménère—This is a type of grape.  While it is often blended with other wines, most notably French Bordeaux, my suggestion is to avoid the blends and try a Chilean 100% Carménère.  The wines will have soft tannins with lower acididy and a medium-to-full body, so be prepared for a slightly bigger wine.  However, despite the bigger body, it should still very drinkable because of the wines tend to be velvety smooth.
  • Merlot—This is a type of grape that can be found in French (Bordeaux), California, Washington, Italian (Super Tuscans) and Chilean wines.  As with the Carménère, though, I would recommend trying to stay away from a blend like Bordeaux or Super Tuscans and focus on a single variety like a California Merlot. The single varietals tend to be simple, fruity wines with low tannins, low acidity, and a medium body.  Admittedly, wine snobs often snub Merlot (the movie Sideways highlighted this attitude), but I think the snobbery is unjustified.  In fact, I was just mentioning to a friend that I don’t drink enough Merlot, as it’s an approachable, delicious wine that usually goes well with food.
  • Lambrusco—This is both the name of the grape and of the Italian wine made with it.   Admittedly, it’s a little of an odd ball suggestion, as Lambruscos are slightly-sparkling red wines.  They are usually dry, although they can be made in varying degrees of sweetness so be sure to check the label.  As they tend to have low tannins and a light body, though, this might be a fun way to experiment with easing into red wines.

One last comment, as you mentioned starting with Pinot Noirs.  I would advise against that.  I know they are often seen as an good entry point because of the low tannins, but the grape and the wines are very finicky wines and can quickly turn a red wine newbie off to reds entirely.  Don’t get me wrong…there are beautiful Pinots out there, but I would suggest opening one of the other grape varieties first.

I would love to hear how you make out, even if you end up not finding a red wine in one of these varieties.  So, please, check back in!

Question of the Day: Are you a red wine drinker?  Do you remember what your entry wine was (either varietal or winery)?


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