When was the last time you drank a red wine? The question is hardly ridiculous if you consider that what we call “red wines” are nearly all, in fact, deep purple in their youth, and that a “more is-better” mentality has lately dictated the darker the better. With rosé’s return to vogue early in the new millennium and increasing interest in skin-fermented white wines that live up to their billing as “orange,” it seems as though wines that are neither rosé nor “properly” red have been unfairly neglected.
Historically, that was certainly not the case. Every indication is that for centuries the renowned reds of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or were just that: bright red, as opposed to dark and purple. And the pinot noir still wines of Champagne, whose prestige consistently rivaled that of their kin from farther south, were regularly described as even lighter in hue. One account holds 14th century Pope Innocent VI responsible for convincing the vignerons of Tavel to render reds lighter in color than those of neighboring Châteauneuf, a genre that wine critic and historian Jacqueline Friedrich says was known at the time as rubis tienté d’or and was “closer to a light red, a clairet,” than to today’s Tavel rosé. The term “clairet” itself, which came to describe the Bordeaux wines that Englishmen, beginning in that same century, took to their hearts, alluded to the brightness, lightness and limpidity of these wines. Fashions for almost-red wine lasted into the 20th century; witness a 1900 report by the Agricultural Society of Angers and the Maine-et-Loire that glowingly describes a category of “vins rougets” as “à la mode.”
Breaking the Color Barrier
While certain grapes lend themselves to only modest color extraction—think poulsard in France’s Jura, pineau d’Aunis in the Loire, rossese in Italy’s Liguria or pelaverga in Piedmont—many recently conceived “almost-reds” are not that way thanks to the choice of grapes or how they are grown but, rather, to how they are pressed and vinified. These wines are designed for light chilling and warm-weather quaffing but end up proving that such intentions are entirely compatible with wine full of intrigue and talent at table year-round, both in youth and with some bottle age.
Nikolaus and Carolin Bantlin, who left Germany in 1999 to pursue their dream of biodynamic viticulture, ended up not only as near neighbors of Magnon but with similar stylistic ideals that eventually led to another lovely almost-red, Ché Chauvio. “Our intentions with this wine,” explains Carolin, “were those that guide all of our offerings. Our fondness is for vinifying light, elegant wines that are fun to drink, which is not always so easy with our grape varieties and climate. Ché Chauvio represents an attempt to take that approach to the furthest extent. Besides, we had a small plot of syrah, our first planting from 2002, that was looking to us more and more like a mistake. When we started our Domaine Les Enfants Sauvages, we were truly clueless, so we allowed ourselves to be influenced by the dominant opinion of local growers that we should absolutely plant syrah, which we now realize was total nonsense for our terroir. We first tried putting it into our [flagship] Cuvée Enfant Sauvage…then tried raising it in barriques, which was not exactly an epiphany. So in 2013 we tried pressing it straightaway, since we weren’t interested in tannins or dark color. Into the must we added the whole clusters from our first crop of cinsault and closed the tank to let the berries bathe for three or four days. The result is lots of fruit, with tannins that you pick up only as a pleasant persistence.” Pleasantly persistent, too, is a hint of black pepper reminiscent of pineau d’Aunis or rossese, though in this instance, one should probably credit that to syrah itself.
If only the term “red” weren’t being used already for wines of a very different shade, and “claret” had not become an artifact associated with long bygone times, it might be easier for what one is forced to describe as almost-reds to catch on.
But even absent a collective name, these and other similarly hued wines will resonate with oenophiles seeking levity, digestibility and nuance, and eager to drink outside of the box.
This story was featured in W&S October 2017.
illustrations by Vivian Ho