Red Wines with Restraint

by Jonathan “Max” Davis

We tend to drink more white wine when the weather is warm, but a light red served slightly chilled can be equally refreshing, especially with an afternoon barbecue, or as a pre-dinner aperitif. In fact, many a meal is best served with red wine, but that doesn’t mean you have to go for an inky, alcoholic monster; there are plenty of subtler options that won’t knock you out or wrestle with your tongue.

Wines made from Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes are the most common in this category, but there is an endless list of remarkably delicate and delicious reds—not thin, or ineffectual—that simply display a certain degree of reserve or discretion, a quality sometimes referred to as “restraint.” Here are several favorites I was able to find in the East Bay for under $25:

2012 Corte Gardoni “Becco Rosso” Corvina Veronese
($18.95, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant)

This smooth-textured red from the Italian Veneto always puts me in mind of a cherry orchard, because its soft and slightly tart red fruit flavors are accompanied by a subtle and appealing bitter, medicinal woodiness reminiscent of tree bark. Made from the Corvina grape—most often blended in the reds of Valpolicella and Bardolino, but here it shines alone—it is easy, elegant and even age-worthy.

2013 Domaine Philippe Tessier ‘Le Point du Jour’ Cheverny Rouge ($23, Paul Marcus Wines)

A lively blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay from the French Touraine, this wine has the solid earthy gravity of a complex red Burgundy, and the juicy drinkability of good Beaujolais. Naturally, the result is serious fun.

2013 Pascal Janvier “Cuvee du Rosier” Coteaux du Loir Rouge ($18.95, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant)

This wine is made from the rare Loire grape Pineau D’Aunis, and it has the distinctive black pepper aroma typical of the variety, as well as an airy, clean freshness. Bright acidity and vibrant fruit flavors complement the wine’s spiciness, and the cumulative effect is uniquely uplifting.

2012 Aha Wines “Bebame” Red ($21, Ordinaire)

This mouthwatering El Dorado, California red is made by veteran winemaker Steve Edmunds from a blend of Cabernet Franc with a bit of Gamay. This fourth vintage of Bebame is as delicious as ever—tart, juicy, compact and dry, smelling of raspberries, violets and savory herbs, and finishing with a clean, chalky grip.

2013 Copain Estate P2 ($20, The Wine Mine)

I suppose the P2 is not really a red wine, considering it’s equal parts Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, but it looks and tastes more like a light red than a rosé, and it’s just too tasty to ignore. The wine has vibrant citrus, cranberry and cherry fruit, a delicate aroma of white flowers, and just enough tannin to give it a clear, firm structure.

These lighter reds usually have less alcohol by volume than their tooth-staining counterparts, and are lower in tannins and other potentially problematic compounds that remain in the wine after longer maceration with the grape skins, so they’re not as likely to make you tired, sniffling, and headachy. Excellent light red wines are also made from Frappato, Grignolino, Lagrein, Schiava, Poulsard, Trousseau, Dornfelder, and Blauer Portugeiser, among other varieties, and unless you’ve just pulled them from your stone cellar, try giving them a little chill; twenty minutes in the refrigerator will facilitate their freshness.

JHD crop
Jonathan “Max” Davis discovered his love for wine decades ago while working at Chez Panisse Café and Restaurant, in Berkeley, and has been daily and devotedly tasting ever since.  Having moved from restaurants to retail, he most recently served as the wine buyer for Smith & Vine, a boutique wine shop in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, and has written wine and book pairings for the 2013 National Book Awards Finalists.

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