What is the wine you reach for when you want to have a glass with your favorite Asian takeaway? What is the wine you reach for when you’re having a hearty dish of carbonara, a great bruschetta, or when you’re craving the spice of chili’s? Without doing all the statistical research, it might be a safe guess that probably 90% of you or more would probably say some sort of red wine. The reason for this choice? Well, it might just be that you like red wine better than white. It could also be that with such bold flavors and textures, you think red might go better. This article is written to debunk the latter reasoning and instead highlight the first reasoning - to persuade red wine die-hards to give white wine a chance, especially for the suggested foods above.
First, In Defense of Red Wine
The right red wine can be delicious, comforting, sensual, tasty, familiar, earthy, robust, masculine and satisfying. However, when it comes to pairing most red wines considering the many styles of cuisines from around the world, red wine is a bit limited. It is fair to say that red wine is sort of limited to pairing well with red meats and some game meats, like venison, wild boar and lamb. It might even go well with some water fowl depending on what accompanies the dish. A carefully chosen red, such as Chianti or Nero d’Avola, goes well with marinara, but in general, if you were to pick a big red of Cab, or even a Super Tuscan, were to really taste that wine with such a marinara, it is most certain that you will realize it does not pair well. Most of the time, neither the marinara nor the wine are accentuated.
As we are here to speak on behalf of white wine and its affinity to great foods, even those we eat a few times a year, the following is the one key element of white wine, which attributes to its great food affinity - acid.
The Ballad of White Wine, Food & Acid
Acid is white wine's hero. Now some of you fellow wine geeks might argue that red wine has its acidity too. And that is true. Such wines as most Pinot Noir, Chianti (Sangiovese) and some Old World Merlot do have some very present acidity. This is acidity that you can notice on your palate.
What foods might you have with these wines? Maybe some Salmon, slightly aged, semi-hard cheeses, duck or that marinara just mentioned? The reason the pairing goes well with such foods is the acidity. Notice most of the foods mentioned have an element of fat in which the wines' acidity can "cut" through, thus bringing out more of what is in the dish as well as the wine. The fat also mellows out the acidity on the palate. As for the marinara. The tomatoes have a certain acidity of their own, which seem to "cancel out" when matched with the acidity of these red wines.
If you’ve read some of the articles here on Winefrog, then you are aware of the acids that exist naturally in most wines. The reason there are more apparent and noticeable acids in white wines is because they do not need as long of a growing season to be harvested. The longer grapes hang on the vine, the higher their sugars develop. As sugars increase, acidity decreases. Since white wines do not hang on the vine as long as most red varietals, they contain more acidity. Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, some Chardonnay, and some other white varietals are harvested at the beginning of the season for their balance or during the middle of harvest. While some imbalances with lack of acidity can be corrected in the winery (only permitted in the New World), wines from these grapes will be balanced in acidity, sugar (which turns to alcohol). On the basis of aromatics, texture, mouthfeel and finish, this makes for a balanced white wine.
The natural existing acids contained in the wines are citric, malic (a tart acid) and succinic. The latter is one you can feel on the finish, but that takes a pretty educated palate. Citric and malic acids are strong acids which have the ability to cut through fats like cream, meat fats, cheeses and more. Try a medium-bodied Pinot Gris or a slightly-oaked, partial second fermentation Chardonnay the next time you have spaghetti carbonara instead of that red you’d normally reach for.
Other acids you’ll find in white wines that have been elaborated with a secondary fermentation (malolactic fermentation) or even a partial second fermentation, have lactic acid. While this is a softer acid, for fuller, bigger foods like a fatty salmon, pork, game fowl, poultry, even bacon, the body of the acidity matches the body of the food and makes for a good pairing.
Pairing White Wines with Food
For spicy foods like many Asian dishes or Latin dishes, bigger, fuller white wines, especially those with a secondary fermentation, work extremely well. With a secondary fermentation, most foods have a notable sweetness. This makes for a nice contrast with spice, and the acidity will keep the saliva moving about in your mouth to accentuate the foods and aromatic layers of spice. Red wines, with their tannin, will dry your mouth out, become bitter and it is not a pleasant experience all around. And just as some whites are oaked and can contain tannin, these too will not be the best with spicy foods.
So we’ve covered just one key element in white wine which gives it a broader range of food affinity compared to red wines. And the food mentioned in this article, while it covers a wide range of the world’s cuisines is only a part of it. All you have to do is use your imagination and think of the basis of these foods and realize how much it encompasses. Try some white wines, and step outside of the abundant availability of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Explore, eat and drink.