What to drink: Wine pairing basics

What to drink: Wine pairing basics

The holiday season is upon us! For the foodie, and you know who you are, dining out, cooking and entertaining for friends and family is nearly as exciting as a child’s anticipation of the arrival of Santa. We have big plans for the season! Amazing dinners, hors d’oeuvres, and treats, whether from celebrity chef’s recipes or grandmother’s handwritten cookbook, will be showcased in every foodies’ home. Wine is as important of an ingredient to the delight of this season as flour is to bread.

Pairing the right wine to the right food can result in foodie nirvana, taking food to a whole new level. Flavors, texture and structural nuances of food reveal themselves on the palate with the right wine pairing. Wine also has nuances of flavor, texture and structure. The art, and sometimes science, is matching those components together in one harmonious taste.

We’ve all been eating since… we could. This is obviously not the case with drinking wine. Some palates are more decisive than others, but you don’t need to be a judge on a food reality show to know how most common food items taste. Unfortunately, wine tends to be complex, with hints of this and notes of that. Unless you taste everyday, it is unlikely most of us will walk into the store and pick up a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape, because the hint of strawberries and dried herbs pairs perfectly with the juicy, rareness of our steak. In the wine world, we drill down this far, but for most of us, that gets a bit geeky.

Rule number one of wine is to drink what you like. No matter how cheap or expensive, if you don’t like a wine, there is nothing left to talk about. Just like food, if you’ve been drinking wine, you probably have a good idea of wines you like. The question is: why do you like them? The answer probably lies in the details of weight, structure, texture and nuance of flavor.

To get started pairing, the easiest thing to do is to really think about the food you’re eating in a detailed way. For example, is it heavy or light, bold or delicate, or does it have ingredients added to make it spicy, hot or sweet? Then, think about how a wine’s “built-in” ingredients and characteristics could compliment those things. The classic procedure is to pair white wine with white/light food and to pair red wine with red/heavy food. That is good advice to start, but not all red wine and white wines are equal. They range from light to heavy, dry to sweet, and everything in between.

Let’s take filet mignon, which is a steak cut from beef tenderloin, for example. It’s beef and it’s red, but it’s also delicately flavored, because tenderloin has less fat than other cuts. Its structure and texture is fine, as it has little connective tissue. Ever heard anyone say, “I could cut it with a fork?” Now think about how a wine can match it. Putting a big, massive wine together with it will make it taste like wine flavored filet mignon. Pairing a lighter bodied, more delicately flavored wine can not only compliment the flavor of the filet, but may enhance it. Rioja, from Spain is a great choice! It tends to be light to medium in body and it has fruit, balanced with herbal qualities. Making Beef Wellington out of a whole tenderloin, rubbed with herbs, goose liver pate, and mushroom duxelle adds new levels of flavor to the same cut of meat. Red Burgundy, made of Pinot Noir, with its soft, supple fruit and earthy hints of leaves and mushrooms, would be a perfect partner!

My favorite words to hear from a guest in our restaurant are: “I’m having blackened scallops, but I am sick of Chardonnay. What white wine can I drink with it?” Yes! Delicate, buttery, diver scallops are wearing a crust of blackening spices. If you put most red wines together with it, the spices will never extinguish in your mouth, making the wine taste awful, sip after sip. If you pair a white wine with crisp acidity to the blackened scallops, you get to have your scallops and drink your wine too! A white wine like Albarino from Spain, or Riesling from Alsace or Germany is perfect! Highly acidic, with layers of tropical fruit and minerality, these wines will cut across your palate and put the fire out, all the while enhancing the delicate nature of the scallops on the wine’s finish. Foodie Nirvana!

It is obviously hard to know, without tasting hundreds of wines, what they all taste like. That takes a lot of time. So, rule number 2 for the wine focused foodie is: develop a relationship with a top wine shop or sommelier in a restaurant that you trust. If you give them a little leeway, you will learn a whole lot and they will take you to new levels of foodie enlightenment.

Happy Holidays!


1 comment (Add your own)

1. Lacey wrote:
What a great primer for food and wine pairings!

Fri, November 30, 2012 @ 2:31 PM

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