We all know the ‘rules’: white wine with chicken or fish, red wine with meat.
...the good news – you cannot get this wrong! The ONLY thing that matters is what you like to put in your mouth, and no-one else can define that for you.
In order to save time and make a few short-cuts to explanation I have peppered this article with a few Gross and Sweeping Generalisations (GSGs), but first of all - grape varieties...
When a wine simply says ‘white’ on the label it will be created from a blend of white grapes that complement one another well. Often ‘entry-level’ wines from a New World wine brand will simply be labelled ‘Red’, ‘White’ or ‘Rose’.
Pale gold colour. Fresh tropical fruit and peaches aroma with a crisp and appley taste with lemon and pineapple type flavours and mineral notes.
Chardonnay Pinot Grigio:
Fuller bodied Chardonnay works well with the crisp and appley easy-drinking nature of the Pinot Grigio.
Semillon Sauvignon Blanc:
The very rich and ripe flavour of the Semillon rounds out the drier and more acidic Sauvignon Blanc.
The melony quality of the Chardonnay is made fruitier and more full-bodied by the rich flavour of the Semillon.
Rose wine is often made with red grape varieties. Since much of the colour and the tannins in red wine come from the skin of the grape, rose wines that are made with red grapes simply do not have the skin left in the wine for the same length of time during the wine-making process.
Rose wines are typically made for young drinking and new world roses tend to be quite sweet with a lower average alcohol content than red wines. Typically Rose is served chilled.
Rose when a wine simply says ‘Rose’ on the label it will be created from a blend of red grapes that complement one another well. Often ‘entry-level’ wines from a New World wine brand will simply be labelled ‘Red’, ‘White’ or ‘Rose’.
Pinot Grigio Blush:
There are exceptions to the rule that Rose wine is made with red grapes. There are some rose wines made with white wine grapes. Pinot Grigio Blush is one of those exceptions.
An off-dry to sweet, pink-coloured rosé wine. White Zinfandel is made from the Zinfandel wine grape, which would otherwise produce a bold and spicy red wine. White Zin is a dry to sweet easy-drinking table wine.
This medium-dry 'blush' wine is light and fresh with soft, berry fruit. Made from red Grenache grapes
Spicy notes typical of the Shiraz grape are softer and fruiter than a full ‘red’ Shiraz. With a pleasant crisp sweetness this is an ideal summer drink.
EXAMPLES OF RED GRAPE VARIETIES
A top quality grape variety with widespread availability. European (Old World) variants tend to have quite a lot of tannins but the New World tends to produce Cabernet Sauvignon wines which are easier for immediate drinking. It tastes of blackcurrants and soft berries.
A grape varietal that tastes of cooked fruit, an almost jam-like flavour.
Heavy and robust grape varietal, almost spicy in its quality. The French name for this grape is Syrah.
This is a red grape with a light and delicate flavour. Burgundy is made with
This is the principle grape for a lot of southern French wines. It’s also one of the 13 grape varieties in Chateauneauf Du Pape.
This is a Californian grape with high alcohol levels. True Zinfandel is a full bodied red with soft fruit flavours. Genetically Zinfandel is identical to the Italian grape variety Primativo.
Most Ruby Cabernet in the world comes from California. It has similar characteristics to Cabernet Sauvignon, although is typically a little lighter. It is a highly drought-resistant grape variety making it quite hardy in certain hot climates.
A grape of good acidity and low tannin that is meant to be consumed whilst it is still young. Brown Brothers produce a wine with this grape that is unusual amongst red wines in that it is recommended to be served chilled.
The principle grape in Rioja. Tempranillo is red grape with a robust and spicy character that is complemented by oak aging.
A red wine grape that is South Africa’s signature variety. A grape that is naturally high in tannin with typical mulberry/ damson fruit characteristics.
The main grape in Chianti (the ‘Chianti Region’ is in Tuscany). It has a sort of ‘spicy strawberry’ quality to it, but it is a wine that takes on the characteristics of the barrel it is aged in, hence some Chiantis can be
All sparkling wines start life as still wines and have the sparkle added later. The crucial factor in the quality of every sparkling wine is how the fizz is added.
The fermentation process naturally produces carbon dioxide gas (CO2) - the waste product of the yeasts devouring the sugars. In still wine making this gas is allowed to escape. In sparkling wines, the CO2 is retained, dissolving within the wine the wine which is kept under pressure.
When it is released, the CO2 bubbles to the surface. The method for producing a wine filled with CO2 varies from the very time-consuming and expensive Champagne method of natural, secondary fermentation in individual bottles, to the comparatively inexpensive and easy method of squirting industrial CO2 into vats of still wine.
A high quality, dry white wine is made (usually from a blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes) with ‘ordinary’ tank fermentation. Once the wine is complete it is placed into special, heavyweight bottles and a fresh dose of yeast and sugar is added. The bottles are then capped and placed in the cool cellars of the winery for up to 2 years. During this time, a secondary fermentation takes place. The yeasts and sugars create CO2 that, because it is in a sealed container, cannot escape so dissolves into the liquid.
A gentle pressing of the skins of the pinot noir grape content of the Champagne creates the pink colour and different flavour of rose Champagnes.
Well-known Spanish bubbly made usually through the ‘tank’ method. This is a different process by which good quality bubblies can be made. Here the secondary fermentation still takes place naturally, by adding new yeast and sugar to a finished wine, but instead of taking place in bottles, the wine is held under pressure in large sealed tanks so that the equivalent of several thousand bottles re-ferment at the same time. The wine is cleared of sediment and bottled under pressure, directly from the tank. The bubbles are a little larger and disperse more quickly, but the tank method can produce good results.
A well-known and respected Italian bubbly, like Cava often made through the tank method.
Great Sweeping Generalisations:
GSG No 1: Most people start out drinking sweeter white wines and then as their palate becomes more refined move on to drier varieties, and then on to red wine and then, finally, on to dessert wines (very sweet but very complex wines that reward the drinker with flavours that unfold like the petals of a flower).
So, while it’s important to make your own mind up and drink what you like and not what someone else tells you is good, it’s also a good idea to keep expanding your horizons. As your palate ‘learns’ what you’re glugging, you can’t help but start to develop a much more discerning opinion of the liquid you’re sticking in your mouth.
If you’ve only recently started drinking dry white wine (say, someone poured you a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and you thought “wow, this is nice”) you might find that, if you went back to the Liebfraumilch that you used to drink you’d find it almost sickly and no longer to your taste.
Does that make those sweeter wines ‘worse’ than the dry ones?
No, of course not.
But (GSG No 2) often a dry white wine can be more complex and subtle than a sweet one.
So come on then, tell us... Why is it that white wine is better with chicken and fish and red wine is better with meat and cheese?
These ‘rules’ are GSGs in themselves and they’re so hackneyed that it is tempting to disregard them altogether. Indeed, there’s no real need to stick to them religiously. However, it helps to understand the reasons behind the rules before you throw the rulebook away.
In my view there’s something else you need to know about before I answer the question: Tannins.
You find tannins in all sorts of things, including tea. Most relevantly to our chosen specialist subject, though, is the fact that tannins are present in grape skins and stalks.
They are naturally occurring astringent chemicals that give you the ‘dried out’ feeling in your mouth when you drink a particularly ‘young’ red wine. GSG No 3: The tannins that are present in red wine tend to break down as the wine ‘ages’ in the bottle. This can give the wine a much smoother, mellower, richer and more complex character once it has aged in the bottle.
Not all red wines are intended to be ‘laid down’ in this manner – some are intended for consumption ‘young’ – but it’s useful to understand what tannins are.
They are present in red wine more than in white wine because there tend to be more tannins in red wine grapes. Also, the colour for red wine comes from the length of time that the skins remain in the wine during the vinification process, and the tannins are heavily present in the grape skins.
GSG No 4: Fatty foods like meat and cheese taste better with heavy-tannin red wines (Merlot, Shiraz, Zinfandel etc) because the fat in the food cancels out the tannin and vice versa. You get to taste the wine without the dry mouth-feel and you get to taste the food without too much fat.
They genuinely complement one another.
A big tannin-heavy Shiraz is going to completely overpower a bit of chicken, but give it a venison stew to play with and your mouth will be a very happy place.
So – as far as the red meat and cheese is concerned there are two points:
1) They tend to be big robust flavours that can ‘take’ the big robust accompaniment of heavy red wines; and,
2) The fat content of the food negates the astringent quality of the tannins in the wine.
GSG No 5: As far as ‘lighter’ foods are concerned (fish, chicken etc) the lighter white wines tend to be better because they won’t overpower the flavours in the food.
Someone (in my case probably Ma Dashper herself) has gone to a lot of trouble to make you a dish that tastes really special. It’s just bad manners to accompany it with something that means that you can’t taste the dish that has been put in front of you.
Handy tip: a nice dry white wine which is quite acidic, like a Sauvignon Blanc, can really ‘cleanse’ the palate.
What the label says...
The back label of a bottle of wine will give you a clue as to what food the wine will complement, but the front of the label is at least as important.
New World wines (those from Australia, California, Chile, etc) tend to be ‘named’ after the variety of grape they’re made with.
I’ve listed a few common types of grape (often called ‘varietals’) below with their most commonly defined characteristics.
This might be helpful when picking out a wine to go with a particular type of food.
Sometimes two or more varietals are blended together to change the characteristics of the wine, I’ve given some examples below as ‘multi-varietal’ wines.