Learning to Love Red Wine: Six Easy Steps

Wine pour with cheese and grapes

Many of us love our glass of white wine, but when it comes to red wine, well ... we just don’t like it. Red wine tastes “bitter” - so what’s a white wine drinker to do?

Red wine is an acquired taste – much like learning to drink coffee. There are many good reasons to acquire a taste for red wine: it is heart-healthy, it stands up to full-flavored and full-bodied foods, it makes dining more interesting – white wines earlier in the evening with the anticipation of the red wine to come. The best of these “good reasons” is that red wine stands up to full-flavored foods.

Reasons to Acquire a Taste for Red Wine

It is a matter of balance. If a delicate rice pudding is the side dish for a robust beef filet, the pudding’s flavor is lost in the taste of the steak. Of course, you wouldn’t serve a sweet rice pudding as a side dish to beef, but you might serve a sweet potato dish. The sweet potatoes have “sweetness” but also have texture and volume, but the rice pudding is “delicate.” The real problem is that the pudding becomes insignificant. Chardonnay with beef filet – the Chardonnay becomes “insignificant.” It’s the need for significance that calls the red wine to the table.

Chardonnay with hearty dishes isn’t “socially incorrect,” it’s just a matter of balance. Pairing a filet with side dishes of mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese is considered to be out-of-balance. A crisp green salad and potatoes are perfectly balanced. On the flip side, a well-made Cabernet Sauvignon dwarfs a delicate Filet of Sole. The fact that you are eating Filet of Sole is completely lost – you may eat it, but you won’t taste it. The red wine overpowers the fish. The fish needs a lighter wine.

Serve the Chardonnay with its beautiful melon nuances, perhaps apricot or peaches, with compatible dishes (maybe chicken, fish and sometimes pork). The wine compliments the flavors of the foods. That’s what makes the menu deliciously balanced. Wine is actually a food, and it’s meant to be served with food, but it is all a matter of balance.

Red wine has many properties that make it conducive to fuller-flavored foods. The spicy red or purple grape skins are an integral part of the taste and personality of the wine. Red wines can be peppery, spicy, plumy, or jammy, but very few red wines are sweet. This is the crossroads for the white wine drinker; many white wines are technically dry (not sweet) but they have a perception of sweetness (fruity, fresh fruit aromas). A “sweet” beverage doesn’t compliment the hearty filet, or pot roast, or meat loaf, barbecued ribs. These full-flavored dishes need a red wine.

Step 1 - Shop For a "Ripe and Round" Red Wine

These wines are technically dry but have the taste of riper black fruit. “Blackberry” flavors will be a better balance with a prime rib or a burger than ripe melon flavors.

At your local wine merchant, ask for the wine manager, owner or a knowledgeable wine sales person. Use descriptors to describe the rich flavors you want: jammy, ripe, lush, black fruit, round, big fruit, ripe, blackberry, cherry or rich. A wine with a "jammy" characteristic will have a perceived taste of "sweetness," even though the wine is not sweet. A "rich" wine is the opposite of a "lean" wine. A lean wine does not exhibit or release the ripeness of the grape.

Step 2 - Request a Medium-Bodied Wine

Some foods are best with a full-bodied wine, but medium-bodied is a good place to start, and works well with or without food. A lighter-bodied red wine can be risky. Lighter" may result in "thinner," and thinner wines are not attractive.

Step 3 - Ask About Wines Made From These Grapes

Shiraz, Syrah, Grenache, Zinfandel (red Zinfandel - not white Zinfandel), and perhaps some Merlots and Cabernet Sauvignons. The Shiraz, Syrah, Grenache and Zinfandel grapes are inherently a bit fruitier than the noble grapes of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The vintage and the winemaker are the final factor. It's the fruit of the grape that makes the wine delectable. Your wine professional should be your guide.

Step 4 - Look for Wines With Grape Names On Their Label

A wine made from a specific grape(s) should always be better than just a “red” wine.

Step 5 - Pick a Price Range

If you are prepared to pay $7.00 or above for a .750 ml bottle, retail, and you're willing to take a few chances for not a lot of money, you can find a nice red wine. For $8.00 to $17.00 you can find a really lovely red wine.

Price does make a difference because it relates to a grape of better quality. The best red or black grapes, with the richest concentrated juice, are grown where the climate and soil are the most conducive to producing great grapes. Some examples are the regions of Napa and Sonoma, California and Bordeaux or Burgundy, France. For $7.00 you won't find red wines from these regions, but other areas do an excellent job of making fine-drinking red wines at lesser prices. Try wines from Australia, the south of France and wines with "Central Coast" or "California" as an appellation.

Step 6 - Practice

Pour about three ounces of your red wine in, at least, an 8-ounce glass. Let the wine breathe. As the grill heats-up, munch on favorite crackers or bread, maybe some cheese. Place the wine glass on a table; place your fingers on the base of the glass and get the wine swirling. This puts air into the wine and softens the tannins (the “bitter” taste). Aerating red wine is important. Before you know it, “swirling” the wine becomes a pleasant habit. The crackers or bread will ready your palate for the wine. Resist the urge to try the wine without food. With the first couple of sips, moisten all the taste buds in your mouth (this absolutely makes the wine taste better) – resist throwing it to the back of your mouth and swallowing. Take the burgers off the grill and enjoy you perfectly balanced foods.

Be determined – don’t lose heart if the first couple of wines aren’t appealing – it grows on you!

Additional Tips For Learning to Love Red Wine:

Don’t make your first bite of food a salad. The dressing may make the wine taste acidic. If your first course is salad, without appetizers, hold the wine until the main course arrives.

Don’t taste wine after a breath mint, mouthwash or brushing your teeth.

Food is essential to learning to love red wine – start with the food and move to the wine.

We seldom drink only coffee, only iced tea, or only cola. Why limit your wine choices to only white or blush? It’s simply a matter of balance.