My wine career started a little differently than most as it started in the kitchen of a pizzeria bussing tables and washing dishes. There was a long journey from working there to working the grill in a fine dining restaurant, but what kept me going was my passion for food and making people happy. I have always loved the connection and memories people make while sharing a meal together and that eventually brought me to the dining room in restaurants. I was able to witness and contribute the joy food brought to people. And then, inevitably, I was introduced to wine.
In a classroom back at culinary school we tried some of the most mediocre and some of the best wines under the sun, or, rather, the ceiling of our classroom. We did food pairings that were purposely terrible and some that were magnificent. That is when I knew pairing food and wine was for me. It was the art I had been looking for. I think of it like the scene in Ratatouille when Remy is trying to teach his brother about food. That it isn't just there to eat, but to be savored. Then the fireworks start going off behind him.
Every time I pair food and wine, whether it is for customers, friends, or just myself on a Tuesday night, those fireworks in the background are my goal.
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to share my passion with my colleagues at our "Tuesday Morning Wine School." On Tuesday mornings, the staff takes an extra 30 minutes to really dive into a grape, region, or theme. On this particular Tuesday... I brought snacks!
While we all have been told that red wine goes with meat and white wine goes with fish; there is room for a lot more creativity and personal preference. You just need a few guidelines to help you through.
There are five tastes that we can perceive when tasting food: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. Umami is a sort of recent addition in last few years. The Japanese use this word to describe “deliciousness.” Back when I first learned about this word, I enjoyed thinking of it as my fancy way of adding “je ne sais quoi,” but in a more humble way.
When you taste a wine you can only taste the sweet (sugar), bitter (tannins), or sour (acidity). Most of the time we are stuck with these three flavors. However, there are always exceptions to every rule, like a Jura Chardonnay or a dry Sherry, both can seem salty. There is also texture, temperature, and spiciness to play with and along with those finite flavors (aromas, however, are a totally different ballgame.)
The key to pairings is to either complement or contrast those three main flavors in the wine. Depending on your choice of food they will enhance or tone down each other’s characteristics. One good guideline is that power goes with power. So the texture of the food and wine is always important. The cooking methods matter here. Steamed, poached and cold dishes will have a lighter texture, something roasted or grilled will have more depth and power. However, if you have a fattier dish, you may want to contrast the dish, instead of complementing it- how delicious is Champagne and French Fries? High acid vs high fat!
The spiciness of a dish is very important. Very salty and spiced foods highlight the tannins and alcohol of wine. It is more harmonious to contrast spice with low alcohol wines with a bit of sweetness. Also, richer sparkling wine goes well with spice or salt (again with the Champagne and French Fries! But if bubbles aren’t your style, a Chablis or an Entre-Deux-Mers and oysters!)
Sour is acidity. In this area, you can play a little more. How do you want to express the dish? Let's say you are having crab legs with butter — do you want a lighter style wine to cleanse the palate and focus on the freshness of the seafood? Or do you prefer a fuller bodied white wine to complement the butter sauce by keeping the richness and opulence of the dish? Either way, it is always a good idea to have the food be slightly richer than the wine. Oak flavors are enhanced by food, so a tiny bit of acidity in the wine will help cleanse the palate and keep the meal from seeming greasy or monotoned.
I picked three items to pair with wine. The first was a three-month-old manchego cheese. I paired with Alexander Jules “8/41” Manzanilla Sanlucar de Barrameda to complement the nutty and salty (breaking the rules already) flavors in the cheese. The 2015 Bernabeleva "Arroyo del Tórtolas" Garnacha Vinos de Madrid was there to contrast the earthy tones of the cheese with the high toned freshness of the wine. While we all enjoyed the complement of the Sherry with the manchego, it was interesting to see how the fruit character of the Garnacha made the manchego seem even nuttier. If we had a whole cheese plate with pickles and bread, I think the Garnacha would have been a stronger pairing, but alone it overpowered the cheese.
Second, was a neutral brie (I didn't want anything too pungent) that was paired with 2013 Marimar “Doubles Lias” Russian River Valley Chardonnay. As you can guess it is a richer style chardonnay to complement the delicious creamy brie. While this is a rich wine, coming from the Russian River it had a good amount of acidity. As I mentioned earlier, you don't want to have a wine richer than your food. My coworker Thomas, hit the nail on the head as he described the pairing as creating a savory ice cream texture. To contrast that creaminess we had the 2016 A.J. Adam Dhron Hofberg Spätlese Riesling Mosel. A sweeter wine still holding onto a lot of acidity. The earthiness of the brie enhanced that sweetness of the wine while the acidity cleansed the palate keeping you ready for the next bite.
I think our favorite pairing, because the flavors were so evident, was the glazed ham. I kept the Riesling as our accompanying wine. It perfectly brought out the sweet flavor of the glaze while enhancing any natural sweetness in the meat. The contrasting wine was the Domaine du Vissoux (Pierre-Marie Chermette) Moulin-à-Vent "Les Trois Roches." Tasting the ham with the Beaujolais was like trying a completely different meal. The smokiness in the wine brought out the smokiness of the ham while the savoriness of both was enhanced to the utmost. Both pairings were so beautiful but so different. It truly showed that the pairing can be up to you. Would you rather complement and highlight that sweet glaze or do you want the savory, deep flavors to be enhanced.
That brings me to my most important wine pairing rule: experience. What you have had that works, what you have had that didn’t and what did you love. What you have easily available can influence this as well. ("What grows together, goes together" is one of my favorite food pairing phrases!)
“Folks in Friuli serve Tocai to accompany slices of the local Prosciutto San Daniele while those in Emilia Romagna drink the local Lambrusco with their salumi. These are pairings based on tradition and regionality, firmly imprinted on the countries’ collective taste memory.” – Joyce Goldstein
There is never a fully wrong answer when pairing food and wine, just the guidelines that can help get you to fireworks! Try it for yourself this week at dinner or plan a wine tasting party with friends! You will be amazed at what you find you love. As always, we love to share our passions with you so come and tell us what you have tried or ask us any questions you may have!
- Rachel Alcarraz