A friend came to me recently seeking wine recommendations, which is not unusual. She specifically targeted red wines that would be smooth or easy to sip.
"I'm not a Cabernet kind of girl," she said. "I've heard that red wine is healthier for you than white wine so I'm looking for some red wines that would be easier to sip than cabernet. Would that be Pinot Noir, or Malbec, or something else?"
Pinot Noir does indeed fit the description, but price was also a consideration, and that would rule out most red Burgundy and domestic Pinot. The health angle is an important issue for many and has fueled an increase in sales of red wine by the glass in restaurants and wine bars. Multiple studies link certain compounds in the skins of red-wine grapes with improved heart health.
But high-octane red wines loaded with aggressive tannins, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Barolo, and high-acid reds, such as Chianti and Barbera, while wonderful with certain foods, can be too harsh, too alcoholic or too astringent for casual sipping. What's the fun in that?
If you would like to make the switch from white to red during happy hour, do not despair. There is an abundance of red wine that will deliver delicious flavors and aromas with supple, soft tannins and smooth balance between fruit and acid. You only need to know where to look.
My current favorite type of red wine that delivers these characteristics at modest to very reasonable prices is Rioja, the most well-known wine of Spain. The money grape of Rioja is Tempranillo, which produces a velvety texture without losing the all-important structure necessary for aging. For everyday consumption (my friend was hoping to find a red she could purchase in volume and use as her house wine), a Rioja Crianza is what the doctor ordered.
This is a red Rioja (yes, Rioja produces white wine as well, but the reds are more renowned and more readily available) that is aged a minimum of two years (one year in oak) prior to release. Rioja Crianza is the go-to red wine in tapas bars throughout Spain.
The wines are delicious and the price modest. For example, the Campo Viejo Crianza from recent vintages retails for about $12, and the CUNE Crianza, from one of the top cooperatives in Spain, for about $10. If you want a bit more oomph without losing the velvety texture, a top-notch Rioja Reserva from an exceptional producer like Bodegas Beronia can be had for less than $20.
Besides Tempranillo, Garnacha (called "Grenache" in France) is another prominent grape in Rioja, particularly in Rioja Baja, which is the southeastern half of Rioja that has a pronounced Mediterranean influence. Garnacha delivers soft, ripe red fruit that is highly perfumed and mellow.
El Coto, with large vineyard holdings in Rioja Baja, typically includes a good percentage of Garnacha in its blend, making this supple, smooth Rioja Crianza one of the most popular in Spain. Its 2014 Crianza retails for all of $10 and for less in many sections of the U.S.
Spanish wines have excellent penetration in our domestic market. I'm based in California, and I have great access to a variety of Spanish wines at modest prices at two chains, Trader Joe's and Costco. A frequent tactic of mine is to visit one of those stores and pick five or six wines to take home and taste all at once.
When I find one or two (or three or four) gems that I believe offer tremendous value, I will return and stock up, purchasing several cases for the cellar. These bargain reds, besides being delicious for everyday consumption, serve another purpose. Their presence spares me the temptation of prematurely raiding my cellar for wines that I've expressly laid down for long-term aging. For that reason alone, the investment in cheap but truly delicious red wine is worth it. And I'm told my heart will thank me later!