I decided to respond to a Quora question:”What have you assumed was exaggerated until you experienced it?” since I’ve been working in a winery for seven years, cleaning ditches, weeding, picking fruit, fermenting fruit, pumping, filtering, bottling, labeling and selling wine. I wrote:
Well, lots of things, really, throughout my whole life, but I’m going to just focus on wine. Most of us, especially when young, make fun of all that wine tasting stuff, like swirling the glass, or sniffing the “bouquet”, and can’t figure out what wine goes with what food, often resorting to anyone else’s recommendation, but always feeling like it doesn’t really make any difference: wine is wine. I thought the whole thing was made up or grossly exaggerated. Which is not to say there really aren’t posers who do not know what they are talking about, or try to impress, regardless of how much or little they actually know.
Anyway, I found out many things when I began working at a winery, and actually making wine, and not just grape wine, but wine made from cherries, apricots, peaches, plums, apples, blackberries, raspberries, and even cranberries, among many others. Only wine grapes don’t need any additions of sugar to ferment, having a high enough sugar content to make a strong alcoholic beverage. But, by adding sugar, slowly, incrementally, to fruit, any fruit, you can make damn fine wines too.
I say this because I would not have learned as much from a few grape wines as I have from fruit wines. Yes, it does make a big – a huge difference – what wine you have with your meal. If you’re just drinking wine to get drunk, or impress people, it doesn’t matter much what you drink. Fruit juice with distilled alcohol will do.
However, one of the first things I learned is that wines to be paired with food need to be dry, that is, without sugar. If all the sugar is converted to alcohol, you get a very superior wine. It can take quite a while to do that, but it’s worth it. Drinking a sweet wine coats your tongue with sugar and makes tasting anything else difficult: the fine flavors of food can be masked by sugar. And, dry doesn’t mean bland or high in alcohol content; dry table wines can be very fruity and complex with layers of flavors.
But, even drinking dry wines with food takes a little bit of consideration. A very light-tasting food needs a light-tasting wine. White wine with chicken or fish, sure, but not if the chicken is heavily spiced, or the fish is something like salmon. But, a strong grape wine, like a cabernet sauvignon, will completely overpower the taste of some milder foods. Drink them with red meats like buffalo, for sure.
Very strong-flavored foods need a strong-flavored wine. A rich-tasting wine will complement the salmon you’re eating, neither taking away the flavor of the food, nor being overpowered by it. In our winery we have an apricot wine, served by itself or blended with a white grape wine, that we use for things like salmon, blackened tuna, or aged cheeses. For really strong, pungent cheese, we recommend that or a 100% peach wine.
When it comes to spicy food, we recommend a red grape wine blended with wild cherry wine, the pure wild cherry wine itself, or plum wines. The plum is particularly great with curried foods.
For meats that same red wine/ wild cherry wine mix works great, or other all-fruit wines we blend.
Now, none of this is to convert you to fruit wines other than grapes. There are some really great grape wines. It is just to illustrate the point that you have to experiment with wines to see what foods they complement. (I used to only drink whites like chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, sémillon or pinot grigio. Now I can finally appreciate red wines, even cabs.) I hated the intense pure apricot wine until I tried it with venison; suddenly the apricot flavor jumped out at me, and the heavy gaminess of the meat was toned down. I don’t like blue cheese, or any of the moldy-looking strong cheeses, but I tried them with this powerful peach wine, and suddenly I could appreciate the flavor of the cheeses, and the wine. This happens at some level with all wines. If you can’t taste the wine after a few bites of your food, or if you can’t taste your food after a few sips of wine, it’s not the best experience.
Another thing I learned is that the whole point of wine, from the very beginning of viticulture, was to accompany food. It can heighten the flavors in your food, making the meal a real joy, which makes you feel pretty good, compliment the chef, and smile. As long as you don’t overindulge in the dinner wine, you will be able to enjoy your wine and your food, and not actually feel drunk. Drink some water too along with your meal. The water and the wine help your digestion. Sweet wine? – after your meal. And maybe have it with a little dessert too, yeah?