By CHEF RENEE MORGAN
What exactly is wine? Duh, you say…the elixir of the gods, of course! Yeah, you’re right. But more than that, it is an explosion of taste and flavor and when paired correctly with food can be the consummate fulfillment of the dining experience. The technical definition of wine is a beverage produced by the fermentation of grapes. Basically, it is produced by adding yeast to grapes. Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that.
For example, there are factors that affect the flavor of the wine. Things like the variety of grape, the type and acidity of the soil where the grapes are growing, the location of the vineyard and the skill and style of the winemaker all affect the wine. In addition, there are many types of wine, including table wine, sparkling wine fortified wine and dessert wine. All of these have different characteristics that affect flavor as well.
Table wine is generally what most of us drink and is considered a “natural wine.” In other words, it is made entirely of grapes and yeast. These are the red, white and roses of the world and are usually between 9 and 14 percent alcohol.
Sparkling wines are usually in the style of champagne, prosecco, or Asti Spumante and contain a significant amount of dissolved carbon dioxide gas, which is what causes the bubbles.
Fortified wine has something added during production, such as a hard alcohol or some sort of flavoring. They also have high alcohol content, as high as 14-24 percent…and they are yummy! Examples of these include Sherry, Porto, Vermouth, Madeira and Marsala.
Dessert wine is kind of a catch all phrase for wines with a good deal of residual sugar. They range in residual sugar from 4 percent to as high as 24 percent and include wines like Sauternes and Muscats.
Many people ask me about what wine pairs with what food, so I thought I’d share some basics of wine tasting and pairing this week. It really boils down to this…taste a lot of wine. Taste, taste and taste again. I don’t mean the insert-straw-and-suck-it-down method some usually employ around a bar, I mean dinner table, with friends.
Really taste the wine. Swirl it in the glass. Hold it up to the light and look at the color. Smell it. Breathe it in deeply at both the top and the bottom of the glass. Then, when you are ready, take a sip. No, no. Don’t swallow yet. Hold it in your mouth and suck in a little air. Think about the texture. Think about what it really tastes like. Do you taste cherry or chocolate or jam or citrus or even straw or wet pavement? Take a minute to jot down what you smell and taste. This is how you learn to taste the complex features of wine and begin to figure what goes with what.
My next piece of advice is forget everything you think you know about food and wine pairing. White wine with fish, strawberries and champagne, red wine and chocolate…whatever you’ve heard, forget it! The truth of the matter is this: food and wine pair up, and pair up successfully or disastrously, based on three components, taste, flavor and texture. Learn the principles behind these truths and you will become an instant food and wine genius!
To get started, let’s define the three components. First, let’s evaluate taste – sweet, salt, bitter, oil and tannin. These respond to the major taste receptors on your tongue. If a wine or dish is sweet, salty, acidic, bitter or contains a lot of mouth-coating oil or tongue-drying tannin, that fact must be dealt with to make a successful match. Taste components are almost always the most important component to consider in a food and wine pairing. Specific tastes in food will change the way you perceive specific tastes in wine. A wine that tastes quite tannic with one food will taste entirely mellow with another food.
The next component is flavors like fruity, floral, herbal, spicy, earthy, nutty, oaky, meaty…and the list goes on and on. Flavors are sensed as a combination of taste, aroma, and texture. Flavors can be matched to highlight the flavor, such as an herbal wine with herbal food. This is called bridge flavor and can make for a very successful match. Or, flavors can be contrasted to make a meal balanced and interesting. For instance, we can cool down a spicy food by pairing it with a fruity wine. Flavors are very forgiving. They can be successful in either the match or contrast mode. But never, ever, attempt to pair to flavors until you have dealt with the tastes.
The third and final component is texture, like light-bodied, round, medium-bodied or rich. Textures are discerned using the tactile sense of touch. Textures should usually (although not always) be matched. In other words, serve light-bodied food with light bodied wine, rich food with rich wine, and so on. For example, you probably wouldn’t want to serve a light mango shrimp salad with a heavy, rich Bordeaux. A nice, light Pinot Gris would be a better option. Once in a while, there might be an exception in which you would mix the texture to really highlight a part of the meal that you really want to shine.
Once you develop a knack for breaking a food or wine down into its key elements, and you can learn to apply a few simple rules you will have a great chance at a great pairing! Happy tasting!
A Few Simple Rules
1. Any level of acidity in food, whether it is a squeeze of lemon or a topping of tomatoes, will diminish your ability to taste acidity in wine. In other words, if you start with a tart, high-acid wine, acidic foods will make the wine taste smoother.
2. Acidic foods can wash out low-acid wines and make them taste flabby. Acidic foods require high-acid wines.
3. Sweet foods make the sweetness of a wine less apparent and bring out the other characteristics of the wine. One mistake many people make is pairing a savory food and sweet sauce, like pork roast with apples, with a dry wine. Such wines require a slightly sweet or very fruity wine to be a good match.
4. Fatty foods will smooth out both the tannin and acid in any wine.
5. Salty food goes well with acidic wines.
6. Salty food goes well with slightly sweet wines.
7. Salty food can bring out the bitter quality of tannic wines – beware!
8. Bitter tastes in foods enhance bitter tastes in wines – beware!
9. Matching a flavor in the food with a similar flavor in the wine, such as herbal, is called a flavor bridge and will most likely result in a great match.
10. Flavor contrasts will work very well when the flavors mesh together. In other words the flavors have a natural affinity for one another.
11. Texture matches, such as light-bodied wines with light-bodied food and rich wines with rich food are always a reliable match.
12. Use texture contrasts, such as rich food and light wine, when you want to highlight the heavier partner.
13. Don’t forget psychological factors in food and wine pairing. Seasons and holidays are important considerations. For example, many people like a cold, refreshing white wine in the summer when it’s hot outside.
14. If it grows together, it goes together. In other words, regional matches, such as Italian food and Italian wine go together as long as you deal with the tastes.
Chef Reneé’s Go-To Wine List
Earthquake Zinfandel 2008 – satiny caramel and licorice.
Est! Est! Est! Di Montefiascone – nice white special occasion wine.
Dr. Loosen Riesling “Wehlener Sonnenuhr” 2009 – Great with sushi.
Bodega Catena Zapata Malbec 2008 – lots of spice and caramel.
Firestone Late Harvest Riesling 2004 – good dessert wine.
Santa Bucciarelli vin Santo – fabulous with crème bruleé.
Chateau Cantegril Sauternes 2006 – great with blue cheese, duck with orange sauce.
Graham’s 10 Year-Old Tawny Port0 – pair with bananas foster, pumpkin pie, nut dessert.
Mulderbosch Rose of Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 – great everyday drinking wine.
La Crema Chardonnay Monterey 2009 – nice buttery white wine.
Chef Reneé is a classically trained, award winning chef and columnist. She earned her culinary degree at the famous Le Cordon Bleu, as well as a bachelor of music degree from Hardin-Simmons University. She has an extensive background in events planning and management. Reneé lives in Liberty Hill with her husband, John, their dogs, cats and chickens.