Lighter reds: the wine to buy for autumn 2021

As any lover of beaujolais will testify, reds needn’t always be rich and fullbodied. Why not try something a little lighter instead?

A vineyard in the Loire Valley in France.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Fiona Beckett
Published 1 Nov 2021, 18:00 GMT

In my experience, people who regard themselves as red wine drinkers very often have full-bodied reds in mind. Similarly, others, who declare they don’t really like red wine are also often thinking of that richer style. But both groups too often forget there’s a whole other category of red wine: one that can best be described as ‘light’.

Obviously, we’re not talking about weight — so what is meant by light? Well, colour is the obvious starting point. Lighter reds lack the concentration and ripeness of more full-bodied wines and so tend to be paler, sometimes almost translucent — just think of a light red burgundy as opposed to a dark Australian shiraz.

A lighter colour is usually linked to lower levels of alcohol. Reds under 13% tend to be fresher and drier with a higher level of acidity than wines of 14% or more. Often that’s down to the ripeness of the grapes. Those grown in cooler wine-producing areas like the Loire, Burgundy, Switzerland and England don’t mature as fully as those grown in warmer climates. Vintage also makes a difference. A rainy run-up to harvest time may mean grapes are picked earlier and the resulting wines are correspondingly lighter-bodied than in a year when the sun blazes for weeks on end. By the same logic, drought concentrates wines further — for example, the hot and dry English summer of 2018 resulted in some gorgeously fruity reds in vineyards that had sometimes struggled to achieve ripeness.

How the grapes are handled in the winery also makes a difference. Lighter reds are rarely oaked for any length of time and are often released early to make the most of their freshness — beaujolais nouveau being the classic example.

Then, of course, there’s grape variety, although it might strike you as strange that it comes so far down this list. It’s true, some varieties do tend to produce lighter-bodied wines — grapes such as pinot noir, gamay (the grape that produces beaujolais), cabernet franc, cinsault, nebbiolo in the north of Italy and frappato in the south and obscure varieties such as mondeuse and poulsard that you fi nd in alpine France. However, even these can have more full-bodied incarnations. Cabernet franc, for example, tends to be light and crunchy when it comes from the Loire but bigger and bolder when it’s produced in Argentina or Chile. Climate change has also played a part. There was a time when inexpensive bordeaux was regarded as a relatively light wine, generally around 12.5%. These days it often tops 14%.

Finally, you can influence the way a red wine tastes. If you want it to seem lighter and fresher, just serve it cellar cool (about 14-15C) or give it 20-30 minutes in the fridge. 

Five of the best bottles of beaujolais wine

1. Beaujolais Les Pierres Dorées, Cuvée Louis Dépagneux 2020
Of all the light red wines, beaujolais is probably the best known. Look for basic beaujolais or beaujolais villages if you want a lighter style, rather than a ‘cru’ beaujolais. This one is bright and juicy. £7.95.

2. Marks & Spencer Bardolino 2020
Made from the same grapes as valpolicella (corvina and rondinella), bardolino is a juicy, fresh, cherryish red that would be perfect with antipasti and light pasta dishes such as pasta al limone. £10 per bottle, as part of a case of six.

3. Mondeuse Le Tithonien Domaine de l’Idylle 2019, Savoie
At only 11.5%, this is a delicious, light, fragrant and leafy red from a rare old grape variety grown mainly in the mountainous Savoie region of France. It would be lovely lightly chilled with a plate of charcuterie. £14.75.

4. Domaine Sebastian David L’Hurluberlu 2020 St Nicolas de Bourgeuil
Loire cabernet francs are generally light. This biodynamic wine is made without added sulphur, contributing to the purity of fruit. Perfect to enjoy with a barbecue. £15.45.

5. The Crater Rim 2018 Canterbury New Zealand
A delicate, light, almost Burgundian pinot noir from the Canterbury region of New Zealand, with lovely, freshly picked raspberry fruit. Like most pinot noirs, it would go really well with duck. £14.95.

Published in Issue 13 (autumn 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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