If you don’t know much about red wine but would like to get into it, the best place to start is with fruity, rounded styles. ‘Rounded’ refers to the fact that there is no, one singular characteristic of the wine that sticks out. It all blends nicely together and feels soft and smooth. Varieties such as merlot, zinfandel and malbec are good examples of this.
The easiest way to think about the body of a wine is to compare it to milk. Light bodied is similar to skimmed, medium to semi-skimmed and full bodied to full fat. The body of a wine is made up of a combination of elements including alcohol (which is more viscous than water) tannins (the thing that makes your gums feel dry), residual sugar and acidity. A low body wine would be pinot noir, a medium body merlot and a full body wine, cabinet sauvignon.
Whether or not a wine should ‘breathe’ is a bit of a debate. The main reasons to do so would be to separate a wine from the sediment at the bottom, or to allow oxygen in to help a wine 'open up'. There is a preconception that all old, red wines should be decanted, but this could do more harm than good, as exposing it to too much oxygen can make it fade quickly. The only time I decant for taste is if it smells of rotten eggs or a struck match when opened. This sometimes happens as a result of wines being produced under hermetic conditions and giving it air often fixes the problem. If, however, you are a fan of letting a wine breathe, then just taking the cork out or unscrewing the lid isn't going to do anything, as the amount of wine in contact with the air is minimal. Pour it all out into decanter, jug, vase – it doesn't really matter, just remember the wider the vessel the more contact with the air the wine has and the quicker the aroma/flavour profile will change.
If you really don't know what to pick from a restaurant wine list, then go for house red. The perception of a house wine has somewhat changed over the years, but originally it was the wine that the restaurant or bar put their name and reputation to as a good-quality, crowd-pleasing wine and wasn't necessarily the cheapest. The same goes for supermarket own-brand wines. They won't be the best you've ever had, but they will be affordable, from well-known producers and appeal to the widest audience.
How a wine is made affects the cost. If a grape is particularly tricky to grow or requires several years ageing or the use of expensive equipment such as oak barrels, it will all add to the final cost. However, on top of the practical and logistical reasons, the insanely expensive wines rely on a mixture of reputation and history, cult status and hype.
Red wines have such a range of characteristics to match with food – you really can find one for any occasion. We have quite a narrow view of what red wine should match with, which really needs to change. A red wine can be found to match with spicy cuisine, aromatic dishes, sweet courses and even fish.
How and what you serve red wine in matters. If the bottom of the glass is wider than the brim, it allows the aromatics of the wine to congregate closer together so you can get a better smell. Ultimately, though, wine for me is all about pleasure and sharing that with friends and loved ones, so any time we get together over a bottle is a good one.
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