“I want a glass of big, bold red” is one of the most frequent requests I get working in wine bars and restaurants. A robust red, full of fruit, and often higher in alcohol is one of the most popular styles to drink. But what about the more subtle side of the spectrum? Light red wines, ethereal, elegant and nuanced, are what I prefer to pour in my glass when choosing a red wine.
Light red wines are more quaffable and exhaust the palate much less quickly than a heavier, more structured red. They can also have more extensive food-pairing potential.
For my light-bodied red wine picks, I’ve purposely left out our dear friend Pinot Noir to cast a light on some lesser-known and appreciated thin-skinned grapes.
Niepoort / Quinta de Baixo
Lagar de Baixo Baga, Bairrada, Portugal
Portugal has over 250 indigenous varieties; it’s known to have the highest density of native grape plantings worldwide. Most dry wines from Portugal are blends, making this single-varietal unique. The Baga grape, which thrives in the northern region of Bairrada, has the unfortunate reputation for creating astringent, harsh wines that need significant aging before drinking. Niepoort’s Lagar de Baixo completely disproves that misconception.
Its initial aromas remind me slightly of Pinot Noir: vibrant, fresh red cherries, strawberries, and cranberries, perfectly in balance with notes of earth, black pepper and savory herbs. The florality of this wine is also striking; red rose petals waft out of the glass. It is an exquisite expression of Baga, full of terroir and character.
Lagrein Riserva Vigna Castel Ringberg, Alto Adige, Italy
I haven’t had much Lagrein, but after tasting Elena Walch’s Lagrein Riserva, that will change! The Lagrein grape is a descendant of Teroldego and a distant cousin of Pinot Noir and Syrah. It is native to the Alto Adige region of northeastern Italy, where its proximity to Austria and Switzerland heavily influences its winemaking.
Elena Walch has been a powerhouse and one of the leaders of the quality revolution in the Alto Adige and is now handing over the reins to her two daughters.
The wine is bursting with notes of fresh wild blackberry, raspberry, tart black cherry, cranberry, a quick zest of orange peel, and earthy notes of smoke, forest floor, black pepper, and cocoa. Bright acidity and moderate, rustic tannins frame this silky stunner.
Trousseau, North Coast, California
Arnot-Roberts is a collaboration between friends Duncan Arnot Meyers and Nathan Lee Roberts that began in 2001 with one barrel of wine in their basement. They have since grown into one of California’s most respected and distinctive winemakers. They seek out unique vineyard sites for their wines and offer bottlings from northern California in Napa Valley to the south in the Sta Rita Hills of Santa Barbara.
This Trousseau comes from three vineyards in the North Coast AVA. Trousseau, also known as Bastardo or Merenzao, is a thin-skinned grape native to eastern France. Arnot-Roberts is correct in their assessment that Trousseau “is unique for its ability to make a wine that is light in color but packed with flavor.”
The aromatics of this wine are mind-blowing with perfumed notes of rose petal, cracked green pepper (thank you, whole cluster!), orange peel, cedar, and spice. This wine is full of character and depth while remaining lifted and fresh.
Story of Soil
Gamay, Santa Barbara, California
Santa Barbara is one of the most exciting wine regions in the country. The area’s winemakers have a creative, exploratory spirit while crafting wines of true beauty. One of the producers that I fell in love with while visiting a few years ago is Story of Soil. Winemaker Jessica Gasca bottled her first vintage only ten years ago in 2012. The quality and downright deliciousness of her wines knocked my socks off!
The Story of Soil Gamay is sourced from the biodynamic Martian Vineyard located in the newly designated Alisos Canyon AVA. This wine is summertime in a glass; a light, airy body with sunny acidity is filled with juicy red and pink fruits and fresh mandarin. The inclusion of stems is apparent in a spicy, cracked green pepper note that balances the fruit with savory character. Throw a slight chill on this Gamay, and you’re ready to go! I also have to note – Story of Soil produces exceptional single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and Syrah.
Langhe Nebbiolo, Piemonte, Italy
The Conterno name is synonymous with greatness in Nebbiolo production in the northwest Italian region of Piemonte. Daniele is the fourth generation, after great grandfather Pietro, grandfather Giacamo, and father, Franco. While you’re waiting for your Barolo and Barbaresco to age, drink Langhe!
This Nebbiolo has all of the elegant charms of the varietal but is much more approachable in its youth. Notes of ripe black cherry, cranberry, raspberry and black pepper are met by Nebbiolo’s famous signifiers of rose and tar. Nebbiolo is also renowned for its naturally high levels of acidity and tannin. They are present in this wine, though in a more mellow format. This makes it a highly pairable wine with many types of meats and cheeses, as well as fattier fish. I used to pair this with our Otoro (fatty bluefin tuna belly) at Sushi Note, and it was to die for!