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Exploring Red Wine (Plus How to Use It in Cooking and Baking)

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Red wine has been enjoyed since ancient times.

Red wine has been enjoyed since ancient times.

The Ancient Story of Red Wine

Both France and Italy are renowned for their wine production; some of the finest red wines come from the Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piedmont, Sicily, and Emilia-Romagna regions. But these are not where the earth first brought forth wine grapes. Archeological evidence points to an area between the Caucasus and Zagros Mountains in Europe, an area that spans the countries we know today as Azerbaijan, Georgia, northern Iran, and Turkey.

Some food historians have quibbled over which came first, wine or beer? When you consider the process, wine must have been the first. Wine production (I’m not specifying good wine) requires no human intervention. (Even apes in the wild seek out past-their-prime fruits.) Grape juice encounters wild yeast and fermentation happens. Beer production is much more complicated. However, the deliberate domestication of wine-producing vines would not have been possible within a nomadic society. The care and production of wine-making grapes and the vinification process require an organized society.

Archeologists have found the ruins of a winery site in Armenia, estimating that it was created more than 6,000 years ago. The village, Areni, is still recognized for its wine production.

Map showing the location of the town of Areni

Map showing the location of the town of Areni

How Red Wine Is Made

The process of making red wine has changed very little from what was done by the people of Areni 6,000 years ago. However, there have been obvious improvements in equipment, sanitation, and size of production.

The Harvest and Crush

The first step is, of course, the harvest which begins each year in late summer to early fall. Grape bunches are cut from the vines by hand or with a machine that shakes the grapes from their stems.

Experienced sorters remove withered, mildewed grapes and debris. If the clusters were removed by hand they are next de-stemmed and crushed; grapes that were machine-harvested can skip this process.

Medieval  wine press in the Eberbach Monastery, Germany

Medieval wine press in the Eberbach Monastery, Germany

Fermentation and the Press

For white wine, the grapes are pressed to extract the juice from the skins and seeds (which provide color). For red wine, the grapes with their skins and seeds are fermented in a tank. The age-old process relied on natural airborne yeasts but come vintners add commercial yeast.

The grape skins are vital in coloring and flavoring the wine but they tend to float to the surface and form a "cap." There are two methods to solve this problem; in large commercial productions juice from the bottom of the vat is pumped over the skins to rehydrate them and keep them in contact with the contents of the vat. Some vintners stir and punch down the cap by hand.

When the fermentation process is done the juice is poured into a wine press. Pressing is very important; too gentle and the full flavors will not be released, too harsh and the seeds will be crushed, releasing harsh tannins.

Red wine is aged in oak barrels like these.

Red wine is aged in oak barrels like these.

Vat or Oak Barrel Aging

Up to this point, there has been quite a bit of activity, but now we wait. Most red wines need to mature before bottling. Some wines are aged in stainless steel holding tanks, but the more complex, expensive wines are aged in oak barrels. Light-bodied red wines may spend only a few months; the "big" reds might spend several years pondering their existence.

Fining, Filtering, and Bottling

The next process is the fining; a substance (typically gelatin, egg white, or bentonite clay) is added to the wine. It attracts any suspended particles (that would make the wine cloudy) and precipitates to the bottom. Filtration is the next step, passing the wine through a material that acts much like a coffee filter.

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The last and final home for the wine, after pressing, aging, fining, and filtering is an impermeable glass bottle. Although for centuries vintners have sealed their wine bottles with cork, metal and plastic stoppers are gaining popularity.

Wine Facts

  • Wine is made in virtually every country in the world.
  • There are 10,000 varieties of wine grapes worldwide.
  • In Europe, wines are named after their geographic locations. Outside of Europe wines are named after grape varieties.
  • Just 50 grapes make up about 80 percent of the world's wine grape plantings.

Diversity is important because it protects against disease and reduces the need for unnatural defenses like pesticides. Additionally, different grapes thrive in different climates, which greatly increases the number of climates where wine grapes grow. Unfortunately, demand for popular grapes threatens to reduce the amount of natural diversity in wine around the world. More and more regions pull out their native varieties in favor of well-known grapes.

— Wine Folly, June 19, 2017

  • Pinot Noir: This cool-climate grape originated in the Burgundy region of France but now grows around the world. It's a light-bodied wine, slightly dry, with the flavors of cherry, raspberry, and cloves. Mark your calendar—August 18 is Pinot Noir Day!
  • Grenache: This one is grown in the Southern Rhône Valley of France but originated in Spain. With the flavors of grilled plum, blood orange, and dried herbs it pairs well with roasted meats or foods prepared with Chinese 5-spice or cumin.
  • Cabernet Franc: Wine aficionados detect an unusual flavor in this wine; in addition to hints of strawberry and raspberry, there is a note that speaks of bell pepper.
  • Sangiovese: This Italian red is dry and acidic so pairs perfectly with tomato-y foods. Some people compare its taste to a rich espresso with a hint of sweet balsamic.
  • Merlot: Merlot is my favorite red; if you like the flavor of cherries and dark chocolate, this is the wine for you. It's greatly versatile, pairing well with fun foods like pizza or barbecue, but it can also get classy with filet mignon, or 101 things in between.
  • Zinfandel: Bold and fruity, this low-acid wine has hints of cinnamon; match it with big-flavored foods.
  • Malbec: This full-bodied Argentinian wine is rich with the flavors of cocoa, blackberry, and sweet tobacco. Pair it with blue cheese (trust me on this).
  • Cabernet Sauvignon: This is the most planted red wine grape on the planet; 713,592 acres are devoted to this French-origin wine. It's a bold, tannic wine with the taste of black currant, cedar, and warm baking spices. Serve it with grilled meats and rich sauces.
  • Syrah: Also known as Shiraz, this spicy red tastes of plum and peppercorns. Rich meats and spicy dishes (Indian perhaps?) work perfectly with it.
  • Petite Sirah: This dark-colored wine is full-bodied and peppery and reminiscent of blueberries with dark chocolate. It's high in tannins; serve it with a rich meal—steak, cheese, stroganoff.

Glossary of Wine Terms

  • Cap: The solids (stems, seeds, skins) that rise to the surface as the wine juice ferments.
  • Crush: The breaking of the grapes to release their juices and allow all of the parts (seeds, stems, skins, and pulp) to mingle.
  • Corked: A small percentage of wines may develop an "off" smell because of contamination from the cork. Corking is an equal-opportunity problem; it does not discriminate on the basis of place of origin, variety, or cost.
  • Fining: A substance (typically gelatin, egg white, or bentonite clay) is added to the wine. It attracts any suspended particles (that would make the wine cloudy)
  • Free Run: The first juice to come out of the grapes.
  • Maceration: The coloring agents of the skins and seeds are leached into the liquid.
  • Malolactic Fermentation: A second fermentation, deliberately allowed or introduced to the wine to convert malic acid to lactic acid (which is less sour). This process also helps produce distinctive aromas.
  • Must: The resulting liquid extracted from the grape skins, stems seeds, and pulp.
  • Racking: Allowing the yeasts and solids suspended in the wine to settle to the bottom of the cask as sediment.
  • Tannin (also known as tannic acid): This contributes to the sour/acid/astringent flavor of the wine.
  • Terroir: How are grape's climate and soils (territory) affect its flavors and characteristics.
  • Vintage: The year that the grapes were picked.

Coq au Vin

When we think of cooking with red wine, one of the first savory dishes that comes to mind is coq au vin (chicken with wine), a classic French meal. Of course, for all things French, I look to Julia Child. Her coq au vin is truly a masterpiece, but it's also an intense hours-long process.

Samantha has streamlined Julia's original concept, retaining all of the flavors but eliminating some of the more time-consuming steps.

Beef bourguignon

Beef bourguignon

Beef Bourguignon

Another equally famous and classic French red wine dish is beef Bourguignon, a rich and hearty beef stew enhanced by a low-and-slow simmer in red wine. Burgundy is the traditional choice, but if you don't have that (or you prefer something less tannic) pinot noir or chianti will do nicely.

This company-worthy meal is a blessing to home cooks because not only can it be prepared ahead of time, the flavors meld and improve with an overnight rest in the refrigerator. Serve over buttered noodles or silky mashed potatoes.

Shrimp pasta with garlic basil tomato sauce

Shrimp pasta with garlic basil tomato sauce

Shrimp Pasta With Garlic Basil Tomato Sauce

In this American dish, shrimp pasta with garlic basil tomato sauce, shrimp gets top billing, but the real star of the show is the rich red sauce made with Chianti wine, fresh basil, lots of garlic, and Italian seasoning. By the way, I think that langostino, halibut, or even chicken tenders could be substituted for the shrimp.

Red wine braised short ribs

Red wine braised short ribs

Red Wine Braised Short Ribs

Short ribs come from the chuck (shoulder); this muscle is used heavily, it's tough but has rich marbling and deep beefy flavor. A low and slow braise is the cooking method needed to break down those muscle fibers and make the ribs tender. These red wine braised short ribs simmer with aromatic vegetables, tomato, and red wine (a Bordeaux would be heavenly). Plan on at least three hours for them to achieve fall-off-the-bone tenderness and create a velvety rich sauce.

Red wine pasta

Red wine pasta

Red Wine Pasta

You're probably thinking, "pasta cooked in red wine? Carb Diva, have you totally lost your mind?" You'll have to trust me on this one, but please give it a try. Imagine how amazing this dish would be for Valentine's Day dinner?

Cook up some pancetta until crispy; in the same pot add lots of garlic and a pinch or two of red pepper flakes. Then pour in a bottle of red wine—yes, an entire bottle. Let it reduce by half to two-thirds. While the wine is doing its thing, bring a pot of water to a boil and cook your pasta (please use a good quality spaghetti) until al dente. It will still be firm to the bite. Drain and toss into the pot of red wine. It will finish cooking there and will not only take on the color but will absorb all of those wonderful flavors.

Creamy polenta with red wine mushrooms

Creamy polenta with red wine mushrooms

Creamy Polenta With Red Wine Mushrooms

This creamy polenta with red wine mushrooms is for all of my vegetarian/vegan friends. Polenta is an Italian dish made of fine-ground cornmeal simmered in broth. It's creamy like porridge—just right for soaking up every drop of this earthy mushroom sauce. You get all the flavor of a beef bourguignon but without the sacrificial animal.

Red wine brownies with drunken cranberries

Red wine brownies with drunken cranberries

Red Wine Brownies With Drunken Cranberries

Several years ago my next-door neighbor introduced me to chocolate wine. I thought it an odd-sounding combination, but oh my was I pleasantly surprised. I've always enjoyed an oaky, tannic red wine and swoon at the mere mention of dark chocolate. When you consider their qualities, they do have a lot in common—and whoever decided to marry the two of them in a bottle is a genius.

That's why these red wine brownies are so darned good. I do have a few words of caution though. If you like sweet cake-like brownies that taste like a milk chocolate bar, this recipe is not for you. However, if you adore rich, moist, fudge-like densely dark chocolate brownies, these will make you happy. These are boozy, so they're not for kids or those who shun alcohol.


© 2020 Linda Lum

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