The Intro to Wine series is one of our most popular classes, and after attending Level II for the past 4 weeks, I can see why. Level I is an 8 week diploma course designed to provide a firm foundation for both wine newbies and serious enthusiasts. It’s also a fun introduction to the Systematic Tasting Method that is used by wine professionals for detecting and describing wine’s aromas and flavors. Level II takes elevates learning with a more detailed look at terroir, cellaring wine and my personal favorite, food and wine pairings. Best of all, the educational journey culminates in an incredible six-course wine dinner that brings together learning and expected flavors combinations all paired to perfection with unforgettable wines.
We’ve all heard of classic wine pairings like Cabernet Sauvignon with Steak, Chardonnay with Lobster and Port with Stilton Cheese, but to push the limit on conventional pairings in a systematic manner takes learning and enjoyment to a whole new level. Did you ever stop to think about why these classic pairings work so well? Intro to Wine delves deep into the five elements of taste (bitter, sour, sweet, savory and salt) and how these elements relate to wine pairings. Specifically, there are two wine-friendly elements in food, salt and acidity (sour), that make wine taste softer, smoother and less tannic. Likewise, there are two components, sweet and savory (umami), that have the opposite effect, and make wines taste harsher and more tannic. A perfect pairing, to me, means that the elements of taste, in food and wine, achieve balance, drawing out the best qualities and flavors of each.
Wine is characterized as having light, medium or full body. Body refers to the heaviness of the wine, the feeling it leaves in your mouth and possibly the amount of alcohol or sugar, often indicated by the legs or tears that form down the side of the glass. Typically wine from a warmer climate will have fuller body than one from a cooler climate. Why is that? Here’s a quick science lesson. Warmer climates produce grapes with more sugar. In the wine-making process, sugar is converted to alcohol, so typically, the greater the sugar in the grape, the greater the potential alcohol in the wine. Got it? Of course, there are many other factors besides sugar and alcohol that contribute to the fullness of a wine, like oak aging, overall flavors and complexity of the wine. The general rule when pairing wine with food is to match the body of the wine to the body of the food so that one doesn’t overpower the other.
Think about the sensation of biting into a tart lemon. Just the thought of it makes your mouth pucker, right? Many factors contribute to acidity, like the grape varietal, the climate, sun exposure and even the soil. Just like warmer climates produce wines with higher sugar and alcohol, cooler climates typically produce wines with higher acidity. Is this a good thing? Actually acidity, especially when balanced with the other characteristics of wine and food, is a great thing, and its what makes wine so food friendly. Acidity cuts through the fat in rich foods and also pairs well with acidic foods, like tomatoes. That’s why pasta with Marinara sauce tastes so great with bright Chianti and why a crisp Sauvignon Blanc tastes refreshing with the acidic Vinaigrette in a salad, especially one topped with tangy goat cheese. Acidity can even accentuate the flavors in a light dish. Think about this, if your plate of pasta or seafood could benefit from a squeeze of lemon, then pair it with an acidic wine!
Another factor to consider when pairing wine with food is the amount of tannins, which can cause a mouth-drying or bitter sensation. Unlike sugar, tannins, which contribute to the complexity, structure and taste of the wine, come from outside the grape, or more specifically from the skins, stems, seeds and even from oak barrels. If you have ever bitten into a grape seed, you probably noticed that it was bitter. When it comes to pairings, tannins help cut through the rich fat in heavy foods and, on the flip side, fat helps tame the bitterness of the tannins, or in other words, softens the wine. That’s why Cabernet tastes so great with your fatty, juicy steak and vice versa! Unfortunately, bitter amps up bitter, so stay away from bitter foods when pairing a tannic wine.
Not Without Salt
In the wise words of the great James Beard, the Dean of American Cookery, “Where would we be without salt?” Salt, used properly and in moderation, helps to bring the flavor out of food and makes a dish come alive. Salt is considered food friendly because it can soften the bitterness in a tannic wine. And what about the irresistibly tantalizing combination of sweet and salty, like sea salted caramel and chocolate covered pretzels? That’s exactly why salty Stilton absolutely loves luscious Sauternes.
La Dolce Vita
Any sugar that isn’t converted into alcohol during fermentation is referred to as residual sugar, and it’s what makes a wine taste sweet. I’ll give you one guess as to what pairs well with sweet wine. There’s a good reason Port, Sauternes and sweetened Sherry almost always make their way onto a dessert menu. Residual sugar also helps to tame the heat in spicy food. For instance, an off-dry white is so refreshing with spicy hot wings. On the flip side, a dry wine with high alcohol tends to bring out the fire in spicy food and make it taste even hotter.
The fifth element of taste is umami which is found in savory foods like mushrooms, soy sauce and some meats. If you don’t know what I’m talking about sprinkle some MSG in your mouth and you’ll never forget the sensation it leaves right in the center of your tongue. Foods rich in umami are best enjoyed with fruity and/or acidic wines. Alternatively, you can toss in some other elements like fat and salt like adding decadent cheese and salty prosciutto to umami-rich eggs.
Keep these basic pairing guidelines in mind when selecting a wine to go with a dish, but ultimately let your taste preferences guide you. Most foods are unaffected by wine, but just about every wine will taste different after a bite of food. These tips will help ensure it’s a change for the better. The really fun part is in the tasting and experimentation; without an adventurous spirit you would never know that salted caramel ice cream is even better drizzled with cream Sherry and blue cheese crumbles!