• Richard Peck

Wine 101—Part 5

In a previous blog post, The Sojourning Somm promised to tie-up a couple loose ends, like why do wine tasters swirl their wine and why do we look for those infamous “legs” on the inside of the glass? Then we’ll quickly move on to “Same Wine, Different Flavor.”

Why do wine tasters swirl the wine in the glass? The reason is because some aromas in the wine are released more fully when exposed to additional oxygen. By swirling the wine, the wine is aerated and your nose can more easily discern fruit, earth, and wood scents. Just be careful swirling your beverage doesn’t become a habit! You’ll sometimes catch over-the-top wine enthusiasts swirling their water and their coffee — a definite no-no!

What are wine tasters looking for when they gaze at the wine’s “legs” in the glass? Here’s the history: decades ago, when most wines were made in Europe, legs were regarded as an indication of the grapes’ ripeness. Europe’s climate, until recent years, was much more variable year-to-year than California’s. Generally speaking, more warmth yields more ripeness. More ripeness yields more flavor. More ripeness also yields more alcohol. And more alcohol yields more “legs,” legs that descend more slowly down the inside of the glass.

Thus, at a time when European vintages were highly variable — some years with very cool summers, some warm — legs were believed to provide a clue about ripeness, and therefore, potential quality. Today, however, viticulturists and winemakers have more tools to ensure adequate ripeness and the legs tell a taster very little about the true quality of a wine.

Swirl and sniff. Have fun! Even look at the “legs” in the glass. Just don’t put too much stock in what the legs tell you.

Same Wine, Different Flavor

Same wine, different flavor? What’s that all about?

What “same wine, different flavor” means is this: when you pair food with wine you can enhance the flavors of both, or ruin the flavor of the wine and the food. Does that sound bold, even wrong, that choosing the wrong wine can ruin a meal? Then read on.

Wine is many things: at the simplest level, it is just fermented grape juice. At a somewhat more interesting level, wine is “a conversation with the earth,” a beverage that draws flavors up from the earth where the vines are planted. And for the very serious wine enthusiast, wine and the way the wine is made is an expression of the history and culture of its region—just like the recipes for BBQ in Texas or the preparation of lobster in Maine.

Wine is Chemistry

But wine also is chemistry. Chemical reactions occur as wine is made, but also in your mouth when wine is combined with food. Many sommeliers will tell you the Chef isn’t really the person who determines the flavor of the meal you have ordered. Instead, you choose the final ingredient in the recipe, when you select a wine to accompany the dish. By the way, if the word “sommelier” is not familiar, a sommelier is a member of the restaurant staff who is trained to help you select the best wine for your meal.

OK, so “wine is chemistry.” What does that mean? It means the properties of the wine—particularly the acid, alcohol, and tannin (did you read the Wine 103 post in this series?)—interact with the chemistry of your food. Yep, food is chemistry, too. So let’s look at a couple of examples of bad food and wine pairings and then talk about how to make better food and wine pairing decisions.

Example: Bad Wine and Food Pairing with Salad

Start with the salad. Most Americans have a salad before meals when dining out with friends or when having a multicourse meal at home. Many salad dressings include vinegar. “Vinaigrettes” are an increasingly popular category of salad dressing, e.g., balsamic vinaigrette, raspberry vinaigrette, etc. A typical “Italian dressing” also includes vinegar. Even creamy dressings like Ranch and Thousand Island have a sharp aftertaste that whets your appetite and prepares you for the meal to follow. Tomatoes also contain a lot of acidity.

“Acidity” makes you salivate and causes you to want a bite of food. We’re not talking about battery acid, of course, but food acids like lemon juice, tomatoes, and vinegar (see Wine 103 again).

What happens when the acidity in a salad is combined with wine? The food and wine fight with each other. Usually the wine loses. Imagine that you order a glass of Pinot Grigio, a very lightly flavored white wine, with a strongly acidic salad. Let’s say the salad has a vinegar-based dressing on the lettuce, accompanied by chopped red and gold tomatoes and goat cheese. The acidic flavors of the salad will overpower the wine. Your lovely glass of Pinot Grigio will taste like water. It’s the same wine you have always enjoyed when you sip a glass of Pinot Grigio in the evening with friends, but a very different flavor—or no flavor!

Instead of choosing a light white wine to accompany a salad, the trick is to choose a much more bright, acidic wine like Sauvignon Blanc that can stand up to the flavors we have described. A French Sancerre, made from Sauvignon Blanc, or a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region, will have plenty of “oomph” and still taste like wine, not water, with your salad.

An Example: Bad Wine and Food Pairing with Main Course

Now, here comes a bad pairing for those who say, “Oh, I don’t like white wine. I only drink red.” Really? Why? The medical studies often referred to as “The French Paradox” convinced all of us that the higher levels of resveratrol in red wine promote heart health. That’s great. But you are missing half the pleasure available in the world of wine if you avoid all whites (even more than half if you don’t drink dry rosés). And, as the following bad pairing suggests, you also may be missing a good bit of the pleasure available from wonderful, fresh seafood.

Let’s say you are RVing in New England, or along the Gulf of Mexico, or on the Pacific Coast. Fresh fish are available, maybe even lobster and scallops, pulled from the waters almost immediately beside your rig. So for dinner you choose a very simple piece of white fish prepared in a lemon and butter sauce (remember: you’re being very heart healthy because you only drink reds).

Unfortunately, a flavorful red wine can overpower the more delicate flavors of the fish. Even more problematic, the iron content of many red wines can cause the fish to taste metallic and more “fishy” than it should. Finally, red wine lacks the acidity needed, not only to complement the lemon and butter sauce of this particular recipe, but also to counteract the naturally occurring amines in the fish (remember: I warned you, wine is chemistry).

By the way, the challenge of pairing just one wine with the entire meal is why multicourse dinners in fine dining restaurants offer a different wine with each course. Whites go better with salads; reds go better with many meat courses. It’s not impossible to enjoy the same with throughout your meal. Just realize it will taste better with some parts of the meal than others.

An Educated Palate

“Whoa!” you might say. “I’m sorry, but I drink Cabernet Sauvignon with fish all the time and it tastes just fine.” Well, maybe . . . but compared to what?

“Compared to what” is the big caveat over the whole topic of food and wine pairing. Red wine and fish may taste just fine, if you haven’t experienced the perfect pairing of Chardonnay and lobster, or a delicate Orvieto (an Italian white wine) with a freshly baked white fish. Our palates must be trained or educated about food and wine pairing, in the same way we learn to appreciate a great athletic performance, or a complex symphony, or a well-tied fly if you are a fly fisherman.

Try the classic food and wine pairings before you decide they aren’t for you. The novelist Ernest Hemingway once wrote to his editor, “My attitude toward punctuation is that it ought to be as conventional as possible. The game of golf would lose a good deal if croquet mallets and billiard cues were allowed on the putting green. You ought to be able to show that you can do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools before you have a license to bring in your own improvements.”

Including Hemingway’s quotation isn’t meant in a mean-spirited way, but only to say that most rules (including food and wine pairing principles) develop over time for good reasons. That said, we’ll talk about some exceptions to the rules in the next section, when we address food and wine pairing principles.

Principles for Pairing Food and Wine

There are so many books about pairing food and wine, you might think the task is impossibly difficult. Not so!

But if you are more than casually interested in pairing principles, my favorite book is What to Drink with What You Eat, by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. The genius of this book is that you can approach the meal either from the wine side (the bottle you want to drink with the meal), or the food side (and wine suggestions abound). You’ll also find articles in the book by numerous sommeliers, explaining their approaches to food and wine pairing.

By the way, for us RVers it’s also nice that Page and Dornenburg’s book is available digitally, for Kindle or the Kindle app on your tablet.

That said, you don’t have to buy a book to make good pairings. Here are three, easy principles that will keep you on solid ground:

  1. Match red wine with red meat, white wine with white meat. This is the oldest pairing principle and one you have probably already heard. In general, it works. A big red wine with a juicy filet mignon is just the ticket. Similarly, a luscious white with lobster tail is perfection, too. The weak spot of this principle is that it doesn’t take into account preparation or sauces. If you are grilling salmon (granted, salmon is pink not white), or if you are poaching red snapper with tomatoes, olives, mushrooms, and onions, you can successfully pair red wine with fish. Pinot Noir, particularly, is a good “bridge wine” for dishes that might normally suggest white wine, but work well with red.

  2. Pair a wine that was “born” where the food was born. For this principle, you are relying on decades (usually centuries) of wisdom passed down through generations about what wine works with the local or national cuisine. Nothing would pair better with a tomato-based spaghetti sauce and meatballs made from Italian sausage than an Italian wine: Chianti Classico or Rosso di Montalcino. Similarly, if you are preparing an Argentinian-like “gaucho steak,” flame-broiled with chimichurri sauce, go with a Malbec from Argentina that brings rich, dark fruit flavors to the meal.

  3. Complement or contrast the food with the wine. This principle is a little trickier, just because it involves knowing the characteristics of many types of wine. But the idea is simple: basically, if you have prepared a very rich sauce — a cream-based sauce on fish, for example — you can either complement that richness by pairing a big, rich California Chardonnay with the dish, or you can create a contrast to that richness by pairing a very bright, acidic white, a Spanish Albariño, perhaps. Another great contrast is spicy and sweet. If you are having spicy Thai food, pair it with an off-dry (slightly sweet) Riesling. You’ll be amazed what a pleasant combination that is.

Have fun experimenting with these simple principles and see what suits your palate best! Even wine professionals sometimes disagree about pairings. This doesn’t mean the principles don’t work. It just shows that each of us has a unique palate, with personal “thresholds” at which we perceive or don’t perceive certain flavors and flavor combinations.

The great thing about experimenting with food and wine pairing is that we get to eat and drink our experiments. Think of your meals as spending time in your “culinary laboratory.” See what works best for you — and as you experiment, The Sojourning Somm wishes you the best, and cheers!

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