Talking down but looking up!
A reader has criticized my wine columns, saying they are over the heads of most who read Weekender. I write for the small minority who know something about wine, he told me, and not for the vast majority, many of whom like to have wine with their meals but really don’t know much about it.
I was alarmed. Was I a wine snob in his opinion? No, he didn’t think so. I should just descend from the heights and get down to earth. I was relieved, for I detest wine snobs.
I must admit his criticism is valid, for I do assume a basic wine knowledge on the part of the readers of this column. Now I face a problem. How do I write for the majority without sounding condescending; without writing down to them, if I have been writing over their heads? Well, let me try.
The first rule one should observe upon entering the wine world like a newborn baby in knowledge is to drink what he likes. My friendly critic told me that he and his wife like to order wine when they go out because they enjoy it with their meals. They generally order the house wine. That’s a very good idea, provided the house wine isn’t Japanese (although laboratory techniques in Japanese wineries are improving to the extent that some of their products are now almost palatable).
Ordering the house wine is a good idea because it is comparatively cheap and more expensive wines need greater care. For they are very delicate and require that tender loving care in terms of being stored at the right temperature, opened in plenty of time to bring out the bouquet and flavor and matched with the right food. The best place to drink such wines is in your home. Then, if anything goes wrong, you have only yourself to blame.
There I go again, straying from the basics. Let me return to that newborn babe in the wine world. He orders the house wine, usually a red or white (seldom pink) and hopes he has selected the right food to go with it or vice versa. Here’s a rule of thumb: when in doubt, order a white. Whites don’t panic like reds when they see themselves matched up with the wrong food.
As for pinks, properly called roses, I admit to a prejudice against them. As a matter of fact, though, they won’t do the job as well as a white. Best of all, of course, is a brut Champagne, but they’re expensive.
But let’s get on with the basic lessons. If there is one thing I must insist upon, it is that the wine-drinker drink his wine. Drinking is a complicated process, as opposed to swallowing, which is the way so many people consume their beverages. Watch yourself the next time you take a sip of something. Do you hold a bit of the beverage in your mouth, giving the tastebuds their share of it, or do you pour it down over the tongue into the stomach via the gullet? If you do that, you’re swallowing.
Drinking entails the process of taking some of the beverage into your mourth and letting it wash your tastebuds. It caresses those in the front of your tongue and checks for sweetness, called the residual sugar; and tries those on the sides to see how they react to its acidity.
It lays for a second or so on the top of the tongue and finds out its salt level. Finally, it proceeds backward and greets the bitter edge before plunging over into the esophagus to the stomach. I believe it is in high school biology where one learns the tongue has those four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salt and bitter.
All other flavors come from the nose, which plays almost as important a part in savoring food and beverages as it does in the lower animals.
To swallow a beverage is to do it an injustice, no matter what it is. That’s the way cats and dogs do it, because they taste mainly by smell.
That’s just about as basic as I can get. I won’t go into the complicated and useless process of telling you what foods go with what wines. You can do that yourself, once you start drinking your wines. For there is a simple rule: if the wine or food changes the other’s flavor, it’s too strong for it.
The classic example is fish. If you eat fish, especially an oily one, and drink a red wine, the latter probably will taste tinny. For the oils of the fish and the red wine don’t get along. The acid of white wine, though, will cut through the fish oils to make a very palatable combination.
Forget those people who say they like red wine with fish. They just want to be different.
There are a lot of rules of thumb which are just so much nonsense, such as that which says that one should take a white wine with chicken. The proper wine with chicken depends on how it is cooked (we ignore those fast-fried things that pass as comestibles with some people). Usually, a light red, like one from the Bordeaux area, would be good match. But when the chicken is served with a white sauce, as it is in Alsace, a white goes best with it.
How’m I doin’, Roy?