Question – Is there a difference in food wines versus those you just want to sip alone?
Yes. How we drink wine is changing. When you order a bottle of wine in a restaurant at the beginning of the meal, do you intend it as pleasing drink to enjoy while you socialize before the meal or do you specifically pick the wine to go with whatever food you intend to order? If picking a wine for the food, how would you accommodate 3 other guests at the table who might order different appetizers and entrees from your choices? That’s the problem, isn’t it?
Europeans tend to look at wine as a drink that belongs exclusively in the dining room. The wines produced there are lower in alcohol (about 12-13.5%) and slightly more acidic than wines from warm climates in the new world such as California, Australia, Chile and Argentina. California has such a great climate to ripen grapes consistently year after year that the alcohol content is often over 14% and can go as high as 15-17% on some occasions. Wine writers call those “cocktail wines.” They don’t do as well with food as on their own.
A recent survey of about 800 avid wine drinkers by Wine Opinions, an Internet-based research provider to the U.S. wine industry, reported that only 40 percent of wine is accompanied by meals while 60 percent of wines is consumed without meals. Wow! This surprised a lot of people in the wine industry. Isn’t it contrary to what wineries were always telling us? They said they made their wines to go with food. Well apparently many people have not tuned in to that message. Those who were surprised shouldn’t have been.
The truth is that wine can serve different social purposes. Some wines stand alone and are appreciated as fine liquid creations that mesh with your own personal tastes; other wines enhance the flavors of food or in some cases need food as a crutch to be enjoyed. In my opinion you should try to separate those uses in your mind so that you know whether you are choosing a wine for just “meditation” or whether you are choosing it as a food, to be enjoyed with food. Rarely will your meditation wine and food wine be the same unless you are just trying to stretch one wine to two purposes.
Whenever someone asks about “your favorite wine”, they are usually referring to what you like as a stand-alone wine. It would be highly unusual to hear “Oh, I like a good Albariño when I have fish in a lime beurre blanc sauce” or “Tempranillo is my favorite with shrimp and grits or paella.” Most people have not had those “aha” experiences where a wine they didn’t think they would care for all of a sudden tastes great when taken in with a certain well-matched food. This happens all of the time in our wine education classes on wine and food pairing. Students are constantly amazed that the Sauvignon Blanc they were not fond of on its own, really tasted good after they had a bite of salad with a vinaigrette dressing and it then turned around found the wine clashed with the cheese based pasta.
The moral of this story is that if your favorite wine is a big California Cab or an oaky Chardonnay, don’t go to the restaurant and try to force those wines to pair with every food that you or others might order. You can start out with one of those favorites while you socialize before the meal, but try different food friendly wines with your meal either by the bottle or by the glass. “How do you know what are good food wines?”, you ask. Ah, that’s a topic for another time, but keep your mind open to learning those food and wine pairing guidelines if you really wish to enjoy wine throughout the rest of your life.