Imagine it is the height of summer, and you offer a friend a fresh, juicy peach. The response: Sorry, I prefer to eat cherries. As bizarre as this situation sounds, this happens in the wine world all the time. If you’ve been to a wedding you know exactly what I mean. The responsible couple will always provide a bottle of red and one of white, to please the guests. Perhaps comparing the situation to politics is more apt. There is a white wine political party and a red wine political party. Just like conservative and liberal politics, many people vote along the line they’ve always followed, but are a little under-informed and probably not very confident in their choice if they were cornered on their reasoning behind being on the side they’re on.
You’re probably thinking this is merely a matter of everyone’s personal taste buds. What spurred this debate is an experiment I was a part of during my time working in the wine trade. In the experiment, people were blindfolded and asked to identify wines and foods that they were served. The identity of the products was a mystery to the participants. Almost immediately, foods that you would suspect to be easy to identify were baffling almost everyone. Only one person could identify cherries, and only a few guessed the peach. The strangest moment was when a sweet white wine from Germany, served at room temperature, was repeatedly mistaken as red wine. The differences between white wine and red wine flavours definitely exist, but I’ve always believed that those differences in flavour account for about 15% of the total flavour. The rest is dogma.
Red Wine Team
Having once been a strong supporter of this team, I can recall the two reasons I had for continually walking the red wine aisles like a zombie. The first, which was hardly a matter of taste, is the image associated with red wine vs. white. It is the more manly wine. Whether this image comes from red wines homogeneity to blood, and subsequent marriage with red meat, or some other cultural phenomenon is debatable. The more personal reason for red wine-worship was the strongly savoury character that so many red wines impart on the palate with ease; the heart warming bitterness. Dark, rich, savoury beverages are comforting in the long winter months.
White Wine Team
This was the team I was on when I first became enamored with wine as a beverage. The reasons for being here are diametric to those above. The image of white wine is a little dainty. It is the wine associated with fun, with taking life a bit less seriously and letting loose. In terms of character, white wine is expected to be refreshing and to taste bright like sunshine even when it is rich; this beverage should give the same sensations as juice.
Analysis of the causes supported by both sides suggests that the dogma is not limited to the masculine/feminine debate, but is strongly tied to the wines temperature. We are hard wired to drink warm red wine and chilled white, even though we are not really sure why. The science of chilled white wine is dubious. Why did we drink our beer ice cold when we were in high school? To numb the flavours and make the terrible drink palatable. The goal is not to make the beverage taste better, but to make it taste less. White wine has been resigned to this same fate. We expect it to be chilled because we expect it to be light in flavour and be simply refreshing. White wine drinkers: buy a light bodied red wine like beaujolais, or maybe some pinot noir, and chill it down. Voila! Sure it’s a bit more bitter due to the tannin from the grape skins that make it to the bottle, but the difference is less than you might have thought. Why can’t a red wine be drunk chilled on the patio in the middle of summer? Ironically, the first time I tried this on friends they said that it ruined the wine because it killed the red wine flavour. Hello…
For the red winos, who would never drink that girly white stuff, go out and buy a bottle of chardonnay – that’s right, chardonnay – and drink it at room temperature, with a big bloody steak. Hide the label at the cashier if the shame is unbearable, whatever. Since trying this the first time, I now drink almost all white wines at room temperature. Why hide the wine’s flavour in the fridge? I want to get everything I pay for. I’ve since discovered southern french white wines, which often give more of the savoury, earthy character than their red counterparts, especially if there is some judicious oak aging involved.
Thinking back to my first experiences tasting wine, beer and coffee shed a lot of light on my own personal tastes. The first time I had beer, it seemed violently bitter. Wine tasted in my teens came across like a mouthful of astringent dirt and rotten juice. Maybe you started with something easier, like Corona with lime or Sangria. Either way, there is a phase where you train your palate to appreciate food that is higher in flavour than what you’re used to, in particular in terms of bitterness. Once you get used to it, you have a new comfort zone. I’m still a supporter of everyone trusting their own palate. I’d just like to see a bit more open-mindedness.