Fintan Kerr: Lighter red wines are in the ascendancy – what to make of this?

By , 13 September 2023



At its absolute best at 12.5% ABV.

The world of wine doesn’t escape the whims of fashion. Like a pendulum, it swings back and forth, dictating the grapes, regions and styles that are popular over a period of time. The speed of these swings isn’t consistent; it took nearly two decades for heavily oaked, over-extracted wines to finally start falling out of grace, and in some parts of the world they’re still only halfway through the downswing. Prosecco, by comparison, went from a relatively unappreciated sparkling wine in Italy to one of the most popular styles in the entire world in the space of 15 years. By comparison, whatever force is responsible for moving Sherry into the limelight appears to be stuck in sort of stasis field.

One of the most notable shifts in the last few years has been the move towards a lighter, fresher style, particularly for red wines. The given wisdom of the ‘90s and ‘00s was that structure and power were of great importance; tannic wines full of alcohol and upfront flavour were very much in vogue, with wineries proudly displaying tech-sheets suggesting how much expensive, new oak was used in its creation. Critics would wax lyrical about these wines in their tasting notes; “opulent”, “rich” and, my least favourite of all, “gobs of fruit”.

Changes in style don’t appear in a vacuum; the move towards a more delicate, subtle style of wine is a reaction towards the over-reach of these bottled behemoths. Drinking a monstrous Zinfandel that tastes of vanilla as much as anything else is enough to make anyone crave a bottle of Beaujolais. This saturation of heavy wines, combined with the rise in popularity of natural wine and a focus on more sustainable farming practices was the catalyst for changes to occur. Producers started to harvest earlier, plantings at altitude suddenly became the subject of conversations and new oak became an overnight villain. Even in California, the heartland of bombastic wines, an association called “In Pursuit of Balance” was created in 2011 to highlight wineries that championed fresher styles.  

You won’t find many in the world of wine that wouldn’t have applauded this at the time; change was long overdue and the results were delicious and exciting. However, in many countries we’re now at the top end of the pendulum swing; are there now too many lighter styles of wine? Are we sacrificing wine quality for the sake of an aesthetic style?

Firstly, it’s important to draw a line between wines that are made in a lighter style and wines that are made in a “glou glou” style. If you´re not familiar with the term, just say it out loud and imagine the sound that wine makes as it’s being poured aggressively from a bottle. Another French term for the style is “vin de soif” or literally “wine for thirst”. Beaujolais Noveau is the most famous glou-glou wine in the world: a result of carbonic maceration, low in alcohol and tannins, high in acidity, made for short-term drinking and pure pleasure. These are the sorts of wines you could buy from your local winery in villages in Europe for a few euros, providing you brought your own jug or bottle with you, and they´re meant to be drank in quantity and without any great ceremony. They’re delicious, refreshing and often exactly the sort of thing we want to drink but they should not be judged in the same category as a fine wine. Confusingly, these wines are now made throughout the world and often sold for premium prices, which blurs the lines a little.

The harder line to walk is producing lighter styles of wines with structure, length and complexity. I still remember being taught that Grenache doesn’t have a great deal of flavour below 14% ABV; tell that to David & Nadia Sadie and their superb, detailed Grenache Noir from vineyards in the Paardeberg. No-one would doubt the ageing ability of Duncan Savage´s floral, driven Follow the Line Cinsault from Darling, despite it regularly clocking in underneath 13% ABV. Foillard´s world-famous “Côte du Py” Morgon is at its absolute best at 12.5% ABV. Classic Bordeaux drinkers yearn for the days when 13% ABV was considered a riper vintage in Bordeaux – something we haven´t seen since the 1980s and are unlikely to see again.

Sadly, not everyone can walk that line with the same aplomb. A recent bottle of Montsecondo’s Chianti Classico 2018 was austere to the point of lacking any sort of pleasure. Raul Moreno is part of Spain’s celebrated new-wave of winemakers, yet I found his La Quimera Pinot Noir 2021 to be too lean and green to fully express the beauty of the grape. Even famous, expensive wines can run afoul of this; last year’s bottle of Domaine Prieuré Roch Nuits St. Georges 1er Cru 2015 was vegetal and mean, which is hard to accept in a bottle of wine with a market value of over €500! Just because a wine sits within our preferred aesthetic doesn’t mean it gets a free pass where quality is concerned, though you see this sort of criticism much less frequently.

The search for elegance is a noble one, and the changes in wine have, at least to my palate, been very welcome over the last decade. However, it’s important to note when it goes too far. A wine without any pleasurable flavour and acidity akin to licking a battery is just as problematic as one that tastes of dried fruits and burning alcohol. Fortunately, in the case of wines on the leaner end of the spectrum, often only a little tweaking is necessary for them to blossom. The difference between 11.5% and 12% ABV can be huge in terms of flavour profile and, weather permitting, can sometimes be achieved with just a few extra days of hang time. A look at South Africa’s best producers at the moment is a who’s-who of winemakers who have found their own balance in their region; what is true for the Swartland won’t be true for Elgin, or Stellenbosch. The very best across the country are able to showcase a sense of place and create delicious, evocative wines that sit comfortably within themselves without having to be pulled or pushed in a certain direction. I can only hope the pendulum sits here for a while longer.

  • Fintan Kerr, DipWSET, lives in Barcelona and is a wine writer, educator and founder of Wine Cuentista (Cuentista is Spanish for “storyteller”.) Follow him on Twitter: @Wine_Cuentista


1 comment(s)

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    Donald Griffiths | 18 September 2023

    As is the case with most things in life, balance is key. Wine is no different. There’s a time and place for a big, bold, powerful red just as there is for a light, refreshing and crisp white. You cannot dictate, predict nor prescribe people’s taste in things. This is true of music, cars, art, clothing (to name a few) and wine. Plus we’ve all had enough averagely made wine at each end of the spectrum to know where our own particular sweet spots lie. At the end of the day – despite what the wine illuminati happen to view and push as flavour of the month – this is all you really have to go on.

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