The Wine “Experts” Are Wrong About This
by Michael J. Orr
I admit to being a bit of a wine snob. I’m a sommelier for crying out loud, and nobody gets certified as a sommelier without having a bit of alcoholic narcissism in them. But I am also a bit of a contrarian within those circles.
We’ve all been told for decades that we should drink red wine with this food and white wine with that food, that “civilized” society wouldn’t dare mix and match. I say, “Bah humbug.” If you prefer reds, drink reds. If you prefer whites, drink whites. But do so wisely and with an open mind. Within each of these classes of wine varietals lies a plethora of flavor profiles that can still complement your meal perfectly well, despite what the experts say.
The beauty of the explosion in wine culture is that a global selection of varietals is now available on the average grocery-store shelf. From full-bodied reds like Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon to fruitier varietals like Pinot Noir and Sangiovese. From classic dry whites like Chardonnay to a sweet and fragrant Semillon or Riesling. But it’s the multitude of flavors in-between that makes food pairing really work.
So, if you prefer red wines but order salmon for dinner, what do you do? Depending on how the salmon is prepared, a nice Sangiovese (Chianti) or Tempranillo (Rioja) may complement it perfectly without overpowering the subtle flavors of the fish.
Serving a black-pepper-encrusted ribeye steak with sautéed mushrooms, but prefer white wines? Sure, an oak-aged Chardonnay will suffice, but you might try an earthy, herbal Sauvignon Blanc or even a white blend such as Continuum to stand up to the strong flavors of your meal.
Wine snobs will publicly scoff at the idea of favoring red or white because “a well-rounded palate will aid you in choosing the appropriate varietal” for any purpose, blah, blah, blah. But privately, we are all human and all have favorites. So we often try to justify our favorite as a perfect complement for nearly all occasions. This wine snob will not scoff at you picking sides, but I will urge you to expand your palate and explore the range of flavors that either side has to offer. I know people who only drink a specific wine, Rombauer Chardonnay, for example. They order it by the case and have for years. But I urge you, do not get stuck on labels, for as good as Rombauer (or any other label) may be, its character changes with every vintage, and rigidly adhering to only one wine limits the possibility of discovering your next new favorite.
If you find Pinot Noir too light for your taste, but the dryness of Cabernet Sauvignon is too harsh for your palate, try a Sangiovese (Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino), a Grenache, a Tempranillo (Rioja), or perhaps even an old vines Zinfandel. If you like the boldness of Cabernet Sauvignon, but want smoother edges, try a Barolo, Malbec, or Petite Syrah. If you like the oaky flavor of Chardonnay but find it too acidic, try a Fumé Blanc. The point is to try new things and expand your palate. But don’t rush. Take your time, and you will discover that finding the wine that complements any meal can be a very enjoyable pursuit.
One last piece of snobbish advice: Please, please, stop putting ice in your wine. It is painful for us snobs to see, and it alters the delicately crafted character of a wine. Chill the bottle, if necessary, but never add ice.