How to Choose Wine Un-Like a Snob

 Some folks might think I’m an ordinary wine snob…

At a young age, my dad let me sip German white wines, then Portuguese rosé. It didn’t take long to move on from there. When I was in college, I used my knowledge of wine to conduct wine tastings for people. Not only did I get to teach folks about something I loved, it also paid for my alcohol.

Today, I even grow grapes to make my own wine, Eifrig Cellars. Maybe that does make me sound like a wine snob…

But I’ll confess, I even love cheap wine… When I held a white-wine taste test at the office, one of the most popular picks was the lowest-cost wine we tasted – a $10.99 five-liter box. You don’t need to spend a fortune to experience an extraordinary bottle of wine.

Over the decades, I’ve shared my love of wine with thousands of people… Friends, family, coworkers, and even subscribers. I’ve held tastings (mostly informal) for both self-professed wine experts and people who say they don’t know anything about wine.

Every single time, I start my tastings with this simple statement, one you should repeat like a mantra: “The wine tastes like you imagine it tastes.”

That might sound a little crazy, but it’s true. Think about this… When you blindfold wine drinkers, people have only a 50-50 chance of telling the difference between a room-temperature white and a red.

Lots of folks let buying wine intimidate them. They wonder how much is too little to pay for a bottle or how much is too much. They wonder what type of wine goes with what food or what label will impress people.

Here’s the truth, when it comes to buying and drinking wine, only your taste buds matter. Once you recognize that, picking a wine you like becomes easy.

But it does help to have a little knowledge before you hit your local wine shop. So, with the coming holidays, I want to share some basics to help you pick perfect wines for your family and food. Now I know what you’re thinking… It can’t really be that simple. But for the most part, it is.

We’ll start with color and the difference between red and white wines…

Red and white wines come from different grapes, and red wines tend to be made from darker grapes, but the real difference is when the grapes get pressed. Wine makers press white-wine grapes early, and the fermentation usually excludes the skins. On the other hand, red-wine fermentations include the skins. The red skins get pressed off later. (By the way, most red-wine grape juice starts clear, just like white grapes.)

From the various families of red and white grapes, folks make many types of wine. The difference derives from things known as tannins and acidity. Tannins are molecules found in grape skins, seeds, and even the barrels used to age and store wine.

Tannins are also oral astringents. Astringents mean they feel dry and help clean the palate. It’s the same reason you enjoy astringent foods like pickles in a meat-heavy sandwich.

The way astringents work is they break down some of the lubricating proteins in our saliva (which is why they taste dry). But they also break down fats, which helps release some of the flavor. In turn, the fat helps soften the sense of dryness of the wine and helps the fruit flavors manifest.

Knowing a bit about the tannins in a wine will help you pick the perfect bottle to pair with food…

White wines typically lack tannins. However, some whites aged in wooden barrels instead of stainless-steel tanks pick up low levels of tannins from the wood. That’s why “oaked” chardonnays typically have a fuller mouthfeel and are a bit more buttery and fatter than unoaked chards.

And when you pair white wine with fish, a touch of acid from the wood tannins makes the fish taste less “fishy.” That’s because the acids cause a chemical reaction with molecules in the fish called amines. The amines are what make fish smell fishy. Acids from white wines bring out the other flavors of the fish as well. By the way, lemon (which is very acidic) does the same thing… and thus complements fish.

A simple approach to wine buying is to match the acidity of the wine with the acidity of the dish. That’s because you don’t want the acidity of the food to overpower the wine.

Both white and red wines (depending on the darkness of the skins) can be acidic depending on how they were made (like being aged in an oak barrel versus a steel barrel).

Some foods, like chicken and pork, can go with either white or red wine depending on how they’re prepared. Generally, I suggest a white wine for either, and maybe a rosé (often midway in its acidity – thus one of my favorite food wine pairs) or light red, depending on the overall flavor.

As for red wines, the skins and seeds included in the pressing and fermentation release even more tannic acids and alcohols into the wines – creating the flavor and color.

Remember that with red wines, the lighter the wine color, the lower the tannins. That’s what creates the spectrum, varying levels of tannins. Fatty foods like steak require heavy-tannin reds like cabernets and merlots. Meanwhile, light to moderate fatty foods like salmon or pork can pair well with a light red like a pinot or Chianti.

Finally, there’s one more rule for simple pairing… Pair spice with sweet. Sweeter wines, especially whites like riesling, tend to pair better with spicier foods like Thai and Mexican. That’s because sweeter wines help coat your burning tongue (from the spiciness) with sugars. Keep in mind, lower alcohol wines, like riesling and moscato, are also gentler on your palate as you enjoy spicy foods.

These are my basic rules for wine pairing:

  1. Focus on your taste and what you imagine it tastes like.
  1. Make a guess as to how many tannins are in the wine. Weigh that against how heavy and acidic your food is… lemon mango salsa grilled tuna needs a bright acidic white wine with texture and body. A heavy rib eye with gravy and potatoes needs a dark and perhaps oaked red wine. And in between, say turkey or ham deserves a heavier white wine, a crisp rosé or lighter red.
  1. Pair spicy with sweet.

To make it even easier, here’s a list I put together for the most common food and wine pairings…

  1. Fish: White
  1. Pork: Rosé or white
  1. Chicken: White or light red
  1. Beef: Red
  1. Pasta: Light red, though richer pasta dishes need acidic and ageable red wines

Keep in mind, these are general rules based on food chemistry. You may find varieties of wines that go better with your meal but appear to break these rules. An old classmate of mine from graduate school at Kellogg once wrote to tell me he’d just had my Eifrig Cabernet Sauvignon with grilled swordfish on the beach.

I loved it… it’s easy to see how my reds could balance the meatier texture of swordfish. And the oil and richness of the fish was complemented by the perfectly balanced acids and heavier tannins of my cabernet.

Remember… The best part of learning about wine is trying and discovering what you like!

The most important thing is that the value of wine tasting lies with you, the individual taster. Spending hundreds of dollars on a “good” bottle of wine doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy it (unless it’s mine of course).

The best way to experience new wines pre-coronavirus was to stop by a local wine store for free tastings – often done several times a month. In some places and states, they might still be doing this… just call the store or check its website to see when it offers an event. It’s a great way to sample wine for free and get closer to finding your ideal wine. Likewise, when I’m dining out, I always ask the wait staff what they’d recommend with my dish and then ask them to get me a sip of a couple ideas before I pick what I want.

What are you drinking with your holiday meal? Share your recommendations (and any wine questions you have) with me… [email protected].

What We’re Reading

Here’s to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
November 19, 2020