Why Not Knowing Light Red Wines Makes you a Rookie

Ask any wine expert or professional what their preferred wines are – light bodied reds are likely a top choice. However, these wines can be misunderstood by the average consumer – assumed to be thin or watery.

A simple exercise to try – think of light reds as an introverted friend. A reserved personality does not mean lack of substance. In fact, these varieties can be some of the most age worthy, and dynamic of all. In most cases, serving these wines at the right temperature or pairing with the appropriate food, is an easy way to shift perspective.

Today, the average consumer is more educated in wine, which means increased demand for lesser known styles, lighter bodied reds included. The good news – many contemporary winemakers are stepping away from conventional varieties and techniques, thus meeting this demand.

Modern winemaking is flooding the market with new styles, resulting in more choice. Not so long ago, many varieties were not easy to come by in the New World. Blaufrankisch, for example, was typically found only in Austria or its neighbouring countries. Now, high quality examples are being made in North America to great reception.

Also known by its pseudonym – Lemberger – a unique variety being found more commonly in the Okanagan. Mount Boucherie and Little Straw in West Kelowna, and Ancient Hill in Kelowna, are all wineries in the interior making delicious examples. This grape produces a Pinot Noir like wine, with dark berry flavours and a distinct peppery finish.

Light reds are versatile – they can be enjoyed year round. In warmer months, they can benefit from some time on ice, perfect for sipping pool side. Come fall or winter, they’re an easy go to for pairing with food. Soft cheeses, pork tenderloin, or tomato based pastas are excellent options, as they pair effortlessly with the high acid found in these wines. 

One example of a light red wine great with food is pinot noir. This is a varietal packed with aromas of forest floor and earth, making it a gastronomic favourite among sommeliers and restaurateurs. Fares such as goat cheese, truffle and mushrooms are often enjoyed with this variety. 

Depending on where pinot is grown, it can also stand up to some unexpected foods, such as beef.  According to Francois Chartier, food scientist and author of “Taste Buds and Molecules”, Angus beef develops a different texture and volume compared to other kinds of beef when cooked. For this reason, he suggests a new world pinot noir like the dense, complex and extremely rich “Le Grand Clos” – a perfect cross between Burgundian elegance and New World fullness, a style produced in the winemaking region of Niagara. Okanagan examples to try include Blue Mountain in Okanagan Falls, and Foxtrot and Howling Bluff on the Naramata Bench.

Sometimes considered a sibling of pinot noir, is a variety known as gamay noir. This is a grape made famous by the region of Beaujolais, located just south of Burgundy. 

Gamay resembles a pinot noir in body yet provides a gamey character that is different than its relative. Dishes like rosemary roast duck with sweet potatoes, or pulled pork would complement the flavour profile of this varietal well.

A style of winemaking common in Beaujolais, known as carbonic maceration, imparts distinct characteristics that have made the region famous. Jamie Goode, wine scientist and author of “The Science of Wine” explains the process:

“Entire clusters of grapes are fermented in a sealed vessel that has first been filled with carbon dioxide. In the absence of oxygen, these intact berries begin an intracellular fermentation process, during which some alcohol is produced, along with a range of other compounds that affect the overall flavour.”

This overall flavour Jamie describes can include aromas of bubble gum and watermelon – telltale indicators grapes have gone through carbonic maceration. Gamay needn’t always go through this type of process, despite being synonymous with the technique. The style it produces is well received among wine consumers, as it is approachable, low in tannin and fruity. 

Gamay has become a common varietal in the Okanagan, with many high quality examples easily sourced. Volcanic Hills, a winery located in West Kelowna, crafts an affordable and delicious example of gamay, with past vintages being treated to carbonic maceration. Other wineries working with the grape include vinAmité and Rust both located in Oliver, BC.

A final style falling under the light bodied umbrella is a lesser known variety – Nerello Mascalese. This is a grape native to Mount Etna found on the island of Sicily in southern Italy. A varietal not widely known, now seeing increased exports to Canada in recent years. This is an incredibly elegant, high acid and juicy red wine perfect for enjoying with many types of foods. 

Nerello has an interesting history. Grapes were historically crushed and fermented exclusively in concrete vats. The Italian governing body responsible for designating regional markers of place, has forbidden this process, deeming it unhygienic. Many winemakers are ignoring these rules and playing by their own; opting to use a variety of fermentation vessels instead, including amphorae – clay pots. As a result, their products are labelled as table wines, however, this should not be confused with lower quality.

A discerning character of the region and the grape, is the soil it is grown in – basalt – of volcanic origin. This gives the varietal a certain tension, energy and spirit.

At this time, Nerello cannot be found in British Columbia. However, with over 80 varietals planted and growing, this is one to look out for in the future.

Expanding your palate into light red wines will impart balance in your collection. This a category fantastic with food, approachable to almost all palates and a great addition to any wine cellar. Building a diverse stock of wines will give perspective, appreciation and knowledge.  These newfound realizations should result in an important notion – frame of reference – crucial for drawing comparisons, but more importantly, the ability to assess quality, no matter what the style of wine.

Laura Milnes is a Kelowna native and local wine professional, operating her own wine and hospitality consulting company. Laura is WSET certified, and continually expands her wine knowledge through education, research and travel. You can find Laura hosting wine related pop up events, and consulting with wineries throughout the Okanagan with a focus on wine education and training. The rare time Laura is not reading about, or tasting wine, you can find her travelling with her partner, cooking or doing DIY projects for her home. To learn more about wine check out her Instagram page @silkandcoupe.



  • November 16, 2018
    Layne TEPLESKI

    I knew hounding Jim at Mt Boucherie to produce single varietal bottles instead of blending the Blaüfrankisch was a good move. Still have my last bottle of 2010. Now, I have to additional wineries to check out, thanks to your article.

    Happy Friday