Red Wine 101 - An Interview with Sommelier Michael Wray

Karen Frazier
Michael Wray, Sommelier

You might call a beginning course in red wine "Red Wine 101," but for professional sommelier and Director of Restaurant Management at Metropolitan State College of Denver Michael Wray, teaching people the basics of red wine is just another day at the office. Recently, LoveToKnow Wine was fortunate enough to talk with Michael about the basics of red wine.

About Michael Wray

Michael Wray has been the Director of Restaurant Management at the Metropolitan State College of Denver since August of 2000. Originally from Maryland's Eastern Shore, he worked for several colleges teaching a variety of culinary and hospitality management classes. In addition, Michael developed his love of fine cuisine while working as a food and beverage director with Ramada Renaissance and Holiday Inn Hotels.

Michael has an active role in the French food society, Les Amis d'Escoffier and Chaines des Rotisseurs. He holds Bachelors in Nutrition and Foods from Virginia Tech, an MBA from Salisbury University and a PhD in Education Leadership at the University of Colorado, Denver. Along with his culinary credentials, he also has a Sommelier Diploma, Certified Culinary Instructor, and Master Certified Food Service Executive. Michael's classes at Denver's Metropolitan State College are among the most popular on campus due in large part to an interactive learning environment that fosters a love for food, wine, beer, and spirits in tandem.

Red Wine 101 - An Interview with Sommelier Michael Wray

LoveToKnow (LTK): What is the most important information that someone new to wines needs to know about red wines?

Michael Wray (MW): Red wines offer more intense aromas and flavors than white wine. To the beginning taster red wines may be overpowering, particularly if fuller body, higher alcohol, and tannic, such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Red wines are more intense because in the wine making process, the skins remain with the juice. The skins impart color, flavor and tannins to the finished wines. It is the tannins that some people feel are too bitter and mouth drying for the beginning wine connoisseur. If someone is new to red wines, perhaps try a Beaujolais Villages from France. These wines are made in a process that emphasizes fresh fruit flavors and fewer tannins.

Red wines also offer more health benefits because of the contact with grape skins. The ingredients of reserveratrol and other phytochemicals have had a reported role in reducing the effects of aging, serving as an antioxidant, antiinflamatory, and thereby less incidence of coronary heart disease, particularly from Red Burgundy (Pinot Noir).

LTK: How would you recommend that someone new to red wine begin to make sense of all of the information out there about it?

MW: Rather than wasting time and money buying bottles, go to tastings and take notes. You can find out about tastings locally by registering at www.localwineevents.com. Your area liquor stores sometimes have free tastings. There are also formal tastings where you can taste hundreds of different wines. Talk to producers and visit wineries. You'll find people have multiple opinions, so take all the information in, and compare to textbooks on wine. Good starter textbooks are the Wine Bible by Karen MacNiel, About Wine by Henderson and Rex, Wine, Beer, and Spirits Handbook by the International Culinary Schools, and World Atlas of Wine by Johnson and Robinson.

Red Wine Characteristics

LTK: What characteristics are desirable in a red wine?

MW: Red wine has key components to look for - first of all fruit character. Smell and taste the wine and distinguish what types of fruit flavors are present and how intense these flavors are. Youthful reds will be more fresh fruit flavors, while a more aged wine will have baked and aged fruit flavors. Beginning wine tasters are sometimes more attracted to fresh plum than dried plum or baked plum flavors present in an aged wine. Over time, wine enthusiasts learn to appreciate the complexity of aged wine, particularly when paired with the appropriate food.

Next is tannin. Lighter bodied reds have fewer tannins, which are the bitter tasting and mouth drying effect found in red wines. If the wine has more time with the grape skins, seeds, stems, and oak it will be more tannic. Lighter bodied red examples are Beaujolais or Pinot Noir, while more fuller bodied examples are Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Nebbiolo.

Finally, the finish of the red wine is important. Gauge how long the flavor lingers on the palate. Wines with greater complexity and more intense flavors will have a longer finish.

Red Wine and Food Pairings

Osso bucco pairs well with Nebbiolo

LTK: Can you describe some basic red wine/food pairings that are particularly successful?

MW: When looking at successful wine and food pairing, the easiest approach is to look at classic regions of cuisine that have had the food and wine develop in tandem over centuries. Most of these pairings are found in Europe. So, look to the cuisine of France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Germany. When it comes to red wine, some classic pairings are Barolo (Nebbiolo grape) with osso bucco (braised lamb shank), lamb with Merlot (a Right Bank Bordeaux such as Pomerol or St. Emillion), filet mignon with Béarnaise sauce and a Left Bank Bordeaux (which are Cabernet Sauvignon intensive) such as Margaux or Pauillac. Red Burgundy (Pinot Noir) is classically paired with duck. For a lighter palate, a fun choice is Chianti (a Sangiovese blend) and pizza or pasta with marinara sauce. If you like tapas and more seasoning, Rioja (a Spanish Tempranillo blend) is great with skirt steak and roasted red piquillo peppers

LTK: How does someone who knows nothing about red wines go about selecting a red?

MW: Start light. Consider lighter bodied wines as a gateway to more fuller bodied wines. Lighter chioices are Beaujolais, Pinot Noir, Dolcetto (from Italy), Merlot, and Grenache. These wines are full of fruit flavor and often lower in tannins with fewer bitter flavors that can sometimes turn off the beginning wine enthusiast.

Aging Red Wine

LTK: Are all red wines meant to be aged? How do you know how long to age a red?

MW: 99 percent of the world's wine is not intended to be aged beyond five years. As a general rule, most of the wine you buy is ready to consume and will not benefit from further aging. It becomes easier to talk about the small percentage of wines that are age worthy. If a wine has complex and high acid, fuller body of alcohol and tannins, then it can survive in the bottle longer without deteriorating. Tannins in particular function as a natural preservative in wine; however, over time, they will precipitate out of the wine and fall to the bottom of the bottle in the form of sediment. As they age, wines become more complex in flavors and aromas. Pigment changes from bright purple and blue to more brown and orange hints. The fruit will taste more dried or aged in flavor. With this in mind, the higher tannic wines that have a balance of alcohol and acid worthy of aging are very few. Mainly, Cabernet Sauvignon, particularly from the better regions in Bordeaux, Tempranillo from Rioja and Ribera del Duero in Spain, Nebbiolo from Barolo and Barbaresco in Italy, and Syrah from the Northern Rhone in France.

Although there are select regions in the USA, Austrailia and other parts of the world that have age worthy examples of these varieties of grapes, it is mainly the European regions that have the highest concentrations of age worthy wine. Why? Because the cooler climates and cultural practices of wine making yield wines that have more youthful tannins and complex acids that will enable the wine to age in the bottle longer. If grapes are more ripe at harvest, the finished wine is often more approachable upon fermentation and does not require aging in the bottle. Both styles/regions can yield high quality wine, but the finished experience and age worthiness of the wine are generally dictated by higher complex acids and increased tannins found in cool district European wine regions

Red Wine Recommendations

LTK: Do you have any favorites that you can recommend for people new to red wines?

MW: There are some star wines emerging from newer districts that are fun to talk about. It doesn't take an expert to pick fine wine from classic regions, such as Pauillac, Pomerol, and Hermitage; however, finding the emerging regions with high quality wines is indeed a more acquired skilled. One style of wine popular with current consumers is very fruity, intense wines that are an explosion of flavor and body on the palate. These wines, sometimes referred to as fruit bombs, are great fun with new world cuisine, complementing the complex and in your face flavors of foods such as ribeye with plum sauce. Try Atteca, a fullbodied Garnacha from the Jumilla region in Spain. The wine is made with 100 percent Garnacha from older vines that yield intense fruit flavors. The natural lower acid of Grenache/Garnacha make for a more approachable match to foods with acidic sauces, such as BBQ sauce.

For more red wine 101 information, check out our Wine for Beginners section of LoveToKnow wine. You'll find a whole host of information there to teach you all you need to know about wine.

Red Wine 101 - An Interview with Sommelier Michael Wray