Wine: Lighter Reds are More Enjoyable

Red Lights: If they’re lower in alcohol and less heavy, as they are in France, they’re worth stopping for


An interesting wine thing happened recently to my mate who, in the 23 years that we have lived together, has always drunk white wine.

While spending November and December in France, she started drinking red wines regularly.

We were living in an apartment in Paris within easy reach of all kinds of food, wine stores, and restaurants. One day, out of curiosity, she tasted a red and something in her flipped.

Was this some sort of romantic attachment to where we were? Or was there really something to this change?

Now, we travel a lot and spend about three months away from metro Detroit each year but, wherever we go, we keep the same basic wine habits that we have at home. Wherever we arrive, our routine is to stock the place with the same day-to-day wines: whites for her (no-oak chablis and sancerre top her list) and red wines for me (Loire Valley reds and light burgundy). Those are the baseline, and from there we investigate and buy any wine that’s new, different, and local. 

My wife’s barometer of wine is better than the general public’s, although she admits to not being overly adventurous about wine — or food. (Don’t ask her to taste snails or an andouille sausage in a French restaurant.) But she can pick out certain flaws such as cork-taint, volatile acidity, and high levels of a certain fungal infection. But her anchor is that range of good, well-made white wines, while I chase anything red, to which, more often than not, she crinkles her nose and passes.

So, why the sudden liking of reds on this trip?

The red wines in France, she said, tasted fresher, lighter, and more in character with the white wines she prefers.

Most of all, she found them enjoyable. No unpleasant tannins, lots of smoothness, and lightly perfumed delicacy.

Curious, I started checking the labels on the various bottles of red that we bought and found that most of the wines had around 12- or 12.5-percent alcohol, which, for us in the United States, is very light and a bit of a rarity these days. Our wines — even the French imports — tend to run well above that; our low end is closer to 14 percent, and many run higher. 

There’s an echo in my wife’s analysis of what many American wine writers have been complaining about for a few years: That the American public has become enamored of weighty, dense, high-alcohol red wines. And it’s not just American-made and Australian wines. Many are European.

But in France, they still like their wines lighter, so most of what you find on store shelves is the reverse of here. Heaviness and alcohol are less common in cheaper wines. Intensity, richness, and complexity are generally the properties of the bigger-name wines that sell at high prices — as it is here. In France, average people tend to buy those for special occasions.

What we don’t seem to have come to fully accept here yet is that enjoying wine is also like appreciating a good soufflé. Its success is not always measured by how big it is, but how light it is. 

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