Malcolm Jolley: Whites for dinner

Why white wine is an increasingly popular dinner drink of choice
Winemaker Vesna Bukavec pours a Prosekar wine in Prosecco, near Trieste, Italy, Friday, Oct. 15, 2021. Antonio Calanni/AP Photo.

I received an email this week from a wine importer promoting a Prosecco advent calendar. Produced and assembled by the well-established producer Canella, the calendar is really a $200 case of 24 small 200 ml bottles of tank-made bubbly. Most mornings I really prefer orange juice, coffee, and water before at least eleven, even in December, so I’m not sure the liquid calendar fits with my lifestyle.1In my experience, there is almost always a bottle of Prosecco in an ice bucket at the breakfast buffet provided by Italian hotels. Also in my experience, I have never actually seen anyone partake in the first thing in the morning fizz on offer. But, surely, some people must? Still, I like that the idea exists, and if I were in the corporate gifts world, I would be tempted to send a few to my best clients for fun.

A glass of sparkling wine in the morning seems pretty louche, but I suppose it wouldn’t get one into too much trouble, provided that was it (at least until lunch). Certainly, it seems pretty tame compared to whatever prompted the story that came out last month about the California brunch restaurant that offered bottomless mimosas and a $50 clean-up fee for anyone found throwing up in their restrooms.2When I gave this story a Google to find a link, I discovered that the vomit fee may well have been a Canadian invention based on this 2021 story from BlogTO. That this was happening mid-COVID strikes me as rather impressive. I don’t want to be old-fashioned, but this may be a sign that wine and breakfast don’t really mix.

Wine and dinner certainly do, though. And, increasingly by my observation, white wine is at the table for the day’s last meal.

Exhibit A: My wife and I recently hosted a dinner party made of old friends to mark a birthday. Some wine was consumed. And while both kinds were on offer and poured before, during, and after dinner, a thin majority of it turned out to be white wine by the recycling bin tally the next morning. The numbers were aided by at least one guest who stuck to white all through dinner, and a few others who switched back to white after.

Exhibit B: I attended a mid-week dinner talk recently and was seated at a table of eight. As I recall, of the six of us seated who took wine with our salad and chicken breast, half (including me) stuck to white.

Exhibit C: The British trade magazine website, The Drinks Business, reported this month that University of California Davis scientists have discovered a molecule, quercetin, which they believe causes headaches in some people when it’s combined with alcohol. The molecule, or “flavonoid” is most prominently found in the skins of grapes. It is extended contact with skins, especially thick ones like on Cabernet Sauvignon, that makes wine red.3If the article about quercetin and red wine headaches explains the phenomenon correctly, and if the sufferers wished to avoid the headaches but still drink red wine, then a successful course of action might be to try red wines made from thin-skinned grapes. These are usually from cooler climate regions since thick skins protect grapes from sunshine and heat dehydration. Pinot Noir from Canada or Northern Europe would be a good candidate to experiment with.

It seems that some people really do get red wine headaches. This was the explanation of our guest who stuck to white at the dinner party. Since she started, her husband often goes along and joins her happily.

If pathology isn’t enough to cause red wine avoidance, then vanity might. Two decades of frequent professional wine tasting (and a fair amount of off-hours wine drinking) have worn at the enamel of my teeth. I have veneers for some teeth, but the ones I don’t stain easily, and there’s no veneer for purple lips. Sticking to white at dinner parties or public events makes for better photo-ops, as well as easier to clean spills if things go really wrong.

There is also the matter of alcohol. No rule in the wine world is without many exceptions, but by and large white wines have less alcohol than red ones. Or at least, red wines are more likely to be made in a big, high-alcohol style than white ones. Whether for clarity of mind or kindness to the liver, a move to lower-alcohol wines is often easier by sticking to white, especially if one’s options are limited.

The best reason to drink white wine with dinner, though, is that it tastes good. Some foods really do go better with white wines, like an omelette or shellfish. And there is the matter of continuity. If I have opened a white wine as an aperitif before dinner, and if the dinner works with red or white wine, like a vegetable pasta, it’s easier to keep on the white than to open a new bottle of red.

Again, all wine world rules come with many exceptions, but by and large, the white wines that work best for heartier dinner foods lie on the fuller, weightier, and rounder flavour spectrum, as opposed to the crisper more aromatic end. I mean, I am more likely to pour a Chardonnay with a mushroom lasagne than a Sauvignon Blanc. Scallops would be another story, though.

White wines that show oak have become so unfashionable they may be becoming fashionable again. In any event, I have successfully paired subtly oaked Chardonnay or white Côtes-du-Rhône with slices of roast beef or steak while I was carving and still sipping the before-dinner wine. The tannins from the barrels function like the ones from red grapes and meld nicely into the fatty meat.

Life is short and the list of wines is long. If you prefer to drink white with dinner once in a while, or every time, then know you are in good company and of sound reason. 

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