Choose Wine Like a Snob
Decades ago in college, I started conducting wine tastings.
First, to pay for my weekend wine. Then because I found that I loved teaching.
I’ve shared my love of wine with hundreds, even thousands, of people. Most of my tastings are informal (though my best blind tasting, for the senior partners of Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, is a story for another day).
But I’m no ordinary wine snob…
Folks get too easily intimidated by wine and wine shopping, worried that they’ll buy the wrong wine for the food. So every single time I conduct a tasting, I start with this simple thought… my opening line, which is also on the back of my Eifrig Cabernet label:
“This wine tastes like you imagine it tastes.”
If you follow this one rule, you’ll take most of the worry out of picking a wine. That’s because all you need to do is “own” your taste buds. Commit to picking a wine, try it with a food, and be honest. Does it satisfy, is it heavenly, or is it just so-so?
When you blindfold them, most people have only a 50-50 chance of telling the difference between a room-temperature white and a red. So stop worrying.
Once you recognize it’s your taste buds that matter, focusing on trying to please ‘em won’t take that long and you’ll learn how to choose the perfect wine.
Now I know what you’re thinking… It can’t really be that simple. But for the most part,
Start With Color and Pairing
Red and white wines do come from different grapes. Red wines tend to be made from darker grapes. But the real difference is how they’re pressed…
Wine makers press white wine grapes and the fermentation commonly excludes the skins. On the other hand, red wines include skins with both the pressing and fermentation. (By the way, most red wine grape juice starts clear, just like white grapes.)
But even within the red and white families, there are many types of wine. They vary based on things known as tannins and acidity. Tannins are molecules found in grape skins, seeds, and even the barrels used to age and store wine.
Tannins are also oral astringents. Astringents mean they are dry and help clean the palate. It’s the same reason you enjoy astringent foods like pickles with meat-heavy sandwiches.
The way astringents work is they break down some of the lubricating proteins in our saliva (which is why they taste “dry”). But they also break down fats, which helps release some of the flavor. In turn, the fat helps soften some of the dryness of the wine and helps the fruit flavors come out.
Then Guess the Tannins
The second rule is uncovering the tannins in a wine so you can pair it with food. Knowing a bit about these will help you pick the perfect bottle…
Whites typically don’t contain much tannins. However, some whites that age in barrels instead of stainless steel tanks pick up low levels of tannins from the wood. That’s why oaked chardonnays typically have a fuller mouthfeel and are a bit more acidic than unoaked.
And if you pair white wine with fish, a touch of acid (even if it’s from the wood tannins) makes the fish taste less “fishy.” That’s because the acids cause a chemical reaction with molecules in the fish called amines. The amines are what make fish smell fishy. Acids from white wines bring out the other flavors of the fish as well. And lemon acid does the same thing… It complements the fish.w
Harvey Steiman, editor at large of Wine Spectator, recently wrote that a good approach is to match the acidity of the wine with the acidity of the dish. That’s because you don’t want the acidity of the food to overpower the wine. Acidic wines feel crisp, fresh, and tart.
Remember, white wines can be acidic as well.
Some foods, like chicken and pork, can go with either white or red depending on how they’re prepared. Generally, I suggest a white wine for either, and maybe a rosé or light red, depending on the overall flavor.
As for red wines, the skins and seeds included in the pressing and fermentation release even more tannins into the wines – creating the color.
Remember that with red wines, the lighter the wine color, the lower the tannins. That’s why there’s quite a spectrum. Fatty foods like steak require heavy tannin reds like cabernets and merlots. Meanwhile, light to moderate fatty foods like salmon or pork can pair well with a light red like a pinot or Chianti.
Finally, there’s one more rule for simple pairing… Pair spice with sweet. Sweeter wines, especially whites like riesling, tend to pair better with spicier foods.
That’s because sweeter wines help coat your tongue, which is likely burning from the spice. Keep in mind, lower alcohol wines, like riesling and moscato, are also gentler on your palate as you enjoy spicy foods.
Keep in mind, these are general rules based on chemistry. You may find varieties of wines that go better with your meal but break these rules. Recently an old classmate of mine from the Kellogg School of Management wrote to tell me he’d just had my Eifrig Cabernet with grilled swordfish on the beach. What? Fish with red wine?
But it was a perfect match… why? The oil and richness of the fish was complemented by the perfectly balanced acids and heavy tannins of the cab.
Remember… The best part of learning about wine is the trying and discovering what you like!
The most important thing is that the value of wine tasting lies with you, the individual taster. Spending hundreds of dollars on a “good” bottle of wine doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy it (unless it’s mine of course).
Dr. David Eifrig worked in arbitrage and trading groups with major Wall Street investment banks, including Goldman Sachs, Chase Manhattan, and Yamaichi in Japan. In 1995, Dr. Eifrig retired from Wall Street, went to UNC-Chapel Hill medical school, and became an ophthalmologist.
Today, he publishes a free daily letter on health and wealth that shows readers how to live a millionaire lifestyle at http://retirementmillionairedaily.com/.