Inspiration / Lifestyle & Opinion

Heart of Darkness: The World's Most Mysterious Wines

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Joanna Goodman Joanna Goodman

News & Content Editor Joanna Goodman chooses some of the deepest coloured reds to curl up with this winter.

When it's cold and dark outside somehow deep, dark reds seem especially comforting. Perhaps on a subliminal level it's because we crave some liquid sunshine and as the colour of red wine comes from the grape skins, you could infer that the darker the hue of the wine, the riper and more sun-drenched were the grapes that went into it.

There is a bit of truth in this, but of course, some grapes have thicker skins and a greater skin-to-pulp ratio (smaller berries) and some are just naturally darker. Then there are the ways in which the wine was made – the grapes may have been macerated for longer to extract more colour, for example.

Here, I'm just going to pick a few of my favourite black beauties and tell you a bit more about them. And because I can't resist a story, if I unearth any along the way, these too I'll gladly share. So, pour yourself a glass of something cheery, curl up and have a read.

Dark Wines

The Black Wines of Cahors

A hundred miles inland from Bordeaux on the banks of the river Lot are the vineyards of Cahors where some of France's deepest, darkest reds are made. The grape responsible is côt, also known as auxerrois or malbec, and must make up 70% of the blend of the wines of Cahors. This grape, which has found its second home and its modern-day fame in Argentina, hails originally from south-west France where it produces rustic, spicy wines full of colour.

The Bordelais profited from the grape too when planting it in their vineyards to give colour and spice to the Bordeaux blend, but also imposing heavy taxes upon the wines which were exported via the once navigable Lot river from further upstream. The deep-coloured Cahors wines were also used to bolster the blends of the much lighter-coloured clarets of a bygone era, enhancing not just their look but also their ability to be cellared for longer.

Though malbec is still permitted in the Bordeaux blend, its plantings are in decline. It's not the easiest of grapes to work with and is rather susceptible to rot. This isn't such an issue further inland in Cahors, nor in Argentina where the grape has really come into its own. Here in the vineyards of Mendoza, where the altitude and continental climate help ripen the grape to the max, it makes for rich, dark velvety wines often given oak ageing to round out the robust tannins.

Perhaps a little ironically, the fame of Argentine malbec has given encouragement to the winemakers of Cahors and an area once in decline is enjoying a bit of a renaissance. While producers learn how better to tame the tannic malbec grape, wine drinkers are recognising what bargains are to be found in these deep-coloured, spicy wines often capable of long ageing.

View Cahors wines

Dark Wines

Talking tannat & the mighty Madiran

Staying in south-west France (what is it about this part of France and its big, bold reds?!) we come to Madiran, a village in deepest, darkest Gascony where the local cuisine – think, cassoulet, magret de canard, all things artery clogging – calls for wines with sufficient astringency to cut through the fat.

The local wines, based on the tannat grape, are just the job. As Jancis Robinson MW says in her epic book Wine Grapes, the name even implies that the grape is high in tannin: 'The name tannat probably derives from the Béarn dialect tanat, meaning 'coloured like tan', in reference to the dark colour of the berries and also possibly to their high tannin content.'

These certainly are deep, dark brooding wines, often a little unapproachable in youth but capable of long ageing and perfect for the rich local cooking. Jancis goes on to describe the wines as having a 'Peter Pan quality', and the local inhabitants are similarly blessed. This part of France is notorious as having more than double the national average of men in their 90s or above; the epi-centre of the 'French Paradox' and something that has been proven to have more than a little to do with the tough tannat grape.

And if this ageworthy beast of a red is not quite your thing, perhaps you might be persuaded to broach the unusual sweet, fortified version which is strangely excellent with chocolate. The Laplace family's fortified Maydie Tannat has become something of a member favourite, especially at Christmas time.

View our range of Madiran wines

Just like the malbec grape above, tannat too has made a second home for itself in South America, but for this grape it's Uruguay's vineyards rather than those of neighbouring Argentina where it has thrived. Brought here by the Basques, it has adapted well to the climate which can be a little damp (something it is used to!), but this being South America, there is a little more heat too and so the wines are on the softer side than their French counterparts.

There's no getting away from the fact that these are some of the darkest wines going, so make it into this list unequivocally! Maybe this is a grape worth getting to know first in its second home before wending your way back to its roots.

Explore our range of wines made from tannat

Not so petite sirah!

Unlike the two grapes above, this one (which also goes by the name of durif) has all but disappeared from the French vineyards where it originated. Deep coloured and richly fruited, the grape fell out of favour in eastern France but has found fame, fortune and a loyal following in the heat of California. The dry climate and hot summers suit it perfectly, making for deeply pigmented wines with dark fruit flavours of blackberry and boysenberry, often given a hint of smokiness with oak ageing.

We currently list just one petite sirah from the McManis family in inland California. Dark and luscious, this wine's a real crowd-pleaser and a good choice for the festive centre piece or even a posh burger on a Friday night!

Try McManis Family Petite Sirah 2016

Dark Wines

The origins of zin

If we're talking California and tales of mystery, no other grape has given rise to such speculation, heated debate and controversy as zinfandel and where it came from. The sweetly fruited, spicy heady wines truly are California's unique contribution to the wine world and the story of how it came to be on America's west coast models that of the settlers that brought it here!

After many years of research it was discovered to have exactly the same DNA profile as primitivo, the grape that is mostly associated with the Puglian region in the heel of Italy. Here it makes for rich, heady almost chocolatey wines; real cockle-warmers with varying degrees of complexity depending on producer.

But there were no records to show that primitivo was taken to the States, so how could the grape have got there? There were already theories that primitivo was brought to southern Italy across the Adriatic by Croatian monks, so the focus of the 'zinquest' then turned to Croatia. In a joint operation between California's Davis University and the University of Zagreb, and after much scouring of ancient vineyards up and down the Dalmatian coast, eventually a DNA match was discovered with a vine found in some obscure island vineyards.

Zinfandel is in fact crljenak kastelanski! Try saying that after a few glasses of this notoriously high alcohol-producing variety! Happily further research established the progenitor of all of this to be the slightly more pronouncable tribidrag – an indigenous Croatian variety dating back to the 15th century.

But how the name zinfandel came about is still a bit of a mystery. One thing we do know, though, is the reason for this variety being one of California's oldest is because it survived the prohibition years due to its popularity with home winemakers!

Now, rather than making jug wines for thirsty gold diggers, the grape has proved its credentials for fine-wine production with the gnarled old vines making delicious dark, mocha and sour-cherry flavoured wines for the long haul. Do your own digging to unearth a Californian gem of your own.

Discover your favourite zinfandel from our range

Dark Wines

Pass the Port

No listing of dark wines should exclude the inky black wines of Portugal's Douro Valley. In particular I am thinking Vintage Ports – some of the darkest wines known to man (and to this woman!). Vintage Port is meant to last – and for a long time, that is its point. With time, colour and pigment drop out of wine, even fortified ones like these, so it's vital that they have all the ingredients to stay the course up front. (Read more about how wines age here.)

The sun-baked terraces of the Upper Douro where the grapes for Port are grown help ripen these grapes to the full. Ports are generally a blend of several indigenous Portuguese varieties, each adding their own particular character to the final blend but all of which are small, thick-skinned varieties which give loads of colour and 'matter' to the Port.

The way the juice is extracted from the berries enhances the extraction further. Often the grapes are trodden by foot in open vats ('lagares'), keeping the skin in contact with the juice, gently getting the colour, tannin and aroma to be released from the grape without any bitterness.

Then a pure, clean brandy is added to stop fermentation, fixing the deep purple colour and all the flavours and aromas and fortifying the wine for its future life. Then unlike wooded Ports, Vintage Port (all the crop is from a stand-out single year) spends just two years in vat before being bottled without fining or filtering, retaining all the stuffing for the long haul.

Although Vintage Ports can of course last for decades, in theory they can be drunk at any age. In their youth they are still deep-purple with firm tannins and their fruit flavours are still ripe and juicy. After many years' ageing these fiery full-on flavours and firm tannins will have mellowed into subtle cornucopia of nuanced spiced fruit and nuttiness.

It's this transformational ability which is the appeal for lovers of Vintage Port who may enjoy the pleasure of opening bottles over the period of several years to appreciate the evolving flavours as they emerge.

It's Port's combination of power and sweetness that makes it such a sure-fire winner with the cheese board (and Stilton in particular). But this black beauty deserves to be sipped and enjoyed in a quiet moment of contemplation too!

Browse our selection of Vintage Ports

This selection of deep, dark reds is by no means exhaustive, I could have picked an Aussie shiraz or mouth-puckering mourvèdre, for example, and then there's the classic cabernets – the classy deep-purple cassis-ladened grape that everyone loves. There's always more to discover and talk about, and that's the beauty of wine…

Enjoy!

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