Fall is a time for harvest, diminished daylight, and brisk evenings by the fire. But that doesn’t mean warm-weather friendly, lighter-bodied wines should be pushed out of the equation. Quite the contrary: fruit-forward reds of this style — many of which are best enjoyed chilled — have a way of easing the transition into the colder months ahead. So rather than lamenting the last days of rosé, rejoice: autumn is ripe for experimentation. Explore a litany of such varietals that sing sensibly to pumpkin spice and apple pie. Juicy, yet gentle, these under-appreciated wines — sometimes whimsical on the tongue — ought to be taken seriously in the bottle.
It’s hard to begin a conversation about lighter-bodied reds without mentioning Beaujolais — a region of southeastern France known for its fresh, fruity red wines born from the thin-skinned Gamay grape. Here, juice is made with minimal tannin extraction, resulting in gulpable wines with smooth personalities. (None of that mouth-drying business that comes with tannin-heavy wines.) Seek out bottles by Georges Duboeuf, a reliable and affordable producer of the region, or in a larger format grab Julien Sunier’s magnum Fleurie, which displays floral notes of violet, rose, and lavender.
No strangers to lighter liquids, Italian winemakers from up and down the boot excel at luminous styles of vino rosso, or red wine, often redolent of ripened cherries and currants. To the south, Arianna Occhipinti — a vibrant, young Sicilian winemaker — bottles a number of light red styles under her own label. Her wildly popular Il Frappato is named after an intensely aromatic varietal native to the island. Although it punches the nose with sweet grape, on the tongue it tastes drier, finishing patiently with an unexpected edge of rusted iron. Easy-drinking Frappato wines make for perfect patio pounders, as further demonstrated by another Sicilian producer, Vigna di Pettineo, which makes a fresh and fruity light red with soft tannins and a flowery bouquet.
For those keen on sweetness, there’s always Lambrusco, a wine from northern Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, best known for its sparkling variation. Although these frizzante (slightly carbonated) wines were the biggest selling import to the States during the ‘70s and ‘80s, domestic consumption has plummeted ever since, and prices along with it. As a result, there are some unbeatable bargains awaiting discovery. But note, not all Lambrusco is sweet. While the popular style of decades past sometimes pushed cloyingly, American consumers have recently begun to discover the joy of dryer expressions within the category. The Vigna del Cristo from Cavicchioli is a prime example. Elegant, structured, and fantastically fruity, it’s an ideal autumn aperitivo for under $20 a bottle.
Off the western coast, in Sardinia, winemakers are finding significant success with lighter-bodied offerings, too. Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva from Sella & Mosca is derived from the sand and clay soil prevalent in the northwestern corner of the island. The wine’s robust earthiness elicits squash and caramelized yams, making it a prime pour come harvest season. “Cannonau is said to be Grenache-related, but the Italians disagree,” notes Joel Caruso, sommelier at Pizzeria Ortica — a wine-focused restaurant in Costa Mesa, California. “That being said, Grenache is ripe with pepper spice, and plays well into fall when given proper oak treatment.” In Sardinia, grapes ripen relatively late in the growing season, yielding juice with higher sugar, more alcohol, and a blueberry-forward palate. Although the body of these wines is anything but heavy, they are willing and able to push back against meatier meals.
While many European winemakers embrace lighter-styled red wines beyond France and Italy, so too do producers in the US In fact, locally, winemakers are toying with unconventional varietals to arrive at lighter-bodied expressions. Kenny Likipkatrong of Folk Machine out of Redwood Valley, California, makes his Valdiguié wine from the namesake grape, and flavor-wise it falls somewhere between Gamay and Pinot Noir, introducing ripened berries and rhubarb spice into low-alcohol juice.
Also in California, nearby in Mendocino, Brethren of the Road's take on Valdiguié offers a fruity core with a slight leather-like funk.
Meanwhile, Washington State is home to K Vintners’ awesome autumnal sipper Charlotte. Predominantly a blend of Rhône varietals Mourvèdre and Grenache, it surrenders hints of hibiscus in the nose and, when left to the ice bucket, will develop ripened berry fruit for days.
Ever-impressive in its adaptability, American Pinot also displays grace in lightened variations. Point in case: Folly of the Beast from California’s Central Coast bottles a super affordable single varietal Pinot Noir. Expect a concise expression of fruit — light, yet lengthy and robust.
For what seems like decades, in the world of red wine, big and bold has always equaled beautiful. But the industry is starting to shift, with producers around the world focusing their efforts on lighter-bodied reds thanks to these wines’ accessibility and affordability. In a world of rosé lovers, the progression towards Beaujolais and Grenache isn’t much of a stylistic leap. Particularly right now as the season shifts, and palates with it. Although light reds have been dismissed by the cognoscenti for years, a new generation of younger, experimental wine-drinkers is imbuing this subcategory with seriousness. They may be light in body, but their value continues to gain substantial weight.
Ready for a glass? Read why now is the time to try American-grown Blaufränkisch.