If you live anywhere with a hint of a chill or some darkening skies this winter, chances are you’ve got red wine on the brain. And not just any red wine, but the fleshy, broad-shouldered, amiably thuggish “big” red wines we all tend to crave this time of year.
We’re not talking straight “headache wines”—though if you’re prone to red wine headaches, probably steer clear of most of these. What makes a quality “big” wine is a balance of powerful elements, like two huge guys arm-wrestling or, say, a super unlikely holiday duet between David Bowie and Bing Crosby. The major elements you’ll find in “big” wines are fruit, tannins, and alcohol. Whatever else is going on, their interplay is key to the success, or miserable failure, of a good “big red.”
Not all big reds are created equal, and that’s a good thing. Some will have subtler fruit and maybe more earth, some might show a lot of warming spice, and some might be juicy, inky-purple wine-black-holes from which there is no–thank god–escape. We rounded up a week’s worth, plus an extra, so pick your pleasure, or two. It’s gonna be a long, weird winter.
No “big” wine list would be complete without a Napa Cab. You’ll get classic dark berry flavors (blackberry, blackcurrant) with complimentary chocolate and toffee. Don’t worry, all that lushness is girdled by some medium tannins and a hint of spice.
If you find the 2009, great news—the juice should be good for at least 10 years (unopened). But feel free to crack some open this low-light season and be rewarded with florals, fruits, and leather on the nose, plunging into dark berry and coffee notes, leaned out by spice and gently drying tannin.
Mas de Boislauzon 2010 Chateauneuf-du-Pape – BEST SPLURGE
A bit of a splurge between $40 and $50, depending on where you’re buying, but worth it. French Rhônes are among the highest alcohol wines in the country, but they’re also anchored on big fruit—Grenache, Mourvedre, and Syrah. Here you get a deep red wine brimming with earth, dark cherry and red fruits, chewy tannins, and delicate spice.
Rioja’s another structured, fruity wine, but Reservas are made with the harvest’s best grapes, and aged for at least 3 years, so you’re gonna get a lot of character, usually for a lot less coin. For about 15 bucks you’ll get ripe plum and berries balanced by moderate tannin, cocoa, and spice. (Sounding wintry yet?)
No candy prize inside; instead, a richly complex South African blend that relies on deep roots and a very particular microclimate. Built mostly on Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Grenache Noir, the wine is lush with dark fruits and yes, some dark chocolate on the palate, balanced by minerality and light oak, all wound through with an alluring acidity.
It’s not surprising that Malbec (affectionately called the “black grape of Cahors”) made the big red list. Originally a French grape, Malbec found a happy home in Argentina, and this offering from the Mendoza region shows just how happy it can get: smoky and rich with dark blackberry and blackcurrant fruit, structured tannin, and warm oak that leads into a bloom of spice on the finish.
You shouldn’t have too much trouble finding this bottle, or finding some wintry comfort inside. An “Old Vine” (meaning the vines are at least 50 years old), the 2011 drinks like cocoa-dusted dark berries laced through with vanilla, oak, and baking spices. Earthy and dry, but still drinks rich and, at 15% ABV, (pleasantly) heavy.
Cesari 2010 Ripasso Bosan – BEST VALUE
You get Ripasso, as we discussed recently, by basically soaking the Italian Valpolicella blend in the dried grapes already pressed for (super expensive) Amarone. Whether you know that or not doesn’t matter, as long as you can find a bottle of this, which at around $25 bucks, still gets you with plush cherry leaning into complex, dark fruit flavors (a hint of raisin?), as well as chocolate, roasted coffee, and spice undertones.