The red wine revolution: no food

The Hague, Brussels, London, Copenhagen; Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, London.  Over the last two weeks two vast caravanserais of prominent Bordeaux château owners have processed around the capitals of northern Europe trying to persuade their inhabitants to buy their unsold 2001 and 2002 reds, many at tempting prices. But the fact that they have had to do this is just one of the more visible symptoms of Bordeaux’s crise viticole, brought on by the fact that this temperate, rather humid region necessarily makes a style of wine that is best appreciated at the dinner table. The flashiest nouveaux riches of Shanghai may play with a goblet of Le Pin as an aperitif because it is expensive, famous and pretty rich itself, but the great bulk of red bordeaux made today is just too high in acid and tannin and too low in alcohol and sugar to provide comfortable drinking without food.


The way we drink wine is changing so rapidly that wine itself is having a hard time keeping up with those changes. And different cultures have quite different ideas about the function of wine.


The French for example, supposedly guardians of the vinous flame, see wine as a drink that belongs exclusively in the dining room. Some old men may still nurse a small glass of rotgut in grimier neighbourhood bars but very few sophisticated Frenchmen would consider still dry wine a suitable aperitif. Some may serve a glass of something sweet before a meal. Others open champagne at the beginning as well as at the end of dinner. But basically within French culture, wine is something to be savoured with food – or, increasingly, not at all for per capita wine consumption within France has been plummeting.


At the other end of the evolutionary scale, in terms of wine, is India, a culture that is very new to fermented grape juice, in the modern era anyway. When I met the country’s few writers on the subject on a visit not that long ago they explained how difficult it was to convince their countrymen of the virtues of wine drinking. “What’s the point?” they would be asked. “Wine doesn’t get you drunk nearly as fast as whisky.” In India the custom is to drink first and eat second, when you can no longer stand – rather as in Glasgow. In such drinking cultures the function of the aperitif can seem less to open up the digestive system than to close down the cognitive one. 


But most wine cultures lie somewhere between these two extremes and in my opinion and experience, they are changing fast. In those parts of the world where wine consumption is rising most rapidly, Britain and parts of Asia for example, wine is no longer seen as necessarily a drink to go with food. An increasing proportion of wine of all sorts, including even quite smart red wine, is drunk without food, or without any solid matter more substantial than a bowl of nuts or potato chips. A glass of wine today has become a ubiquitous and acceptable alternative to a beer, a gin and tonic or a Bacardi breezer. What people are looking for is a no-food wine.


This has huge implications for the style of wines that are likely to be most in demand – particularly for red wines which are increasingly fashionable and have been seen as possible aperitifs only relatively recently.


Purists, myself among them, may complain about the apparent sweetness of so many wines made today, particularly but by no means exclusively in the New World, but for many wine drinkers it is this sweetness that makes the wines so easy to drink on their own.


I suspect that this has been an important factor in the malaise that is also affecting sales of red wines from Italy’s traditional wine regions, especially Piedmont and Tuscany. Wines such as Chianti and (the admittedly much more expensive) Barolo are stuffed full of chewy tannin and, unless very mature, taste as dry as bone. What makes them so delicious with a bowl of pasta or a veal chop also makes them seem bitter and uncompromising without food.


The very visible trend towards reds from the south of Italy with their much higher alcohols and softer, riper tannins is surely partly a consequence of these changing drinking habits. A glass of velvety Negroamaro or Rosso di Salento slides down much more ‘smoothly’ as the jargon has it, than a light, tart red from the north of Italy.


This word smooth is important. It has become a sort of euphemism for sweet and soft, or low in tannin. And it is smooth reds that are the obvious no-food candidates, drunk in many bars today, slightly chilled. Pam Gregory who buys the wine for Mitchell & Butler’s 2,200 outlets in the UK including All Bar One, Browns, Harvester and Vintage Inns is quite clear about her policy on choosing suitable red wines: “the tannin content is not welcome – it makes the wines too tight, especially when they’re chilled”.


But sweet, soft reds are not necessarily the most delightful dinner companions. They can seem heavy, clumsy and distracting with many foods. Yet palates new to wine that are introduced to wine drinking may well find drier, chewier reds more difficult to warm to than big, bold fruit bombs which, crucially, need much less time in bottle or glass to show their charms.


Another factor in our changing taste for wine is undoubtedly the revolution in the sort of food we eat. Subtle red bordeaux may go beautifully with classic French and British cuisine but it is often out of its depth with the sort of sweet and spicy dishes that are increasingly popular worldwide. A hearty Barossa Shiraz or Zinfandel can seem much more the thing with curry, coconut milk and chilli.


It does not take any great feat of clairvoyance to predict that demand for softer, sweeter reds will continue to grow, at least in the medium term, doing little to solve France’s viticultural crisis. The bold, rich wines of Spain should be notable beneficiaries of this trend. New World influence in wineries throughout Europe will also probably continue to strengthen as wine producers everywhere seek to make the sort of fruit-driven styles that appeal most to no-food wine drinkers.


But perhaps in the longer term, since every action is followed by a reaction, an increasing proportion of wine drinkers will seek a quite different style of wine that is expressly designed to be drunk with food. In the meantime, if I were a wine producer, I would not bank on it.




Some distinctly superior no-food reds:


Touchstone Merlot 2002 Rapel, VOE £5.50 Vintage Roots of Arborfield

Organic Chilean bursting with fruit.


Alamos Bonarda 2002 Mendoza, Catena Zapata £5.49 Booths, £5.99 Unwins

Full and round yet grown-up. Opulent with the same sort of rich appeal as a mature Merlot.


La Segreta Rosso 2003 Sicily, Planeta £7.99 Booths

Real depth and attractive cherry fruit, made from Nero d’. My tasting notes include the word ‘smooth’.


Best’s Shiraz 2001 Victoria £8.75 House of Townend, Hull

Another wine that is smooth and round but with real distinction, cool climate influence and a very complete drink.


Pinot Nero 2002 Alto Adige, Franz Haas £14.95 Frank Stainton Wines, Kendal;

Moriarty Vintners, Cardiff; Ribblesdale Wine Co, Clitheroe; Valvona & Crolla, Edinburgh; Westfield Wines, Dublin

Really interesting Dolomite variation on red burgundy. No shortage of fruit but not simple.