It has become accepted wisdom that wine consumed with a meal is better for us than wine enjoyed on its own. Not only is food believed to make wine consumption healthier, but wine can make food healthier as well – at least in a few specific ways.
A study published online in 2010 in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) showed that drinking white wine with a heavy meal of cheese fondue was more effective in aiding digestion than drinking tea with the same meal. Having food in your stomach helps slow down the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream by keeping it in the stomach longer, which in turn keeps you from becoming intoxicated quickly (and gives you a better chance of avoiding a hangover later).
Researchers don’t fully understand the mechanisms by which wine and food affect our health, and that means they can’t say with 100% certainty that wine and food are always healthier together or why.
However, placing wine firmly on the table is a habit derived from European traditions, where wine consumption has always been about wine as an essential ingredient to any meal. Wines from the different regions of Europe have been refined over centuries to best reflect and complement the cuisine of the region where they are produced.
The art of wine and food pairing has become a highly evolved discipline with numerous books published to guide consumers in their choices. More and more fine restaurants employ sommeliers to provide guests with recommendations on the perfect wine to match their meals. Furthermore, wineries often feature on their websites or wine labels advice on how to pair their wines with foods.
With so much emphasis placed on the proper matching of wine and food, one could easily forget there are many who find pleasure in enjoying wine on its own. Not all wines require the assistance of food in order to be enjoyable. A wine served before a meal is often referred to as an “apéritif”, while a wine served after a meal is known as a “digestif”. The idea of wine as an aperitif is certainly not new, and wine has long been consumed in sidewalk cafés in Europe as people relax and socialize in the late afternoon and evening.
These days, the way we drink wine is changing so rapidly that wine itself is having a hard time keeping up with those changes. And different cultures have quite different ideas about the function of wine. Most traditional wines in Europe are made to be enjoyed with food and therefore are geared to be in harmony with all of the flavours of the dishes. Conversely, there is a new trade to develop wines that can be enjoyed well with meals, but also on their own. The trend in most wineries is to produce wines in styles that are viewed as fruit-driven, more immediately approachable, with higher phenolic ripeness and alcohol levels that appear on the palate as hints of sweetness.
Changes in the context of wine consumption is often attributed to the fact that consumers are adopting wine at a younger age. Younger consumers appear to have different attitudes about wine and prefer those that are more approachable, easy to drink, and fit into their busy, social lifestyles. No longer is wine saved for only special occasions, rather it is becoming an everyday beverage and wine drinking is showing up in places never before associated with wine, such as sporting events, outdoor activities, nightclubs, dance parties, and bars.
In parts of the world where wine consumption is rising most rapidly, for example in the USA and parts of Asia, wine is no longer seen as necessarily a drink to go with food. An increasing proportion of wine of all sorts, including even quite smart red wine, is drunk without food, or without any solid matter more substantial than a bowl of nuts or potato chips.
This has huge implications for the style of wines that are likely to be most in demand – particularly for red wines which are increasingly fashionable and have been seen as possible aperitifs only relatively recently. Red wines that can happily be sipped with no substantial food to break their fall on the palate tend to be light-bodied, smooth and low in tannin.
The word smooth is important. It has become a sort of euphemism for sweet and soft, or low in tannin. And it is smooth reds that are the obvious no-food candidates, drunk in many bars today, slightly chilled. Some wines that are perfectly enjoyable with food might seem austere, tannic and uninviting on their own, while wines that might seem too soft, plush or unstructured with food might offer more pleasure without it.
Just because a wine is not a “food wine” doesn’t mean it cannot be interesting. Wines without food demand a multidimensional quality, with flavours that unfold in waves to retain our interest. Wines around the world are less harsh these days. A growing emphasis on full ripeness in the vineyard has tamed acidity and eliminated harsh tannins, resulting in wines that don’t necessarily demand food to soften the rough edges. Furthermore, these wines have generally low acidity and exhibit a fruitiness that enhances drinking alone. Round and softer tannins do not require food for balance.
Sweet, soft reds are not necessarily the most delightful dinner companions. They can seem heavy, clumsy and distracting with many foods. That’s why a large portion of wines offered at large supermarkets are produced with inoffensive smoothness, and not much else, in mind. Yet palates new to wine that are introduced to wine drinking may well find drier, chewier reds more difficult to warm to than big, bold fruit bombs which, crucially, need much less time in bottle or glass to show their charms.
Concluding this brief account on consuming wine without food, we must not forget that wine is a pretty social beverage and not every social interaction is over dinner. It is, therefore, not surprising that in the last decade, drinking wine in place of beer or spirits in a bar or nightclub without food has become a more common occurrence.
Wine enjoyment is such a personal experience and taste is not precisely an exact science. However, in spite of these developments, the fact is that wine enhances food and this remains a cornerstone of wine consumption, even today.