How to Choose a Wine

A lot has been written about what type of wines should be be served with what type of foods. This author's opinion is that one should serve whatever tastes good to you and your friends. After all, the purpose of wine is enjoyment, so if you prefer heavy red wines then feel free to serve them no matter which food is being served.  Likewise, if you prefer light and fruity whites, then nothing should stop you from drinking them with all your meals.

However, if you don't have strong preferences in terms of the type of wine you drink, choosing a wine that complements the food will make both the food and wine more enjoyable. To some extent, the decision of what type of wine is most suitable is a matter of personal preference, but here are some general guidelines:

  • Guideline 1: Strong tasting food calls for strong wines; food with light and subtle flavours calls for delicate wines. If food with a strong taste is combined with a delicate wine, the strong flavours of the food will overwhelm the taste of the wine and one cannot properly taste the wine. It is a bit like eating an apple at the same time as a very spicy curry dish, one cannot taste the apple properly. Likewise, if a strong wine is drunk at the same time as a food with light flavours, the taste of the wine will mask the taste of the food. It would be like drinking a pint of Guinness at the same time as eating a trout; the taste of the trout would be overwhelmed by the strong flavour of the beer.

  • Guideline 2: Red wine with meat, white with fish and white meat. This is perhaps the best known rule. It developed during a time when red wines were almost always strong tasting (partly due to extensive aging in oak barrels, which imparts a strong oak taste to the wine) and white wines were relatively delicate tasting. It was merely a simplification of the first rule above. However, for many decades there has been a wide selection of reds that are light and whites that are quite powerful. Therefore, the second rule is nonsense as it makes perfect sense to serve a light red with fish and a heavy white with red meat. Unfortunately, the old rule of red with meat and white with fish is so widely and deeply accepted that any attempt to do otherwise is almost always seen as proof of extreme ignorance, rather than being correctly perceived as wine sophistication. Consequently, if one wants to make a good impression, it is generally best to follow this guideline.

  • Guideline 3: Serve wine from the same region as the food. Each region in France has its own distinctive culinary traditions and flavours. The wines tend to reflect this, with the wine styles for each region having developed over centuries to match the local dishes. The traditionally heavy and often spicy wines of the Mediterranean go well with the use of olive oil and herbs common to that area. The solid reds of Burgundy match the meaty dishes (often with heavy sauces)  common to that area. In particular, the unique food of Alsace, which is Germanic in style (reflecting its position close to the border and the fact that it was for a time part of Germany), is reflected by the Germanic style of its wines. Consequently, if one is unsure what wine to serve, choosing one from the same region as the food is a relatively safe bet. This is particularly true in the case of Alsace, especially as many Frenchmen and women accept as an absolute rule that Alsace food should always be accompanied by Alsace wine.

  • Guideline 4: When cooking with wine, serve the same wine. If one is cooking with a medium quality wine, it makes sense to drink the same wine. In the first place, this tends to result in a better match between the wine and the food. Secondly, it discourages one from cooking with bad wine (cooking does not completely mask the poor taste, so one should not cook with a wine which isn't fit to drink). This guideline is generally not applicable if one is drinking a fine wine (it would be a shame to cook a great wine).

  • Guideline 5: Serve regional wine. If in doubt of what wine to serve, particularly if it is being served on its own (i.e. before or after a meal), consider serving a local wine. Frenchmen (and women) are generally most accustomed to the wines from the regions where they live and frequently prefer them to other regions. Not infrequently, their regional patriotism will extend to insisting that the local wines are undoubtedly the best in France, so serving a local wine will be appreciated.

For more information, click on Wine & French Wine, which will take you to our home page for this topic.

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