Heavy, or full bodied, red wines can generally be characterised as wines that have the volume turned up on all the components. The flavour is intense; the weight (overall feel in the mouth) is full, tannins (an astringent component of the wine) are more noticeable and the alcohol will be between 14% to 15%.
The varieties that you can expect to be full bodied are: Touriga Franca, Nouriga Nacional, Petit Syrah, Zinfandel Mouverdre, Shiraz, Montepulciano, Nero D’avola, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon.
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The range of styles within these varieties can vary enormously and can be influenced by a host of factors (climate, soil type, season and wine-making) but the range of fruit flavours you can expect to see are: blackberries, black cherries, blackcurrants, plums, cassis and blueberries.
So what happens in order to make a heavy red? Apart from the attributes of each variety, a few things can be done to make a wine full-bodied. The first thing is ripeness, when grapes ripen the flavour builds and the sugar component of the grapes goes up. When the grapes are then crushed, pressed and fermented the level of alcohol is directly attributed to the sugar as yeast converts sugar into alcohol.
Wines with higher alcohol levels taste and feel richer and add a viscous element to the mouthfeel. The second is tannins. The juice from a grape is white (except for two varieties that have a red tinged juice when crushed: Alicante Bouchet and Garnacha Tintorea) and the grape skins are left on the juice, pre or during fermentation, to extract the colour from the skins into the wine.
One of the things that come with that are polyphenol compounds that are called tannins. Tannins add astringency, texture, bitterness to the wine, and the longer the skins stay in contact with the juice, the more tannins get extracted into the wine. Generally, the more tannins there are, the drier the wine becomes.
Another factor is oak. After the wine is fermented, the wine is aged in oak barrels for anywhere up to 2 years and during that time, the oak characters and textures are extracted into the wine. The more time on oak, the more oaky the wine can become. And like tannins, the more oak character in wine, the dryer the wine can be.
So what about matching with heavy reds? There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to matching, as taste is so personal. But here are a few things to consider when matching:
A great place to start. Think about the general fruit descriptors for the wine and then consider the flavours in the dish; look for components that might compliment. For example, black fruited wines go great with savoury dishes and sour fruited wines love a little sweetness.
If you have big flavours in your wine you will need big flavours in your food, so that the wine does not dominate.
Younger wines generally can have a higher level of acidity. This can sharpen the flavours and can affect the flavour of the food. Acidic flavours can clash with some flavours, but acidity in wine is great for cutting through and balancing out fatty, creamy components of dishes.
Tannins can have a drying effect on the mouthfeel of a wine, so maybe think about the texture of the dish, so that the dish and the wine can complement each other. For example try oily or creamy rich dishes with wines with pronounced tannins.
Find all the great wines mentioned in this article at Wine Selectors.
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