Pairing Food and Wine--Mystery Solved
If it Grows Together, it Goes Together
In many parts of the world, wine isn’t considered a beverage. It’s food…part of the meal. That’s because people in places like France, Italy, and Spain enjoy food and wine matching traditions that go back hundreds of years. But why do tomato sauce and Chianti go so well together? Or beef stew with red Burgundy?
It’s been a while since we visited this topic, so I hope to offer a few new insights. If we want to get the most out of the experience of wine, aside from just slugging it from a glass, it helps to apply some basic principles to pairing with food. In restaurants, some people decide what they want to eat, then choose a wine to go with. Others (including us) pick the wine first, then look at the food side of the menu. Either way, keeping in mind a few fundamentals will go a long way to assuring that the wine enhances the food, and vice versa.
First, whites before reds, light-bodied wines before full, and dry before sweet. It helps if the wine and food have similar levels of intensity, which is the richness and concentration of aromas and flavors. For example, a light white such as Sauvignon Blanc would be overwhelmed by a grilled New York strip steak.
Then, consider how the food is cooked. A fish that’s steamed or poached needs a lighter wine accompaniment than a filet of fried grouper. Broiled, grilled or smoked foods, such as steaks and ribs, need a wine with a smoky flavor, like a Sangiovese, Zinfandel, or Syrah. Sautéeing puts fat in direct contact with the food, so we’d choose either a wine with an oily texture, or a wine that cuts the fat, such as a full-bodied Cabernet or Syrah.
Next comes what chefs like to call “bridge” flavors: these connect the food with wines that have the same flavor profiles. A simple example would be Chardonnay that has a buttery, creamy flavor paired with (wait for it) buttered popcorn. Silly, but it works surprisingly well. On a more serious note, taste components like the acid in tomato sauce work with acidic wines, such as Chianti or Barbera.
In red wines, tannin is a big factor in pairing with food. Tannin is a mouthfeel that gives us the dry, “fuzzy” sensation on the palate, and it comes from the seeds, stems, and skins of red grapes. Mostly, we want to diminish the effects of tannin, and we can do that by pairing reds with fatty foods, such as steaks and chops. Another technique is to pair tannic wines with saltier foods, because the salt counteracts the tannin as well.
A word about Champagne, and sparkling whites made in the Champagne style: in general, they go with almost any food. The high acidity pairs with Asian and Latin dishes, with smoky and spicy foods, and with egg dishes at Sunday brunch.
We’ll visit this topic again, because there are lots of wines, and lots of foods. Watch for information about the “lemon law” in wine and food pairing in upcoming issues. Meanwhile, here are a few of our latest value discoveries.
Masi Masicano Pinot Grigio & Verduzzo della Venezie 2014 ($10) – Not serious, but fun. Refreshing oak, green apple and pear flavors, slightly sweet on the palate. A nice, simple sipper. WW 87
Smoke Tree Pinot Noir Sonoma 2014 ($17) – Bright garnet in the glass with aromas of anise and smoke. A Burgundian style, offering flavors of forest floor and raspberry. Needs some time. WW 86
Renieri Rosso di Montalcino Toscana 2012 ($15) – Gorgeous ruby color, aromas of fresh plum and bright fruit on the palate with hints of warm earth. Really interesting. Needs a bit of time. WW 90
Il Bastardo Sangiovese Toscana 2015 ($7) – Nothing complicated here, but some big cherry flavors in the glass, and plenty of structure to stand up to the strong flavors of Italian cuisine. Great with pizza and pasta. WW 88
What year is it, anyway?
What Year Is It, Anyway?
For many people, one of the most confusing things about wine appreciation is all that business about vintages. Good years, bad years, even mediocre years – it’s tough to keep all that information straight in your head. Besides, does it really matter?
I've found that there's no better way to learn vintages than simply letting nature take its course: Every year, trailing the calendar by a few months to several years, each new vintage comes through the pipeline, bringing its own surprises and teaching us its particular lessons through tasting. It’s a good opportunity to make a few points about vintage and its place in wine appreciation. Live through a few vintages, learn them in your glass, and before long you realize that you do have a lot of that info in your head.
But first, let's tick off a few random "bullet points" about some ways that wine lovers use -- and abuse -- information about vintages.
● Vintage, the year shown on the bottle of most fine wines, reflects the year in which the grapes were picked. Since wine grapes are an agricultural product, weather conditions can have a significant effect on the wine. For example, a summer of extreme heat in Europe can result in very ripe fruit, which may not necessarily be a blessing, as over-ripe grapes tend to make fat, lower-acid wines.
● All weather, like all politics, is local. One region's terrible vintage may be decent in another and excellent in a third. A lackluster year in Napa may be very good in Bordeaux, or vice versa. Indeed, when we mention intense summer heat in Europe, remember that we're talking only about a certain region. Maybe that same growing season was excellent in South Africa, and "difficult" in much of California and Down Under. We need to be specific.
● Vintage quality works only as a broad generalization. Some producers make excellent wines in "poor" vintages, and a few make stinkers in "can't miss" years. Moreover, the storm or frost that devastated vines in one village may have missed its neighbor. It's rare to have a vintage so poor that consumers have to write it off entirely. The 1997 vintage in Bordeaux comes close to this mark, when even the prestigious First Growth wines were very disappointing. But now and then we can find value by cherry-picking better wines from vintages that conventional wisdom says to avoid.
● Trust your own taste buds more than vintage charts. Famous wine professionals like Robert Parker may highly rate a vintage that produced big, strong and ripe wines in France, which drives up prices. But what if you don’t share his affection for bold, concentrated wines? There are only two kinds of wines: the ones you like and the ones you don’t.
Here are some we recently liked very much.
Les Dauphins Côtes du Rhône Réserve Blanc NV ($11) – This unique blend of traditional white grapes from the Rhone Valley offers typical Viognier floral aromas, with a palate of white flowers, medium body, and refreshing acidity. WW 89
Domaine Bousquet Rose 2015 ($9) – French name, Argentine wine. A delicate blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, there’s raspberry and cherry flavors with an interesting hint of earthiness, unusual in a rosé wine. WW 89
Kendall Jackson Grand Reserve Merlot 2013 ($26) – Deeply colored with a very pleasant mineral nose and deep black fruit flavors show the resunt of 17 months aging in mostly French oak. WW 91-92
Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Zinfandel ($17) – Black earth, red fruit, and a bit of pepper. The bold fruit and full body make this a Zinfandel that’s very true to type. WW 90
Ask the Wine Whisperer – I’ve seen professional wine critics put their noses all the way down inside a glass and take some sniffs. Why do wine tasters smell wine?
The aromas of a wine can give you a good hint about how it will taste – even where it was made and how old it might be. Besides, 85% of your sense of taste is actually smell. Most often, a wine’s aromas (or “bouquet” or “nose”) indicate what we’re going to taste, but sometimes the taste will be very different.
Reserve Wine Tour Breaking News!
After a few months of hard work, we've finalized many of the wineries we'll be visiting during our Reserve Wine Tour of Napa and Sonoma in September of this year. Our winemaker friends are ready to welcome our group, and they have some special surprises lined up. How about a sit-down tasting of Reserve wines at Mondavi, followed by a four-course dinner with Reserve wine pairings?
So far, we've confirmed the following wineries...
V Madrone (our friends Chris and Pauline Tilley)
Caldwell (John Caldwell was one of the first winery owners we invited to the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Festival)
Seghesio (Ted Seghesio pretty much sets the pace for Zinfandel in California)
Mondavi (Jani di Carlo, who manages the reserve tasting room, has special treats in store)
Benovia (Joe Anderson and his wife Mary DeWayne have very close ties to Southwest Florida)
Andrew Geoffrey (Peter Thompson's vineyard atop Diamond Mountain offers a spectacular view of Napa Valley)
With Peter Thompson in the Andrew Geoffrey Vineyard atop Diamond Mountain
Other surprises are in store. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for pricing and reservation information. You don't want to miss this trip!
Travel With Me
Ready to travel “Inside California Wine Country”?
Join The Wine Whisperer for a special 5-day journey that will take you behind the scenes at some of the most exclusive wineries in Napa and Sonoma wine country. This trip will include a lot more than just wine tastings and samplings. It’s a “reserve” wine experience.
Private "behind the scenes" tastings
Most tourists to wine destinations go from one tasting room to another, just like the crowd. But this September, I will be hosting a group of wine lovers on a trip that goes in the back door instead of the front...right into the winery, where you’ll meet the owners and winemakers personally, and learn how grapes really go from the bunch to the barrel to the bottle.
Spending time in the barrel room
The price is all-inclusive: luxury accommodations at the beautiful River Terrace Inn, wine pairing lunches and dinners, comfortable ground transportation, educational experiences, and a whole lot more. The Wine Whisperer has crafted and designed this exceptional wine journey especially for wine lovers.
The River Terrace Inn
The trip starts from Napa on September 18, with pricing still being set. All travel arrangements will be made by prestigious Preferred Travel of Naples.
Tired of the same old wine country routine? Go “inside wine country” with The Wine Whisperer. This is a customized trip that assures a lifetime of memories in one of the world’s finest winegrowing areas.
For more information, and regular updates on our itinerary, just click on “Contact Jerry” in the upper right corner, and we’ll add you to the list.
Sicily--The Wines You Can't Refuse
Since practically the beginning of time, the Romans (then the Italians) have been toying with the idea of building a bridge over the Straits of Messina to link the island of Sicily with the mainland. Hasn’t happened yet. Maybe never will.
This makes a visit to Sicily a bit of a hike, but one that’s well worth taking. The scenery is spectacular, there are more Greek temples in Sicily than in Greece itself, and the wines are stunning – especially the varietals you never heard of.
For practically ever, Sicilian grapes were used for raisins, while certain varietals were grown to make Marsala, a sweet wine that most people associate with Sicily, if they think about it at all. But over the last 30 years or so, the Sicilians have realized that they can make great wine…and they’ve become very hip to international grape varietals. In fact, Sicily is one of the two largest wine producing areas in Italy, which is saying quite a bit. Producers such as Planeta, Regaleali and Donnafugata make Chardonnays, Syrahs, and other wines that hold their own against anything that comes from the mainland. But if you really want to pick up some great bargains, look for the wines made from grapes that are indigenous to the island.
The Greek Theatre in Taormina
Nero d’Avola, as the name indicates, is native to Avola in the extreme southeast corner of the island, near Siracusa. However, the grape is now grown everywhere, and just about every Sicilian producer makes it. The good news is, no matter which kind you buy, it’s probably going to be good. Since I sample so widely (ahem…) I’ve tasted Neros from many of the major producers, and never met one I didn’t like. The wine has an intense ruby color and flavors of dark fruit, earth, and aromatic herbs. It’s a big, satisfying wine, and great with grilled meats. The two major producers are Planeta and Regaleali, but other brands are well worth trying.
Mt. Etna is still active
At the eastern end of the island, the still-active volcano of Mt. Etna broods over the landscape. It’s 10,000 feet high, snow-capped all year round, and emits a steady column of white steam into the deep blue sky, just to let us know it’s not dead yet. But on the eastern slope the Nerello Mascalese grapes grow, and while we might never think to walk into a wine store and ask for a bottle, maybe we should.
Often blended with other wines, Nerello Mascalese makes a great quaff in its pure form. Medium bodied, spicy, and with strong notes of deep fruit, violets, earth, and forest floor, it’s a bit like Cabernet Sauvignon, supports relatively high levels of alcohol, and pairs well with steaks, chops, and other hearty meats.
The point: don’t be afraid to try unfamiliar wine varietals. There’s a discovery in every bottle.
Surviving the Wine Experience
This October marked our 16th year attending the Wine Spectator Wine Experience. For those who don’t know, it’s an almost-three-day even when wine lovers from all corners of the globe gather to taste samples of wines that almost nobody can get their hands on.
Some are produced in microscopic quantities, while others are so expensive that you’d have to hock your BMW to buy them.
First comes the Thursday night Grand Tasting. At the Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square, there is a fifth-floor ballroom and another on the sixth floor. We always start on five, where over 125 tables are set up and where winemakers dole out small splashes of wines such as Salon Champagne ($400 a bottle) and Lafite Rothschild Bordeaux ($900 a bottle). There is a prodigious amount of swirling, sniffing, and sipping, but also an equal amount of spitting. If you taste your way through a hundred or so wines and don’t spit, you’ll never make it back to your hotel room.
Grand Tastings on Thursday and Friday nights
Friday morning tastings start at around 9, where we sit at long tables and encounter 16 empty glasses that will soon be filled with Grand Cru Burgundies, California Pinot Noirs, First Growth Bordeaux, and other delicacies. This goes on until noon, when we’re ushered into a vast dining room for lunch, where each table holds 10 or 12 bottles of Argentinian wine.
Debi Greenfield charms Wine Spectator Editor Jim Laube (L) and Angelo Gaja
Then it’s back to the seminars for the afternoon session, followed by a nap and the Friday night Grand Tasting. We’re on the 6th floor for this one, visiting winemaker friends like Sparky Marquis from Mollydooker in Australia, and Andrew Vigniello from AP Vin in San Francisco.
Saturday starts early with more conducted tastings by Bill Harlan, Angelo Gaja, and a sample of Wine Spectator’s top 10 wines of the year. Lunch brings us a table full of wines from Washington State, like Milbrandt’s delicious Merlot. And again, we return to the seminar room for vertical samplings of Penfold’s Grange and Mouton Rothschild.
Attendees prepare for the first tasting -- 9AM Friday morning
Even though the Saturday night banquet includes a pre-dinner Champagne reception and wines matched with the meal, everyone in our group brings a special bottle to share. There was 2000 Cos d’Estournel, 2003 Napa Reserve, and so many others that I lost track. Next year I’m going to bring six of my own glasses and write the names of the wines on the tablecloth.
Debi gets ready to swirl and sip with cousins David Lazer and Caroline Levy
There were plenty of discoveries, and I’m sure we’ll be hunting them down to purchase over the next few weeks. More reports and tasting notes to come.