Written in red and white: a guide to choosing the right type of wine

28th March 2022

Champagne and Steak Pairing

Choosing the right wine is a mark of gastronomic sophistication, albeit a skill that can take many years to perfect. There comes a time when everyone needs some rules to fall back on, especially when trying to inspire dinner party guests, improve one’s palette, or stretch a small amount of wine knowledge to its limit when trying to impress a date.

That’s why we’ve put together this guide to answer the questions you’ve always wanted to know about wine, but were too afraid to ask. We’ve established the basics about each dominant type of wine, from the reds to the fizzy stuff.

Once you’ve used this guide to tackle the fundamentals, you can go further by reading more tasting and food pairing resources, including these rules from Cellar Door Society, or the Vinous tasting and cooking guide. To help decide on the perfect combination of Italian wine and pasta, there’s also a useful wine pairing wheel from Pasta Evangelists which uses the main ingredients of your meal to establish the best possible pairing.

Firstly, however, let’s explore the basics of the wondrous world of wine.

Red wine
Red wines are the most complex variety, containing a greater diversity of flavours and aromas than their counterparts. Compared to white wine specifically, reds are richer, bolder and more full-bodied, particularly Barolo, Primitivo or Cabernet Sauvignon. However, there are several varieties of less dry red wines that are lighter and a little more quaffable, such as Pinot Noir or Côtes du Rhône. Medium-bodied wines like Merlot, Bordeaux and Malbec are also popular.

In terms of flavour, given the versatility of red, simply think about what’s generally to your liking. Red berries are common in a Pinot Noir, but you can also expect hints of liquorice or spices like anise from a Grenache, and chocolate or even tobacco to emerge from a good swill of Merlot or Montepulciano.

What to pair it with
For pairing with food, the best practice is to pick a robust red wine — such as a Primitivo Puglia (aka Zinfandel) or Cabernet Sauvignon — for balancing out intense flavours, e.g. red meats, charcuterie and strong cheeses like gouda, roquefort and Bleu D’Auvergne. The more medium-bodied also makes an ideal union with red meat, but also roasted vegetables and poultry.

White wine
As you might have already guessed, white wine is made from white grapes, but the main factor separating it from its darker counterpart is the fermentation process. While red wines are aged in oak barrels, whites come from cast iron vessels. These limit the exposure to oxygen, which makes white wine typically crisper, fresher and more acidic.

White wines tend to prioritise refreshment over depth and complexity. However, they remain diverse: for dry white wine, you’re looking for Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Picpoul de Pinet and Albarino. On the sweeter side, keep an eye out for Riesling, Moscato and Saunternes.

What to pair it with
Since they are less complex than red wine, whites pair well with lighter and simpler foods such as fish, salads or vegetables and poultry. Common aromas you find will be more zesty and citrusy compared to red, which explains why they are typically sought for their invigorating qualities.

Rosé wine
Rosé is a bit of a dark horse. Though often perceived as a little too saccharine for some drinkers, it also has its own special process. Despite a popular (and absurd) joke that it is simply red and white mixed together, rosé’s signature colour comes from the skin of the grape, and the length of time that the skins ferment for is what determines the depth of the final colour.

This part of the winemaking is also what influences the amount of tannins and flavour, meaning that although rosé is often associated with a lighter, sweeter wine, you can get as much diversity from it as red or white. For instance, a full-bodied rosé like a Syrah or Cabernet from Chile or Australia is vibrant but not so tannic, compared to a fruity Bordeaux rosé.

What to pair it with
A bolder rosé is a great complement to seafood, fresh fruit and spicier foods. For your dry rosé, you’ll typically be choosing from Zinfandel or the Spanish Navarra, which pair nicely with saltier aperitifs like olives and tapenades, but also poultry and fish. The fruitier, less dry Bordeaux rosé and the more pricey Palette or Rose Champagne are ones you should save for succulent and lavish cuisine, such as lobster, salmon, tuna steak and rare lamb.

Sparkling wine
The most recognisable form of sparkling wine is Champagne. The main difference between this and other sparkling wines is simply its origin in the northeast region of France. Champagne is usually categorised as ‘Brut’ (dry) and ‘Blanc de Blancs’, the latter being made strictly from white grapes. While these are both dry, you can get sweet varieties such as Demi-sec (half-dry).

There are some unsung heroes of the sparkling variety, however, that are growing more popular despite the perception that Champagne is la crème de la crème. Crémant is another brut (literally French for ‘dry’) that, while no doubt similar to its more famous rival, hails from outside the Champagne region — most notably, Languedoc and Bourgogne. Away from France, Prosecco — a product of northeast Italy — is a sparkling variety that is lighter, crisper and more aromatic and Spanish Cava has also undergone something of a renaissance of late.

What to pair it with
A classic Champagne Brut is usually served with richer and more indulgent foods like steak, fried potatoes or truffle, whereas Blanc de Blancs is more suited to lighter yet piquant aperitifs such as caviar or oysters. Also on the dry side, the more affordable Prosecco pairs especially well with seafood, prosciutto ham, and fruits. Meanwhile, Cava is famously delightful with tapas consisting of strong cheeses, cured meats, smoked or fried fish, potatoes, olives and nuts.

As you should always awaken your wine palette with white wine before moving on to red, next time you’re entertaining, why not bring out the fizz when serving your aperitifs? Your guests’ taste buds won’t forget that extra spark.

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