One of the realities of having Cabernet Sauvignon as the focal point of a winery is the simple fact that the wine, by the very nature of the grape, is loaded with tannin, which some people can’t abide.
It is one of the reasons that many wineries offer a Merlot as an alternative.
Sensory scientists point out that some people (perhaps as much as 25% of the population) are genetically predisposed to experience tannin as painful – an element to avoid.
This subject isn’t talked about as much as it once was because many Cab-based wineries have moved in the last three decades to deal with tannins. By increasing alcohol and trying to make a richer, lusher wine by lowering the acidity levels, they have created a more approachable style.
These tactics may help, but tannin remains in the wine. That makes drinking it a challenge for those sensitive to tannin. Many people have begun to seek alternatives to Cab. I know because I get letters — and I have a brother who gave up on Cabernet two decades ago because of this very issue.
The overwhelming improvement in white wine flavor development over the last 35 or 40 years has shifted some people from red to white. And of course, the Dry Rosé and Dry Riesling revolutions, which we all have seen over the last decade, have kidnapped some red buyers.
One of the more interesting trends in the last few years, one that is clearly noticeable in restaurants, is the move toward lighter red wines, which includes Pinot Noir as well as red grapes like Grenache, Gamay, and Carignane, as well as the somewhat obscure (Zweigelt, Counoise, Blaufrankisch, and at least a dozen more).
One reason these wines have flourished in restaurants managed by savvy people is that servers can bring you a half ounce of an unusual wine to try, and when you realize that there are interesting flavors at a price you can afford, you are generally hooked.
I began to see this develop about 2005, notably in higher-end restaurants. Modest cafés typically stick to the common varietals, which can bore.
Bright sommeliers know that as times change, they have to create more interesting approaches than simply recommending Cabernet when red meat or heavier dishes are ordered.
“Besides, Cabernet is getting so expensive,” said Marcus Garcia, sommelier/owner of Perle Wine Bar in Oakland and a pioneer of the concept of “other” red wines to pair with all sorts of different dishes as early as 2005.
That was when he was at San Francisco’s iconic Fleurs de Lys, where he began to see younger diners take an interest in unusual red wines and challenging pairings.
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“People are always looking for wines that work with a wider range of food,” he said in an interview recently. In particular, he said, lighter reds have made a quiet but persistent comeback recently in restaurants, even with fish and other lighter fare.
“Gamay and Cru Beaujolais have gotten much better, and higher-acid red wines with fruitiness can be exciting.” He mentioned that he’s had success with Gamay, noting that the grape often produces a lovely lighter red.
He said a recent trend in Oregon is Gamay. At Perle, he’s had great success with it and lighter Cru Beaujolais “like St. Amour and Brouilly, not as much Morgon or Moulin-a-Vent.”
Chilling lighter reds before serving, he noted, also is a tactic that allows the wines to shine more than the traditional “cellar temperature,” which in some restaurants means “kitchen temperature.” But that’s a topic for another day.
“I chill everything (red) before I open the door,” Garcia said, noting that his suggestions of slightly chilled lighter reds aren’t challenged.
“Oh, yeah, diners think it’s cool. It’s always been ‘red wine with steak,’ but lighter red with halibut? Most people don’t think of red wine with seafood, but if the wine is an east coast Cab Franc? With all that personality?
“As long as the wine has good acidity, it goes with many foods.”
He said that Grenache, Zweigelt, and Counoise, “don’t have the power of Pichon-Lalande or Latour, but they’re lower-priced wines that are fun with dinner.”
In casual settings, the wines people are looking for should be more accessible than Latour, he said.
He said these days he likes Barbera from the Sierra Foothills, and then reverted to Gamay: “When it’s hot out, you can chill it and it works with food. Diners should think outside the box.
“At Perle, we have many different whites that go with the seafood we prepare with interesting spices, but lighter red is a great alternative.
“I love to introduce these wines that can be chilled, and people get excited about it. I know that A16 (one of the best Italian restaurants in San Francisco and Rob [Renteria] at (highly regarded) La Folie are doing this too.”