I often hear the question, whether directed to me or others nearby, “Do you prefer red wine or white?”
A trip back to the 1970s and 1980s would surely reveal the answer, “white, of course” with Pouilly Fuissé and chardonnay going strong and pinot grigio just hitting the bar or restaurant list near you. I should also mention that white zinfandel was quite the rage for something refreshing, a bit different, not quite white and a little sweetness to boot.
Then came the “French Paradox,” aired on 60 Minutes in 1991, and everything changed to red with merlot leading the way as a transition from white for its easy drinkability. The famed 60 Minutes story outlined how the French with their higher-fat diet and love of wine (principally red) with every meal except breakfast had a significantly lower rate of heart disease (and other health issues) largely attributed to the anti-oxidants found in wine — especially red.
Overnight, the pendulum radically switched to red wine. Airlines, restaurants and liquor stores quickly depleted their stocks and set a trend that took many months or even years to correct. Vineyards in the Central Valley and elsewhere frantically replanted with merlot as it became the training ground for white wine drinkers switching to red. Merlot ruled the roost until 2004 when the movie “Sideways” derailed that train as it was replaced on many lists with pinot noir.
Yet the red movement remained on track as wine drinkers across the country had become more comfortable with red wine and broadened their sphere of interest to others in the group such as cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and a range of imports from newly discovered varietals and wine growing areas around the world.
But now back to the question, “Will it be red or white?” and how the answer is playing out today. Yes, there are many wine drinkers who are strongly committed to one or the other for a variety of reasons: Reds are too dry (meaning puckering in the mouth from tannins and not lower sugar content). Whites are more refreshing and I don’t get a headache. And many other rationales in between.
Chardonnay, pinot grigio (not necessarily pinot gris, its French-styled counterpart) and sauvignon blanc now lead the charts with cabernet, zinfandel and red blends not far behind. So while overall consumption has reached some balance since the wild swings of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s the red or white question still persists.
Both reds and whites (not to mention sparklers, rosés, sweet desert wines and fortified examples from the Old World) have their place at the table and in our glass. So why must we make a choice of which one is our favorite?
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Can’t we just say it all depends what I’m eating and how I’m feeling?
Sounds simple, and with the options available today we are limiting our horizons by just sticking to one or the other. When I’m planning a wine pairing meal or a wine and food tasting event, I structure the menu to complement a variety of wines (both red and white) satisfying the tastes of all guests while offering everyone an opportunity to sample a range of choices.
We may start with a sparkler or bright and bracing white for the hors d’oeuvres then proceed to a more deeply structured white with fish or complex salad for the first course. The second course will be something more savory such as a pasta with the a range of sauces or a roasted bird to pair with a mid-weight red exhibiting more red fruit than black and lighter tannins followed by a more substantial meat (duck breast, pork, lamb, beef etc.) for the main course with a bigger bolder red. Dessert may be accompanied by a range of wines (red or white) adding some sweetness and interest to the course.
In today’s world of both fine wine and cuisine, our choice should not be limited to “a red or a white” but rather which red or white do I want to drink tonight with the food I’m enjoying. And beyond what some may consider as the “ideal” pairing we can also just look to what fits our mood in the moment.
No stringent rules, just choices that will broaden our horizons and add to our vinous pleasure.
My July 7 column “The world’s greatest wine?” attracted a range of comments mostly in agreement with the overuse of “great” in the descriptors and perhaps best expressed by David below.
David—Yup Allen, you got it. You can write on my tombstone: “Want to tell a good wine from a bad wine? ...... A good wine is one you like, a bad wine is one you don’t.