I want you to drink more wine. With food.
This week is the beginning of a new monthly column where my goal is just that: to demystify wine and the joy it brings to the table.
With a nod to medicine, our mantra is “First, do no harm.” This step is relatively easy. For even if you really love drinking big mouth-filling red wines, they’re not a good match for, say, raw oysters.
Think of it this way: That kick-ass Cabernet is a party in your mouth, but it renders your taste buds unable to appreciate the subtleties of delicate shellfish. But a white wine that’s dry and tart complements the oyster’s brininess and minerality. A high acid wine like Champagne is perfect — or, if you’re not a fan of bubbles, try a crisp New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
And the converse is true. Perhaps you discover that you love the brisk mix of citrus and herbal notes of that Sauvignon Blanc and you decide to have a glass with a thick juicy steak hot off the grill. The fattiness and strong aromatic meat will overwhelm the liveliness in the wine that is so appealing. So the first step to remember is matching the weight of your wine with the weight of the food. A light delicate dish will pair best with a wine that is similarly lighter on the palate. And that big powerful fruity Cabernet with the lush mouthfeel complements a rich, fatty hunk of braised or grilled meat.
But what you learn is that each component of a dish alters the special alchemy between food and wine.
That’s where the prohibition of red wine with fish is blown out of the water. While you’d easily choose Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio for most seafood, I remember being totally abashed while tasting Chilean sea bass in a dark, miso sauce with a Von Strasser Cabernet. My table had ordered this boutique Napa wine because most of us were enjoying hearty meat dishes. The fish-eating friend complied, and much to our shock, the sauce brought both the wine and fish together in a magical way.
What this proves is that just a little knowledge can protect you from disastrous choices, but unforeseen affinities will keep you on your toes. And as you get to know and understand different grape varietals and old world vs. new world winemaking styles, you’ll be on the road toward matches where both the food and wine taste better together than each one tastes separately.
The other thing that’s very important is to taste as much different wine is possible. Whenever I’m asked, “What’s your favorite wine?,” my answer is always the same: “Tell me what I’m eating.” We are omnivores, and unless we’ve been taught to dislike certain foods, our palates are generally open to new experiences. Just as your baby may spit out peas the first time and finally learn to like them, you’ve got to try new things multiple times to expand your palate. When I first started drinking wine, I was put off by tannins, that red wine pucker factor on your tongue that’s a natural component of the skins, stems and seeds in the winemaking process. It’s the presence of tannin that helps red wine age but also, when softened by the fattiness in red meat dishes, makes your taste buds stand up and take notice.
Next time, we’ll start a discussion of grape varietals. I want you to drink a glass of off-dry (sweet) Riesling with something spicy, maybe a Thai or Mexican dish or perhaps some gumbo with hot sauce. If you want to try this at home, check out the Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling from Washington’s Columbia Valley under $10.