The rise of the lighter-coloured red wine

What’s the most interesting development in the world of wine? Single-variety Vinho Verde? Rosé in magnum? No, for me, it’s the rise of lighter-coloured red wines. And this is quite a new thing, and a big thing.


When I started out drinking wine seriously, back in the mid-1990s, bigger was best. The sorts of red wines that were celebrated were those that were inky-dark and concentrated. Dense, intense, opaque, practically black red wines were highly sought after, and landed the big point scores.

I was all over these big reds. For me, the ultimate red wine would have been one so thick you could stand a spoon in it. And as black as coal.

The wine world was in some sort of collective insanity, pursuing ripeness and concentration above everything else. This continued through the noughties. In Bordeaux, even – a region with a special talent for balanced, digestible reds – the wines began to get darker and richer.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with dark-coloured red wines. It’s just that all wines were moving further in this direction, and no one was the slightest bit interested in reds that were paler in colour.

How quickly this has changed! In the space of just a few years, wine lovers are beginning to realize that there is no correlation between depth of colour and wine quality. Pale reds don’t necessarily lack flavour; they seldom lack aroma. Just as there’s been a shift away from high alcohol, a corresponding shift is beginning with red wine colour.

A lot of the red wines I get excited about at the moment are decidedly pale in hue, and there are ever more of these lighter reds to choose from. Pinot Noir was never meant to make dark red wines: it’s pretty bonkers to do extended cold macerations and excessive punch downs in order to pull more colour out of a grape whose talent is for making lighter-coloured red wines. To use a rugby analogy, it’s like drafting your winger into the middle of the pack. Pinot is about elegance and aroma.

Historically, Bordeaux produced lighter-coloured reds, hence the term Claret. Bordeaux a region with a talent for midweight, balanced red wines which develop beautiful, haunting aromatics with age. Some of the top wines of today are just too dark and concentrated, and don’t play to the strengths of this region at all.

Gamay is a grape benefiting from this renewed interest in lighter reds. Suddenly, Beaujolais is being taken seriously – and not just the bigger, more structured examples, but also the lighter, more fragrant ones. Gamay is attracting interest elsewhere, too. gamay is a grape of the future.

Look at the rise of Cinsault, especially in South Africa. While it has been widely grown for its high yields and for retaining freshness in hot climates, Cinsault’s lack of colour was seen as a major problem. Not any more: ambitious young winemakers are seeing it as a valuable blending component, but also as a fabulous variety in its own right, able to make supremely drinkable red wines that are low in colour and alcohol.

Even with more mainstream varieties that typically make darker-coloured reds, many winemakers are deliberately extracting less. Working with whole bunches, being sparing with punchdowns and reducing maceration times: these are now common approaches for those looking for elegance and fragrance over power and density.

The thing about lighter reds? Well, there are a couple of things. First, they usually have such beautiful aromatics. It’s as if the lighter extraction allows a leap forward aromatically. Does colour shackle aroma in some strange way? The other thing is that you are always in the mood to drink them, and they are usually so amazingly drinkable.

Of course, lighter reds aren’t universally understood or appreciated. For now, they probably aren’t mainstream, but I’m predicting a bright future for them – both the fun, smashable ones, and also the more serious ones.

It’s a thing. Lighter coloured reds. The next thing? Darker coloured whites. This is beginning to happen, too.


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