Knechting the Dots

Almost Red

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.

For centuries, Côte d’Or Burgundy, Champagne, and Bordeaux, aka claret, were not-quite red by today’s standards.
Maxime Magnon was young, unknown and fresh from a stint with Marcel Lapierre’s circle of Beaujolais “naturalists” when, in 2001, he took charge of Domaine Maria Fita in the rugged Corbières hills above Fitou. That role failed to contain his imagination and soon his inspired viticultural intuitions were issuing in wines under his own name, as he laid claim to ancient vines and planted new ones, with special emphasis on long-traditional varieties that were now unglamorous (carignan and cinsault) or endangered (lledoner pelut, aka “hairy grenache”). “The idea, I hope, is basically ‘a bit Tavel, a bit Bandol,’” says Magnon of his Métisse, a wine he has, in some vintages, labeled rosé, despite it being decidedly, albeit light, red. His inspiration? “I once tasted an amazing 1968 Tavel—not from an estate you would want to visit nowadays, but this was [tasted] with the grandfather—and that’s what got me thinking in this direction.” You’ll have to look long and hard to find a Tavel or a Bandol rosé that combines the complexity, charm and drinkability of Métisse with the depth it can acquire after two or three years in bottle (notwithstanding Magnon’s intention and his customers’ practice of drinking it up within four months). The 2012, for instance, delivered strawberry draped in hyacinth and wisteria, with rose hip and cherry-pit accents to an upwelling of saline, meat-stock savor and subtle smokiness that became more prominent two years out. By that time, a youthfully silken texture had turned almost ethereal, making the wine that much harder to stop drinking. “I vinify the cinsault [for Métisse] just like my reds—six to eight days of maceration,” explains Magnon, “but just by infusion, not actively extracting. And the other part—carignan, lledoner and a tiny bit of mourvèdre—I press directly.”

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.

“People thought some of the things we did were crazy,” notes Stephanie Eselböck of Gut Oggau, which she and her husband, Eduard Tscheppe, founded in 2007, along the shores of eastern Austria’s expansive but shallow Neusiedlersee. A case in point is Winifred (named, like all of their wines, for a family member), intended as a “year-round rosé,” although that description is deceptive given its depth of color. The source is a gravelly old blaufränkisch vineyard with a few rows of zweigelt. “We press them together and give them a shorter or longer time on the skins, depending on the vintage,” explains Tscheppe, who vinifies all of his wines sulfur-free in large old casks, and bottles off of the full lees without filtration. The wine is mouthwatering, sumptuously textured and features rose hip, black tea, toasted nuts and Madagascar peppercorn. “Honestly, we didn’t realize until the first time we got it into bottle how much potential it had,” he says. It seems he and Eselböck also did not realize that minimal pruning, generous yields and short fermentation for a low alcohol not-quite red reflect a long-standing tradition of so-called gleichgepresster (direct-pressed) blaufränkisch that once dominated this part of Austria and was common up until the 1970s.

Designed for light chilling and warm-weather quaffing, these almost-red wines are full of intrigue and talent at table year-round, both in youth and with some bottle age.
The almost-reds of Domaine Maxime Magnon, Les Enfants Sauvages and Gut Oggau are all reminiscent of the cofermentation among grape varieties that ensues from a harvest of mixed plantings—“field blends,” to use the usual but somewhat misleading American term—which were prevalent in most winegrowing regions until the mid-20th century, and still are in some parts of the wine world. One such place is the slopes of Sicily’s Mount Etna, where Frank Cornelissen’s Susucaru results from a patchwork of small, ancient parcels featuring nerello mascalese along with the white grapes malvasia, moscadella and cattaratto, all of which ferment together on their skins for around ten days. Cornelissen notoriously eschews sulfur, but he has recently started giving this still sediment-rich bottling a very light filtration. Its silken texture and infectious juiciness encourage a rate of consumption that could easily allow the casual taster to overlook the wine’s kaleidoscopically shifting floral, herbal and fruity nuances, or the wealth of mineral descriptors needed to do justice to an exemplar of Cornelissen’s ideal: “liquid rock.”

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.

illustrations by Vivian Ho

This feature appears in the print edition of October 2017.
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