Wine, that glorious beverage we can count on to liven any meal, romantic date, or hang session with friends, is supposed to be enjoyable, delicious, and exciting. But somewhere along the way, many arbitrary rules have arisen and worked their ways into our consciousness. The result: Something meant to be a special addition to a meal or occasion has become one more thing to stress about.
Well, guess what—it’s time to throw those rules to the curb. It’s good to have a little basic wine knowledge, but that doesn’t mean you need to follow any established routine—in fact, the opposite is better. Mix it up, try new things, and experience wine outside of the box of acceptable wisdom. Here, some of our favorite sommeliers from around the country are sharing the rules that are meant to be broken. Some might surprise you, and all of them will be sure to help you have more fun next time you pop open a bottle.
Rule: Rosé is only a summer beverage.
How to break it: Full-bodied, darker-hued rosé is great all year.
“Textured and fuller-bodied rosé is great in winter,” says Kirk Sutherland, beverage director at one of Manhattan’s most exciting new restaurants, High Street on Hudson,which has an all-domestic beverage program. He recommends trying wines made with the grenache or mourvèdre grapes, either coming from California or southern France. These wines typically are a bit weightier and higher in alcohol, even in rosé form, so they’ll be sure to “get you through a meal and whisk away the winter blues.” Often, these rosés have a darker color, and a smoky, savory quality that makes them perfect for pairing with winter dishes.
Sutherland also suggests trying rosés that are “off-dry,” meaning they have just a bit of residual sugar but are not fully sweet. “Off-dry pinot noir–based rosés from the Finger Lakes or Germany are great, and tend to be quite reasonably priced.”
Rule: The only wines you should decant are fuller-bodied reds.
How to break it: Try decanting certain white wines and champagne.
Victoria James, wine director at Michelin-starred restaurant Piora, an innovative modern American restaurant with Korean and Italian influences in Manhattan, urges people to try decanting fuller-bodied white wines and champagne. Styles of white wine you might want to decant, according to James, include: anything chardonnay-based; anything that’s been aged in oak; white blends from the French regions of Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley. “You can even try decanting your champagne, especially if it’s a chardonnay-based blanc de blancs,” says James, who oversees a wine list known for its champagne offerings. “And decanting will let it warm up—you don’t want to serve complex white wines right out of the fridge.”
Rule: The best pairing for fish is white wine.
How to break it: Light reds can be great with fish of all kinds.
Fellippe Esteves, sommelier and general manager at the boho-chic oasis Estrella, located in the heart of Los Angeles’s iconic Sunset Strip, says to embrace“unorthodox pairings, like fish with red wine.” He loves helping diners discover the beauty of this combination, to their surprise and delight. “In fact, breaking the rules is synonymous with innovation, being curious, and a fearlessness to try new things,” says Esteves. That said, Esteves wouldn’t recommend all red wines with all kinds of fish.
“When pairing a red wine with fish, choose a fine wine with fewer tannins and with some acidity,” says Esteves. One ideal grape that fits that description is an earthy, light, and bright (that’s another word for “acidic”) pinot noir from Oregon. As well, certain kinds of fish, like bluefish or salmon, are more amenable to red wine—but don’t stop yourself from experimenting with flaky white fish, too. “When it comes to wine pairings, my philosophy is simple,” says Esteves: “Drink what you like!”
Rule: You need an expensive, fancy-looking decanter.
How to break it: Just use that bong from college!
Jared Hooper, wine director at Faith & Flower, a downtown Los Angeles hot spot with shareable plates of seasonal, contemporary globally influenced cuisine and a killer wine program, actually decants wine in a 2-foot bong. Yes, like the bong you (may or may not have) smoked out of in your dorm room.
Hooper says that decanting in a bong was actually inspired, somewhat randomly, by his diners. As is only befitting of a critically acclaimed and wine-centric restaurant, Hooper was using beautiful, design-forward decanters. “Often a guest would comment that he wasn’t sure whether to pour or smoke out of them,” he says. “I figured, well, why not?” Hooper headed to a local head shop, tested a few bongs by filling them with a 750 mL container of water (that’s the same size as a bottle of wine), and then grabbed a few and made them the unofficial house decanters. “The guest reactions are pretty funny,” he says, adding that some people arrive already in the know and request one specifically.
Rule: Riesling and chardonnay are too sweet or oaky for any serious meal.
How to break it: Learn about the elegance dry riesling, and cool-climate chardonnay.
Christian Stachel, beverage director at Detroit’s Wright & Company, a restaurant with a contemporary and casual approach and an eclectic wine program, is passionate about riesling and chardonnay wines that go against stereotypes of sweet, flabby, oaky, and buttery. Not all riesling is sweet, and increasingly there are incredibly good and affordable dry rieslings coming out of Germany, Austria, and the Alsace region of France. Dry riesling wines are “bright, aromatic, and thirst-quenching,” says Stachel. “They can easily be paired with food, especially spicy dishes.”
“Yes, there are many chardonnays produced with too much oak, but not all are that way,” urges Stachel. He suggests looking for chardonnay wines from cooler climates, where the grapes retain acidity and minerality, and less new oak is used to age the wines—the best example being Chablis, in France. “They produce a lean, dry, mineral-driven wine,” says Stachel about Chablis, adding that there is “a trend with many California producers to make unoaked chardonnay, as well.”
Rule: Champagne is only for celebrations or to serve as a starter wine.
How to break it: Have food-friendly champagne with your starter or main course.
Stachel is passionate about champagne’s versatility. “It seems to be an unspoken rule that champagne and sparkling wine are restricted to celebratory moments or appetizers,” he says. “But bubbles shouldn’t be pigeonholed!”
Effervescent wine can be the perfect pairing for any course—for example, a rich appetizer featuring chicken liver pâté. And don’t stop there—try sparkling wine with heavy main courses, and you’ll see how the bubbles and sharp acidity will cut right through the fat. Stachel even recommends very dry, extra-brut champagne as a pairing for meat-based dishes, like rib eye steak or pasta Bolognese. “The crisp and vibrant acidity of extra-brut champagne lifts the fatty richness from your palate, making every bite more alive and electric than the last,” he says.
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