Believe me, learning these five things Americans don’t know about wine will change you. And will change wine for you.
So listen up here, Yanks. Because this can change your whole experience with wine. You can rest assured the French know all of these things, but they probably won’t tell you unless they fall in love with you and decide they are going to eat and drink with you a lot.
Tip #1. Pair your food to the wine, not your wine to the food.
One of the biggest mistakes Americans make is deciding on a menu, then just serving red wine with red meat and white wine with white meat. Any red, any white, it will do. And whatever beginnings, sides, and endings we like just get thrown in to the menu.
At least that seems to be the thinking of many Americans.
The more sophisticated Americans will try to pair the right red wine or the right white wine to the dish. And they often understand the red-with-red and white-with-white rule is simply a guide, not really a rule.
But one of the greatest tricks of gastronomy that the French know by heart and few Americans understand, is that for a truly wonderful meal, you pick the wine first. Then, you cook to the wine.
If your menu for the evening — from the hors d’oeuvres all the way through dessert — is built around the wine you will be drinking, it changes everything. If you build the meal around the wine, the meal truly works together as a unified whole.
The BEST meals in France always start with the wine.
Now it is true that if you have a signature dish, say a Beef Bourgogne that was your grandmother’s recipe, or you know your family loves locally available fresh Red Snapper cooked in a Beurre Blanc, you know ahead of time that there are some dishes you will repeat many times in your kitchen. So when you are shopping at your local wine store, you keep that in mind. You are always on the lookout for wine for that specific dish. And hopefully over time you have learned what kinds of wine have given the most joy to the tongue the previous times you have cooked that particular dish.
You can rest assured that a good French Red Burgundy is going to pair with that Beef Bourgogne because the dish was created for that specific wine. It is a dish that originated in Bourgogne, the region of France we who speak English call Burgundy.
Or you may have found that a really good Red Bordeaux has been equally wonderful with your dish in the past. And so you buy a repeating type of wine for a repeating dish in your repertoire. That only makes sense. And of course, the French do that, too.
But keep in mind that if all the edges around that main dish are designed around the specific wine you will be drinking, your evening will be especially memorable. Using the wine as the unifier of flavors is the key.
The French know this by heart.
So if you want to step it up a notch, pay attention to the wine. Let the wine guide the menu — even if the centerpiece is going to be your signature dish. Plan your hors d’oeuvres to match the wine. Plan any side dishes to match the wine. And definitely, plan your dessert to match the wine.
And while very formal dinners may switch wines during the evening — going from white to red, then possibly to fortified — most family meals, informal dinners, and even formal dinners today have only one wine during the evening. Even in France.
Except perhaps for a glass of Cognac at the end of the evening.
Tip #2. Match the glass to the wine you are drinking.
I know you think this is optional. But honestly, if you don’t match your glass to the wine, just drink it out of a paper cup.
OK, here is the truth, folks. If you are drinking wine to get drunk, you can swig the wine out of the bottle. A paper cup is fine. But why waste the paper?
But if you are drinking wine for the taste you need to match the glass to the wine.
A $50 bottle of wine tastes like a $15 bottle of wine if you drink it from the wrong glass. But a $15 bottle of wine tastes like a $30 or $40 bottle of wine if you drink it from the right glass.
The French know this. But they are fine with you buying the $50 bottle (if it’s French). And they hope you think that buying a $60 bottle next time will improve the taste.
It won’t. And they know that. But they’ll happily take your money — while they are drinking the cheaper wine out of the right crystal glass.
Tip #3. Let your wine breathe before you drink it — and always let the YOUNGEST wine breathe the LONGEST, the oldest wine the least.
For some reason Americans tend to always get this backwards.
Most Americans think vintage wines or older wines need to aerate the longest and that newer wines don’t really need to breathe. So if the wine is from last year or the year before, most Americans just pop the cork, pour the wine, and drink away.
And during this, they let the older wine sit there in a decanter to breathe an hour or an hour-and-a-half before they pour it.
That is backwards. Try it the other way around. You’ll see what I mean.
And the same thing is true for white wines — particularly for what is called a Vinho Verde (a Green Wine) from Portugal or Spain. These wines are pretty much by definition very young wines, thus “green” wines. You seldom see a Vinho Verde aged more than two or three years. And usually it is consumed withing 12 months of bottling. But a Vinho Verde needs to breathe at least 30 minutes before you drink it. Decant it and leave the decanter in an ice bucket to keep the wine cool. This is particularly important in the summer and in hot climates. But let it breathe, and swirl it in you glass. And I will guarantee you will find nuanced tastes in that Vinho Verde you had no idea were there before, back when you drank it right after uncorking.
Most other whites can air for 10 or 15 minutes. But you will find a great improvement in the taste even with that short period of breathing.
Most reds, unless they are older vintages, need to breathe longer. Heavier reds, unless they are older vintages, often are best after about an hour.
Tip #4. Do not put ice in your wine. Ever. Ever. EVER.
Particularly not if you are in France or at a French dinner table. You might as well just take a glove and slap your host in the face with it. Or just spit in the chef’s food. Because that is pretty much what putting ice in a glass of wine is to the French.
If the weather is hot, chill the wine. Pour a small amount of wine in the glass. Keep the wine in an ice bucket. All of these keep your wine cold or at least cool enough to be the right temperature for the wine.
All ice does is add water to the wine and ruin the taste of the wine with the taste of flouride and chlorine.
Just buy a Coca-Cola or have iced tea. Or Miller Lite.
Even if it was a $3.99 bottle of wine on clearance, make a wine cooler with flavored bubbly water and a slice of lime if you have to mask the flavor. Just don’t stick ice cubes in it. Please.
Don’t put ice in your wine.
Tip #5. Drink one glass of water for every glass of wine & you will never get drunk.
No, I am not making this up.
It doesn’t have to be a full 8-ounce glass of water for each glass of wine. Just try to match the volume of wine to water. Not together of course. Simply over the course of the evening.
Many times the French will drink extra water during the daytime prior to a big dinner when they anticipate drinking a lot of wine. They still drink some water during the evening, but they top off the tank so to speak during the day. And then, before bedtime, they are sure to have one more glass of water.
You will always find a pitcher of water on a French table. And you will always find a water glass at your place setting on the table.
And you seldom see a French person drunk no matter how much wine they drink.
This is why.
And no, you don’t loose the delightful headspace that wine brings. But you do miss the drunk part. You know, the stumbling and the slurring of words and the dizziness and the headache tomorrow . . . that part.
Be watching So Frenchly for tips on picking the right wine glass for the wine. Here is a recent article on choosing the best glass for Rose wine. But there will be more over the next weeks — for other varietals.
And be on the lookout for our upcoming article on decanting wine and some of the best decanters for the money.
Here’s to the Bon Vivant in us all!
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