Why are there not more light red wines?

By , 9 February 2022



Are riper wines inherently better than less ripe wines because of their additional concentration? When Jasper Raats of Longridge in Stellenbosch launched the Maandans Pinotage 2017 made in a refined and subtle style, there was a contingent of high-rolling Stellenbosch business figures among the guests who, perhaps used to drinking the likes of Beyerskloof Diesel and Kanonkop Black Label, were nonplussed by this alternative take on the variety. The look of bewilderment on some of the faces when Raats revealed that he would be charging R1 200 a bottle for his light and zippy new offering is something that still amuses me.

With summer prevailing for a good while yet, light reds which can be chilled in the fridge are to be recommended. It’s not merely a matter of fashion. There comes a point in a meal where a transition from white wine to red is needed, a bit of tannin suited to slightly heavier, meat-based dishes but the wine should not be so extracted that it becomes listless and dull. When the ambient temperature hovers around 30˚C, then serving red wine cooled down only emphasizes the fruit and boosts refreshment.

The concept of “light red” helps explain the huge popularity of Pinot Noir in certain quarters. Firstly, wines from this variety are conciliatory in the sense of working well with a broad range of foods. Eight people around the corporate lunch table who’ve each chosen different main courses? Order the Pinot and everybody will be happy.

As for how it presents in the glass, Pinot can vary significantly but it is essentially premised on aromatics and fruit purity rather than depth of colour, palate weight or firmness of tannin. This means it’s relatively unthreatening giving it appeal to a broad range of consumers.

The quintessential summer red wine, then? Unfortunately, the best examples of Pinot from wherever in the world are difficult to make in large quantity and the resulting scarcity equates to high prices, which precludes it from being an appropriate braai wine for most people.

Cue the renaissance of Cinsault and the rise of Grenache Noir on the local scene. Frankly, however, both these varieties are work in progress at the moment – Cinsault, on the whole, seems to have an inherent modesty to it that precludes it from making very interesting wines while great Grenache Noir supposedly hinges on vines of meaningful age, something that South Africa does not yet have very much of.

So where does that leave us? Dial it even further back than “light red” and you get to rosé. Not long ago, this category was synonymous with semi-sweet plonk but increasingly there are a few more serious examples around. The Break a Leg Blanc de Noir from Cinsault as made by Lukas van Loggerenberg has probably been the most convincing in recent times but look out for the Shining Carignan Touriga Nacional Rosé Non-vintage made in a Spanish-inspired, oxidative style by Samantha Suddons of Vinevenom while I’ve also liked the Ken Forrester Silver Rose (100% Grenache) when encountering it previously.

If you’re looking for wines with a deeper sense of fruit and just a bit more grip than your average pink wine, then pickings remain slim (especially if your budget does not stretch to Maandans). It’s as if quite a lot of both producers and consumers have an insecurity about how much body and weight a red wine needs, lightness viewed as equal to weakness. Picking grapes early as well as cellar techniques like whole-bunch fermentation and carbonic maceration plus an eschewal considered maverick, if not quite the work of the devil.

House reds at Chez Eedes have been the TSW Swartland Syrah and the Julien Schaal Walker Bay Syrah in recent times and while these are no more than medium-bodied, even these can look a bit chunky when the heat is on. I like Intellego Kedungu 2020 (from Syrah, Cinsault, Mourvèdre and Pinotage) a lot but as is the case with many light reds, it’s overtly scented and quite stemmy on the palate which puts some people off. Most recently, we’ve drunk Reyneke Organic Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon 2020, which was entirely passable, but straightforward. One wine which became a repeat purchase because it offered freshness without sacrificing too much complexity was Tierhoek Grenache Syrah Mourvedre 2019 but then it was acquired one time too often, and everybody said it was time to move on.

As you can see, I don’t think lighter reds are unavoidably poorer than their bigger counterparts but we need to stop treating them as novelties or oddities. Delicious, fresh red wines that aren’t trivial – it can’t be that hard to do.


22 comment(s)

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    Mumbi Mkandawire | 5 May 2022

    Had to give this article a read after having what may not be considered a light red based on the varietal (Pinot Gris), but man does it taste like a light red. Craven’s 2021 Pinot Gris was absolutely divine. A beautiful cranberry-red in the glass with light tannins and bright acidity. A stunningly linear wine that to me had the pleasant attributes of the light reds I tend to enjoy. Tricky though, with Pinot Gris and its pinkish-red skins, to be classified as a white wine grape. Yet the Cravens were able to make it sit somewhere between a co-ferment of red and white grapes. Must say, and maybe going a bit further beyond the intentions of this article, that it would be fabulous to see more co-ferments from SA. Some I’ve had in the past hit the average drinkers sensory targets: light tannins, good acid, underripe red fruits and length. Anyways, spectacular wines coming out of SA.

    Roland | 12 February 2022

    Depends on your definition of “light”, but at +-100-110 p/b, I think Fable’s raptor post is hard to beat for value and I’ll gladly smash it in all seasons.

    Murray Morrison | 11 February 2022

    Lockdown got me on to a personal project to test and rate every pinot noir in SA! 170 down so far out of 250. Relevance to this article is that there are some perfectly lovely ones in the lower price ranges. My own selections under R100 (of which I found 10 pinot noirs): Snow Mountain The Mistress, Miss Molly. Under R125 (found 13): La Vierge Seduction, Haute Cabrière Unwooded, Paul Cluver Ferricrete, Paul Cluver Village, Newton Johnson Felicite, La Brune The Valley. Under R150 (found 14): Iona Mr P Knows, Thorne & Daughters Copper Pot, Catherine Marshall Reserve (Woolworths), La Vierge The Affair. Under R175 (found 12): Snow Mountain, Oak Valley Sounds of Silence, David Finlayson, Highlands Road, Vriesenhof Limited Release. Under R200 (found 18): Groote Post Kapokberg, Julien Schaal Mountain, Creation, Oak Valley, Catherine Marshall on sandstone …

    … yes the next 200 pinots are over R200 a bottle – so not a cheap varietal – but there’s no paucity of good ones in lower price ranges (flip side of the coin is I’ve listed only 22 of the 70 I’ve found under R200! – so shop carefully!)

    Higgo Jacobs | 10 February 2022

    Hi Christian,
    I certainly share your taste (bring on the light red please), but not sure I still share the view.

    I wrote this piece 8 years ago:

    At the time I certainly thought that light red expressions were lacking and a missed opportunity, but in agreement to Alex’s comments I think we have come a long way since.

    Too many delicious examples to mention here… Perhaps we’re missing your point? Do you mean not enough going at low price points?

      Kwispedoor | 11 February 2022

      Hi, Higgo

      Whatever Christian says, I certainly think there’s not enough at low price points. There’s a new wave of these lighter wines that are delicious, but they are most often priced at R150 and upwards. The higher you go up from that, the further you distance your wine from an every day drinking one to only an occasional treat – for most average wine buyers/drinkers, anyways. In many other countries, these types of wine are to be found at entry level pricing (it’s comparatively cheap to make – no expensive wood, for instance).

      In South Africa, red wines at entry level end up being riper, more extracted and often getting oak chips or some other treatment – all in an effort to mimic more expensive wines. It’s a real pity, because it doesn’t aid drinkability and our warm climate calls for a style with more restraint.

      It would be fantastic if we could see more of these lighter, ‘honest’ (less manipulated) wines at below R100. The False Bay Pinotage 2020 from Waterkloof recently garnered a Top 20 spot in the Decanter Pinotage tasting. I’ll concede that there were some strange outcomes in that panel tasting, but at 93 points and under R70, and considering where it comes from and how it’s made, I’m definitely going to check it out.

        Christian Eedes | 11 February 2022

        Hi Higgo and Kwispedoor, It’s not like “light reds”don’t exist but the issue is partly about price and partly about availability.

        Re price, the best examples (whatever variety or style) tend to be made by the coolest of the cool New Wave producers who aren’t afraid to charge for their wines. These wines tend to get snapped up by top-end restaurants where mark-ups make them even less accessible.

        Re availability, I would argue that there still needs to be a culture shift. Walk into your average neighbourhood bottle store and most times you are confronted by a rather dreary, conventionally styled line-up of reds (although this perhaps says as much about retailers as it does producers).

        Thankfullly, there are some examples between R100 and R200 a bottle but while these are great fun to drink, too many seem a little unconsidered or inconsequential. There remains a gap in the market is what I’m suggesting…

    Gregory | 10 February 2022

    …add to this list Baby Bandito Cinsault and Rossouw, Gouws & Clarke Dry Red Pinotage

    Viva Light Reds! ✊✊

    Uwe Böbs | 10 February 2022

    The mentioned Craven, Julian Schaal, TSW wines from Swartland, Intellego and of course the Jasper Raats Maandans, which is his own project are all way too expensive.
    Longridge Wines, made by Jasper Raats, actually has made its style of Pinotage and other reds in a much lighter, more French style over the past 5 plus years.
    Different, but my palate is starting to understand this style.
    At R175 pb that is however, still a fairly big jump from just aroung R100 that the article is looking for.
    Suggestions could be the SURPRISE Top 10 Prescient WineMag winners of last year, such as the Lammershoek Innocent Syrah 2018, or the Du Toitskloof Shiraz 2018, and their Pinotage 2018, the Nederburg Pinotage 2019, even a good number of our Merlot’s, and finally, of course, what about the evergreen Chateau Libertas 2019 ?
    So in summary, yes, there are a number of good lighter styled reds around.

    Chris | 10 February 2022

    Lighter reds are my new normal and I am loving it, seems most people – and on-trade are among the worst offenders – serve reds too warm, room temperatures are generally too warm, reds need to be served at around 18,C, and it’s the equivalent of focusing an image, particularly alcohols above say 14%, i.e more defined fruit, more linear palate, greater drinkability etc. Meanwhile whites often served too cold.

    Nick Holleman | 10 February 2022

    Ken Forrester’s SGM Reserve (sold at Woolworths in bottle and box) has been my go-to light-to-medium-bodied red this summer.

    Kwispedoor | 9 February 2022

    “It’s as if quite a lot of both producers and consumers have an insecurity about how much body and weight a red wine needs, lightness viewed as equal to weakness.” I think Danie Steytler has tried to offer a dual spectrum choice by making two Pinotages, the Kaapzicht Skraalhans Pinotage representing the lighter version. In fact, I’m wondering why Pinotage has not really been mentioned – except for the expensive ones in the first paragraph – because there are quite a few cracking lighter renditions. Prejudice?

    As far as Pinot goes, I think John Seccombe’s Copper Pot is a cracker at a very fair price level.

    But yes, we need more wines at around R100 that are perfumed instead of heavy and dry instead of having that terrible rounded touch of sweetness. We still have too many cheaper reds that are either concocted or generic.

    Alex Dale / RADFORD DALE | 9 February 2022

    We’ve spent the last 10 years single-handedly getting Gamay back from near-extinction, into the SA nursery system again and new plantings, the first for a generation, in the soil… Our 3rd Gamay parcel will be planted at our Estate in Elgin in July this year, SA’s first organic Gamay. This varietal loves granite and it enjoys the sun. We’re doing our bit for light reds and have done since 2007, when they were rather unwelcome. The difference now is that the market has, at last, moved on from the reds on steroids of the Parker era, so boosted by media across the planet (and now spurned)… Pinot Noir, Cinsault, savvy Pinotage, Cab-Franc and Gamay. All able to make stellar light reds in our geologies and climate in the Cape. Bordeaux blends and heavy reds have their place, of course, but as our wine consuming population becomes ever more exposed to the wider world of wine, there will inevitably be more discovery of the subtle over the obvious.

    Gavin Brimacombe | 9 February 2022

    Suggest Welgegund’s 2019 Cinsault from Wellington. Single Vineyard, OVP. Dryland, bush vines. Fantastic example!

    Daryl Balfour | 9 February 2022

    The cinsaults being produced by Ian Naude & Francois Haasbroek deserve serious consideration. Both delicious slightly chilled, with or without food. AD Wines has also released a 2021 Skylark Cinsault after a few years hiatus.

    John W | 9 February 2022

    Other than Pinot Noir, have a look at Piekenierskloof Grenache Noir

    Francois du Toit | 9 February 2022

    In my opinion Haute Cabriere Pinot Noir Unwooded is a perfect summer red wine.

    Donald | 9 February 2022

    “Cinsault, on the whole, seems to have an inherent modesty to it that precludes it from making very interesting wines”. Come off it Christian, there are plenty of good wines that give a few Pinots a run for their money. Natte Valleij (particularly the single vineyard series) and Eenzaamheid are two that immediately spring to mind purely because I’ve had them recently. Maybe its a fashion over function issue rather than an actual shortage of chill-able reds. It won’t be the first time the SA wine industry has suffered from collective pretentious BS wrt what wine to drink in what setting. Like a red wine? Chill it, drink it. Life is too short to worry about such trivialities.

    Hennie | 9 February 2022

    To me, the best proponents of the lighter red style in the country are Mick and Jeanine Craven. I can knock back their Cabs all day long and still be sober enough to go for a 10k run.

      Roman Kerze | 9 February 2022

      Agreed! We had a bottle of their Cabernet over lunch recently. 38C outdoors and the slightly chilled Craven Cab disappeared incredibly quickly with the grilled lamb.

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