The question: Because of a medical treatment, I have a sensitive mouth and throat. I find many wines too harsh. While visiting Arizona we ate at an Italian restaurant that served a house wine that was very easy on my palate. Can you suggest soft, reasonably priced red and white wines?
The answer: Wine can taste soft for several reasons. The good news is that softness is getting easier to find …
Acidity is one reason a wine can seem harsh. Some styles contain more acidity than others. White wines tend to be higher in acidity than reds. This is especially true of such varietals as sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio. Among whites, chardonnay is a good bet, generally lower in acidity and also often softened by oak fermentation and caressed by the sweet, vanilla-like character imparted by oak barrel-aging. Chardonnays from California and Australia can be particularly soft. The whites of France's Rhône Valley, based on such grapes as marsanne, roussanne and viognier, also merit consideration.
Tannins, natural substances found in grape seeds, skins and stems, can do battle with your palate. Tannins are what give strong tea and walnuts their bitter edge. Because red grapes are fermented on their skins, they generally contain much more tannin than white wines, which are almost always fermented as pure juice in the absence of skins. This is an argument against red wines generally, especially tannic varietals such as cabernet sauvignon and nebbiolo (the red grape of Barolo in Italy).
Increasingly, though, winemakers are softening red-wine tannins through a variety of practices, notably by exposing the fermenting juice to air in a controlled way. Picking grapes later in the fall, after the tannins have had a chance to fully ripen, is another practice.
The biggest source of modern-styled, softer reds is the New World, notably such places as California, Australia and British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, where sunny weather tends to ripen tannins and yield grapes with lower acidity.
Merlot tends to be particularly soft, though the style varies among producers. Shiraz from Australia is another, especially in the case of lower-priced wines, which are often designed to appeal to softness-seeking consumers. I'm not a big fan of the brand Yellow Tail from Australia, but you may want to give it a go. Little Penguin is another brand with softness written all over it. Expensive Australian reds often come with a glorious peppery quality that may not be so glorious to your sensitive taste buds.
There's another ingredient in wine that can produce a sensation of softness: sugar. Sugar balances acidity, yielding a less-angular profile. Most dry wines contain very little sugar, but it's there, and some "dry" wines contain more than others. Again, here I'd look to New World producers. In fact, if I were you, I'd tend to stay away from European red wines as a rule because they tend not only to contain less sugar but also more acidity. That's a gross generalization, but it may be useful to you.
It's important also to consider that food can play a role in the perception of wine texture. Taste a tannic young cabernet from Bordeaux on its own and it can seem harsh and angular. Try it with rare red meat and the proteins and fats conspire to "melt" the tannins, for lack of a better term. I don't know how this wine-and-food phenomenon may impact your medical condition (I'm no doctor), but it's possible that the wine you enjoyed in Arizona gave you little trouble because of the meal. One of the most appealing ways to soften a red is by enjoying it with steak. But, depending on your cardiovascular health, a regular diet of fatty beef could land you in other medical trouble.
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