By Corey Nuffer on December 9, 2011
Feature photo by isante
“Wine is really the last ingredient in your dish and not necessarily the accompaniment to your meal.”
—John Schuler, GM, Omaha Country Club
Like stereotypes, there are logical reasons for hard and fast rules. And just like stereotypes, they unravel the more you look at them. And so, just what does it mean to lead the examined life and ask, “Why?” when pondering white meat with red wine?
In a master class on wine and food pairing, Master Sommelier Randa Warren began by saying that, “Food changes the way wine tastes.”
This might seem obvious, but it’s one of those neglected truths. Most of the time, when we drink wine, it’s without food. When food is involved, we are usually so hungry, we forget about the chemistry experiment happening when we sip a sip and chew a chew.
When we do find ourselves with a wine-food pairing opportunity, many times we aren’t in the mood to methodically examine what happens to the acidity when food meets wine.
There are challenges, then, to being open to the present moment of wine-as-ingredient thinking.
The Worst That Can Happen
No one will lose an eye. No one will grow a third…get a rash. No one will be liable for damages. At worst, your wine will develop a metallic taste, will be overwhelmed by the food or will make the food taste even spicier. For many people, they won’t even notice because they love the wine they’re drinking and the pairing part isn’t as important.
For those who do notice, there is one way you can make any white meat go with any red.
Needing to match a Cabernet Sauvignon with a white fish? Or what about a sweet Reisling with a ribeye? Make a deep, rich, fatty sauce that will pair well with the wine and, of course, taste just as good with the meat.
The Four Pillars of Truth
Acidity in wine is the most important part of wine and food pairing. Acidity, by the way, is what makes your mouth gush with saliva—as if you just sucked on a lemon wedge. If the wine is low in acid, it won’t respond to the food. It will either disappear as the food overwhelms it or it will cover up the food. A wine with good acidity, however, will transform with the food in ways that are sure to make you at least take note that there’s something a little bit wonderful happening in your mouth.
For example, I was drinking Graham Beck’s Pinotage (~$13/bottle) the other day. By itself, Pinotage can be creepy with notes of smoked meat, black pepper, beet juice, graphite and some fruit (usually cherry). Graham Beck’s version is what you’d call well-balanced and not overly extracted. In other words, it’s not creepy and you intuit that there’s a lot going on even though you’re not quite sure what’s happening. Once I paired it with a little food (butternut squash arancini with cranberry chutney and sage aioli), the non-fruit bits gave way to a beautiful, rich cherry that lingered on the finish for a long time. With each pairing, I’d just sit there and marinate in that simple transformation of the wine while trying very hard to concentrate on what my date was saying.
Another wine-food pairing success I recently had was with Colterenzio’s Lagrein (under $20). The Lagrein grape (NYT’s Eric Asimov wrote a great article on it) is one of those red grapes that creates a texture that folks refer to as having a velvety mouthfeel. It’s body is full and without the drying tannins that usually accompany such a big, whole-milk type of red. It’s also not a fruit bomb with everything tinged by a perfume of violets and dried herbs and forest floor. Seriously. Forest floor with wet dirt and mushrooms. With the chicken and mushrooms I was feasting on, the wine shimmered in all its complexity. And the great acidity refreshed my palate. And this is the first of the four pillars:
1. Refresh the palate
This is a typical expectation of wine, but it doesn’t always happen.
2. We look for the food and wine to neutralize each other or to be in perfect harmony.
Again, this is something that most people assume a wine will do. And for those of you who have never had a bad wine and food pairing (just so as long as they’re drinking wine they like and food they like), this pillar will be obvious.
3. Transformation: The food transforms the wine into something else.
This is the most common success I have with wines. At the very least, a fatty food will quell the tannins in a tannic red wine like a diver can hypnotize a shark. Yes, I’m comparing tannins to sharks. Not one of my better writing moments, but tannins can be threatening. When they’re rendered inert, delicious and yummy flavors in the wine that were once hidden can present themselves. This might also mean that the texture can change as well.
4. Synergy: 1 + 1 = 3
This is the most mysterious and coveted of wine-food pairing magic. It happens when you get a brand new flavor by combing a food with a wine. In this regard, Warren offers as an example Sauvignon Blanc with capers yields flavors of licorice. Another opportunity for such mouth-watering calculus is port with foie gras will give you the taste of butter.
The most followed rule is that which comes naturally: Drink what you like and eat what you like. It works most of the time. What’s at stake, however, is ramping up the experience to something that will do much more than just washing your food down.