Monday, May 30, 2011

How to be a wine snob without knowing anything about wine

Dear Tricia, I know that pairing red wines with red meat is and white wines with white meat is the standard rule, but that's really all I know about wine.   I'm not good at this kind of thing- is there anything else you can tell me that's easy to remember, but makes it sound like I know what I'm talking about?

You sound just like me.  "Just tell me enough to make people believe what I'm saying."  This didn't go over well with my chef instructors at the Culinary Institute of America, so I stuck around for the whole 2 years to learn everything I could instead.  But with wine, you'd have to start reading now and not stop until you were 120 years old to learn everything. And then after a 5 minute break, you'd still have to keep reading because trends change so quickly.  There's a lot to learn, so here's the Cliff's notes.

You can stick with the red wine and red meat rule or the white wine and white meat rule, but you also want to think about sauces or how the meat is prepared and go with that.  For example, chicken or pork with something lighter like pine nuts and braised leeks is going to do well with a white.   But chicken or pork in a hearty caper and shallot sauce would pair well with a red.   All you have to remember is with something is heavier, you want to pair it with a red.   Did you just pair a red with a white meat?  You rebel, you.  

Anytime you've got a super rich, heavy food, like duck or sausage, you want a really tannic (read: it makes your mouth start to pucker) red to help cut through the fat.  This is where you leave the realm of drinking wine that tastes nice and move into really complimenting your dinner and making it taste even better.  It's yin and yang.  Regis and Kelly.  Cheech and Chong.  The same goes for something fried- you want something help help cut through the oily flavor and texture.  Think of your basic tempura shrimp, and this counts even if its just take out, you want to pair it with an acidic white to help cut some of the oil.  Think pinot grigio or any un-oaked* white from Chile or Argentina.

Let's talk "oaked" and "un-oaked."  All this means is whether or not the wine was aged in oak barrel or a steel barrel.  Steel barrels give white wine a crisp, drier flavor and body.  California wines are mainly aged in oak barrels, and that gives them a heavier, richer body, which I happen to hate.  Millions of people think otherwise, but whatever, it's my mouth.  I once had an organic chardonnay that tasted like I was making out with an oak tree.  It was Bonterra and it was nasty.  Never again, Bonterra. You disappoint me for life, regardless of your organic namesake.

Food and Wine magazine came out with a list of new wine pairing guidelines a little while back and there were a couple of good points for you to remember if you want to sound like you know what you're talking about.  "Serve an un-oaked wine with anything you would squeeze a lemon or a lime on." That citrus, clean flavor acts like a little squeeze of lemon on any kind of fish, even salmon.  Yeah, throw that one at your friends and watch them look at you like you know a thing or two.

For spicy foods, alcohol makes things taste spicier.  So drink something lower in alcohol content.  (Remember that post I wrote about getting jalapeno in your eye?  You would not want to pour wine in your eye.  Just a heads up.)  You can't go wrong with a reisling when you're eating spicy food.

For desserts or hors d'oeuvres, you can never go wrong with champagne.  And as I've said before,
offering your host or hostess of a dinner party a bottle of champagne will always go over much better than a Chinese finger trap.  Who doesn't love a little bubbly?  Someone with no soul, that's who. 

The most important rule of wine is to drink what you love and not take it too seriously.  If you're going with what's trendy, just know that wine trends change all the time.  Remember when "Sideways" came out?  Paul Giamatti's character made his love for pinot noir and his hatred for merlot very clear.  Coincidentally, merlot sales dropped 2% that year, while pinot noir sales went up by 16%.  But if you love merlot, then keep drinking merlot with whatever you like.  Having the confidence to know what you like and what you don't makes you more much more credible than spewing off a bunch of random wine vocabulary words.   And if anyone gives you any bull, just tell them you're into non traditional, alternative wines right now.  No one ever knows how to respond to that one.

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