Nothing is supposed to be more in gastronomically than ordering red wine with oysters. Then you further startle the uninitiated by plopping the red – even if it is Bordeaux – into an ice bucket.
This sort of thing is all right for a change of pace or if the restaurant in question doesn't have a decent white on its list. But it applies only to light, fruity reds that actually have more in common with white wines than with most other reds.
White wine is more than just an excuse for drinking a Kir (white wine with a finger of liqueur de cassis). Even in the United States, where whites are booming as aperitifs, they are largely restricted to seafood and white meats at table.
That is limiting and hardly does justice to the enormous variety of whites, which includes at least two of the greatest wines of France: Burgundy's grand cru Montrachet and Bordeaux's grand premier cru Château d'Yquem, classed above even the Médocs permiers crus in 1855.
But first, what is white wine? It is almost always a wine made from white grapes, but there are some outstanding exceptions. Most champagne comes from black grapes, as does Alsatian Gewürztraminer. This is possible because only the skins of most black grapes contain coloring matter. The pulp is white.
Whatever the color of the grapes, they are crushed and pressed rapidly to avoid oxidation, which turns the wine yellow and gives it the flat taste of old wine.
Fermentation may take place in barrels or vats but it is kept at as low a temperature as possible, between 15 and 20 degrees centigrade. Below 15 degrees the fermentation is likely to stop and above 21 degrees to destroy the fruitiness of the wine.
Some whites are bottled straight out of the vats and others are aged first in oak barrels, as with Burgundies, Graves and Sauternes. Barrel aging imparts tannin that the fermentation of juice without skins and stems does not provide, and seems to give a longer life to such wines. Ten years is the limit for most dry whites but 25 is not unusual in very good years and even a century or more is possible in rare cases.
The extraordinary vins jaunes (yellow wines) of the Jura, deliberately exposed to the air during six years of barrel aging, will keep as well or better than most reds. The Nicolas wine firm has some perfectly preserved 1834 Arbois jaune in its collection of old wines.
The same lasting power is true for the Jura's vin de paille and Sauternes, both sweet wines. The first is made from bunches picked ripe and dried, formerly on straw mats (hence the name), before pressing. The second is dried on the vine by pourriture noble (noble rot), a fungus, Botrytis cinerea, that reduces water and acidity in the grapes and thereby concentrates the sugar content.
In both cases, there is more sugar than the enzymes in the yeasts can transform into alcohol and the wine remains sweet. When the wine attains about 15 percent alcohol, the alcohol itself inhibits further production of alcohol.
In such wines, the danger of refermentation remains and to avoid it, the wine is given a dose of sulfur dioxide (SO2). Kept within reason, under 100 milligrams per liter, this bactericide is generally unnoticeable.
When it goes too high (the authorized maximum is 450 milligrams and highly noticeable), it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, a burning sensation as it goes down the throat and hits the stomach, and a nasty headache the next morning. This is called a bar au front in French because you feel it across the forehead and just above the eyes.
Excess SO2 is no doubt the main reason so many people are turned off by whites, which they claim they can't digest. But reds also contain SO2 and few people complain even when it is all but overwhelming. A clean, well-made white wine is just as digestible as the best of reds, as anyone from an exclusively white wine-producing area can attest.
Cooling is another problem of white wines. Ideal temperatures for different types of wine vary, but in most regions the growers drink them at cellar temperature – anywhere between 10 to 14 degrees centigrade. Ideally, dry whites should be at about 10 degrees, sweet whites and champagnes at 7 to 8 degrees.
And now back to what can be done with white wine other than using it as an aperitif or to accompany fish and white meats. Why dry white as an aperitif? A cold glass of Sauternes or sweet white Anjou (Coteaux du Layon, Bonnezeaux, Quarts de Chaume) makes a perfect aperitif.
These wines also go marvelously well with foie gras, fish in cream sauce, Roquefort cheese, fruits and many desserts that are not overly sweet. Very dry whites such as Sancerre go with shellfish, fish, ham, sausage and other charcuterie, snails and goat's cheese.
More full-bodied whites, such as Graves and Burgundies, go with fish in sauce, veal, pork, chicken, rabbit, milk-fed lamb and kid, frog's legs and even certain types of game – quail and pheasant, for instance.
White wine also goes with Chaource and Coulommiers cheese (champagne), Comté and other gruyère-type cheeses (any whites but especially those from the Jura).
These suggestions are only a starting point, but whatever the dish, a good white wine is a better accompaniment than a bad red.