« White on red won’t go to your head; red on white and you’re out for the night », says the popular saying. This one seems to have been inspired by the Navy. « If the white flag is above, the sailors remain on board and nothing moves. But if the red is above, things might go crazy ! » So therefore should we always drink white wine before red wine ? But what about the reality?
Presumably, we choose wine according to what we eat. Traditionally we start with a first order of fish and then continue with a meat-based dish so we can start serving a white wine before a full-bodied red like a Cabernet Sauvignon to pair with the steak. And we could carry on with a plate of cheese and/or a dessert.
So, what about this saying?
Actually, it’s not completely wrong but it is very far from being always true ! Let us take some time for some basic rules.
Rule number one: always going towards « power » and quality
Density and quality do need to be taken into consideration. To start, serve a dry light white wine or a rosé and just about any red wine will follow smoothly. But if you drink a powerful white first, the red needs to be of equal consistency. But if you serve a light, fruity red (a Gamay Beaujolais or from the Loire Valley for example) then pour a full-bodied white. In short, fine and delicate always before powerful and great quality!
Rule number 2: the young before the « old »
A good wine that has aged well will be more complex, with secondary and sometimes tertiary aromas that will develop in the bottle over time. This quality must be assessed and deserves attention. If you decide to drink the fiery young wine after this wine, you may find the « youngster » rather disappointing, short-lived on the palate, too fruity and often with heavier alcohol. In short, a mess…
Rule number 3: dry before the « sweet »
It is customary to begin « libations » with a dry sparkling wine (brut or extra brut). It’s a very good idea because its bubbles will awaken your taste buds and prepare them for the next steps. Some will start the « festivities » with a sweeter wine. Sometimes as sweet as a Port (like they often do in Europe) or with Sauternes- like wine. This is not ideal because your mouth will already be lined up with sugar and the white or red wine that will follow will taste way too more dry and this may be unpleasant. I know, it’s hard to resist foie gras without drinking a Sauternes… In this case, cleanse your palate with a glass of water or have some soup (if it’s on the menu) before carrying on with another red or white wine of the highest quality. In short, almost always, dry wines before sweet wines .
An unwritten rule
In fact, the acidity (what makes you salivate) and freshness on the palate of a white wine can often « whip » our saturated palate with reds. Obvious since the alcohol content of red and especially the tannins (which give the drying mouthfeel) will sometimes overwhelm our taste buds. This is also why personally, I like to finish a meal with a glass of sparkling wine just before dessert. This will clean and revive my taste buds. But if you really insist on drinking wine with your dessert, make sure the wine is equally, if not more, sweeter than your dessert. In the end, this is also more a matter of quantity. If you and 3 other people drink four bottles of wine in less than two hours, it’s a safe bet that some of you will be a little « groggy ». Everything tastes better with moderation. Last unwritten rule? Try wine pairing to suit your dishes and surprise your friends. Cheers!