Because it’s fall. Because it’s a little easier on your head and your waistline than higher-alcohol wines. Because according to my inbox, it’s “trending.” The world of lighter-bodied red wines is vast and amazing, and because some of these grapes lack the Oh So Very factor of, say, Cabernet Sauvignon, there are hidden treasures at great prices from all over the planet.
Quick primer: what gives a red wine its “body,” or viscosity, is its alcohol level and to some extent, its tannins. Some grapes just tend to make higher alcohol wines than others. Some of it has to do with how it’s treated, including how ripe the grapes are when they are picked and what climate they grow in (Zinfandel can make a hot and heavy wine in hot climates and a relatively smooth and silky one in cooler zones.) There’s also some degree to which tannin and sugar levels influence whether we experience a wine as “light” or “heavy.” While it’s not always directly related to its physical color, it happens to be the case that many of the lightest red wines are also lighter in color-clear ruby, for example-while heavy ones are purplish and dense and basically opaque in the glass. There are plenty of exceptions so don’t go based on color.
Common grapes that virtually never make light-bodied wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Pinotage, Malbec, Aglianico, Petite Sirah, Mourvedre, Sagrantino and Nebbiolo. If it says “Bordeaux blend” expect heavy. Wines that couldn’t be heavy if they tried: Pinot Noir, Gamay, Dolcetto, Schiava, Grenache and Carignan. There’s a huge middle range where you generally find things like Barbera, Merlot, Aglianico, Tempranillo, Sangiovese and sometimes even Zinfandel.
These bottles run from weeknight quaffer to occasion-worthy and none are over $25 (OK, maybe one is), with a majority well below that. So, without further ado, here are 50 ways to Lighten Up.
Adam Les Natures Pinot Noir (Alsace, France) $20
Alsace is a wine region that should be on everyone’s radar. There are tons of really good wine from this area and it’s often available at very friendly prices for the quality. This organic pinot noir comes from granite soils and happy pesticide-free grapes. Nose of redcurrants and other tart red fruits-pomegranate, raspberry. Significant tannin structure but not overwhelming, kind of voluptuous actually. The winemaker’s recommendation on this is to pair it with red meat, which you can do. But personally, I think turkey or duck would enjoy a night out with this guy, if you eat those things. If you are an herbivore I will say my first impression was that this wine would be awesome with butternut squash ravioli and brown butter. It’s also wide-ranging in its fondness for cheese.
Adelaida Grenache (Paso Robles, CA) $20
Grenache is a widely planted grape that probably originated in Spain. It likes hot, dry conditions (welcome to Paso Robles!) and produces wines with low tannins and a lot of red berry and spice notes-leathery or tarry notes enter the picture with age. Adelaida’s Grenache is a cherry and tobacco affair on the nose, with accents of allspice berries and a hint of cinnamon. The dominant flavor notes are strawberries, orange peel and oolong tea with a little black cherry. Though it’s perfectly happy to hang out with grilled meat, it’s at least as well suited to lighter dishes and since it’s a versatile character it’s a good pick for continuity with a range of tapas or small appetizer-type things (I think it’s great with smoked almonds). Also a great wine for sipping solo, paired with your back porch and a good book.
Argiolas Costera Cannonau (Sardinia) $13
Cannonau is the Sardinian spy name of Grenache and it is the major heavy-lifter red grape of that island. Sardinian expressions of Grenache tend to be heavier bodied than they are in some regions, so know this is the heavy end of “light.” You’ll get aromatic resinous herbs (like rosemary) over a layer of ripe strawberries, cherries and vanilla. This wine is a great companion to grilled meat.
Artezin Zinfandel (Mendocino, CA) $15
Zinfandel? I know, I know. But this one’s a cool-climate Zinfandel from Mendocino County, whose major exports are fog, chilly Pacific wind, and some of my favorite wines. If you’ve never compared a warm-climate Zin to something like this one, do it, because it’s really interesting. Words like “chewy and “jammy” do not come up with this wine; it’s silken and rounded. The nose hints at pomegranates and sour cherries. On the palate, an eccentric mélange of herbaceous and spice notes (I get nutmeg, and something like fenugreek) accompany a cedar and raspberry core. This wine is luscious but crisp and taut. A good friend to blue cheeses, pasta Bolognese, and anything you happen to be applying to an open flame, including Portobello mushrooms.
Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir (Santa Barbara, CA) $20
Pinot Noir is the classic red grape of Burgundy, and has become a staple of California’s coastal-influence AVAs. Santa Barbara’s Au Bon Climat makes a lot of wines that tend to go for a lot more than $25, but don’t think the more affordable price means the quality isn’t great. This is an incredibly versatile food wine and a major crowd-pleaser, light-hearted and casually elegant, with dominant notes of alpine strawberry and plum. Fruity and well-balanced. Seriously, pair it with whatever you happen to be eating.
Baileyana Firepeak Edna Valley Pinot Noir (Edna Valley, CA) $23
One of the winemakers I almost never stop nattering about is Domestic Terroirist Christian Roguenant, who is the genius behind the Niven Family wines including Baileyana. The central coast of CA is Pinot paradise and this guy is a confirmed Grape Whisperer and makes some of the best awesomeness-to-dollar-ratio wines in the state. Spicy, sleek, silken. Dominant notes are all classic Pinot: Cherries and red plums, dense florals, forest floor and loam, coffee, cocoa, and traces of baking spice (nutmeg pops up in this one and I think allspice). I think this is a marvelous companion to a summer evening on which you have chosen to go outside and apply various foods to an open flame. If you took it camping, which it would do obligingly because it is LeScrewcapped, you would deeply dignify whatever you put on the grill and I include the s’mores because Pinot Noir actually has a secret love of chocolate and graham crackers. Then again, don’t we all?
Balletto Estate Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley CA) $21
Graceful, cellar-worthy, giftable, hoardable, drinkable. Actually don’t hoard wine. You should drink it. You should drink this beauty from Russian River Valley fruit. It’s savory, with a lot of earthy notes, foresty aromatics, something meaty, something mossy, something deep and dark but also light and fresh. There’s a rose and violet thing happening here as well as chocolate and coffee. Fruit tends toward plum and black cherry. Ultra-balanced. Pair it with something pan-roasted and a little caramelized.
Banfi L’ardi Dolcetto d’Acqui (Piemonte, Italy) $12
Dolcetto is known for being a wine that doesn’t translate well, meaning that unlike for example Pinot Noir, which is tricky to grow but also a versatile terroir-sponge that will learn to speak the language wherever you plant it, Dolcetto is really a Piemontese character and the best ones come from there. Since in Piemonte it has to compete for space with the more highbrow varietals Nebbiolo and Barbera, its station has risen somewhat. This one’s very dry, very cherry. This Dolcetto has some herb notes on the finish and a little blackberry. Don’t age it. It enjoys youth. It also enjoys grilled prawns! Yum. Soft tannins and crisp, uncomplicated acidity also mean it’s a red that will deal graciously with tomato-based sauces.
Banshee Mordecai Proprietary Red Blend (Sonoma County) $24
Banshee is one of those wineries I kind of don’t like to write about because I don’t want to share. Out of Mendocino County, this red blend contains a wide range of hotter-climate varietals and expresses notes of chocolate and plums, blueberry jam and herbs, tar and baking spice and a blackberry kick that lets you know there’s Zinfandel in there. This is not a light-bodied wine. At all. It’s rich and powerful and frankly kind of a beast-but a charming, elegant beast. It’s a wine that wants to be in a dialogue with red meat, but that doesn’t mean vegetarians should shun it; it will play along beautifully with wild mushrooms, pizza, grilled veggies, and probably a lot of other stuff.
Banshee Sonoma County Pinot Noir (Sonoma County) $23
That’s right. I said I didn’t want to let the Banshee cat out of the bag and I am doing it twice because it’s such a good value and it might not stay that way. It is getting hard to find great Pinot Noir at this price point, to be honest. This one is great. The overwhelming impression I get from it is those red-fleshed Japanese plums, but also, cherry and blueberry and a forest floor character, something woodsy and mossy. A little wild strawberry too. There is a bit of a marine funk to this wine, and it is highly intriguing. It is a red that will happily hang out with seafood dishes, but I wouldn’t rule out turkey. Or duck breast.
Bonny Doon Clos de Gilroy (Central Coast, CA) $14
Bonny Doon was the first winery I ever fell in love with and I still love them. They’re eclectic and thoughtful and their tasting notes are works of art. If you’re looking for a wine club to join and you have an adventurous streak, I cannot recommend them highly enough. This Grenache (with a mourvedre add-in is a slinky minx of a wine, cool and supple. The big notes are raspberry and black pepper but pay close attention and you’ll find things like thyme, mint, wet earth, and red currants. Head Doonstah Randall Grahm recommends serving this wine with pepper-crusted ahi, and I am not about to disagree with him.