Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.
X

Food and Wine Pairing – An Introduction

There are several useful guidelines in food and wine matching that you may want to consider. The whole point is to make both the food and the wine enhance one another, so the experience is even more pleasurable. It should be a happy marriage, where both compliment and neither party is too over-powering.

One of the most important guidelines is to match by the intensity of flavor. Some foods, like spicy Asian dishes, can be very strong and so it is important to have a powerfully flavored wine to stand up to them. Chilled German Riesling, Gewurztraminer from Alsace, or a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc can stand up to powerful spicy foods, and also have the benefit of being more refreshing than a red wine because of the service temperature.

On the other hand, more delicate foods pair better with less intense wines. Oysters and Muscadet, crab and Sancerre, smoked salmon and bubbly are some good matches.

Another useful tip is to pair food and wines according to their weight. If you have heavy food, like a steak, then it generally pairs better with a fuller bodied red wine, like a Cabernet or a Merlot. If you then put a peppercorn sauce on the steak you are increasing the level of flavor intensity, and so now maybe an even more powerful red, like an Aussie Shiraz or a California Zinfandel, would work better. On the other hand, you can take my word for it that oysters and Shiraz don’t make for a happy marriage.

Highly acidic foods can be tricky to pair with wines. The important thing to know is that high acid wines taste softer when paired with dishes containing a lot of citrus, or tomato. Many Italian red wines can be quite acidic, but when they are drunk with pasta in a tomato sauce, or a Pizza, they become much more enjoyable. So when in Rome, do as the Romans. That’s to say, look for the classic regional pairings.

Finally, there is a myth that red wines pairs well with all types of cheeses, but this is simply not true. For soft cheeses, like chevre, the ideal wine is a crisp dry white like a Sauvignon Blanc, which can cut through the creaminess of the cheese. This can be a great way to start a meal, served as an appetizer.

There are some good books on food and wine matching, like “What to Drink with What you Eat” where these guidelines are explained more in-depth, along with several others. Given that you might be eating and drinking for a few more years, it’s probably worth buying.

Sweet Wines – Sugar Me Up

Sauternes from Bordeaux, Tokaji from Hungary , Coteaux du Layon in the Loire, icewine, sweet Germans, late harvest from Alsace, well, there’s no shortage of options when it comes to dessert wine. Personally, I’m a huge fan. I find the unique production methods to be fascinating and the sheer quality of the wines can be staggering.

But most of all, I love watching people melt as they sip on a glass after a great dinner. It’s the icing on the cake. So don’t forget that before the Port, you’ll need to serve some dessert wine with a cheesecake, a fruit tart, a selection of cheese, and various other delights.

Sauternes is arguably the king of all sweet wines. It certainly wins the prize for being the most expensive with Chateau d’Yquem ranking amongst the most pricy wines in the world. Expect to pay a few hundred dollars for a half bottle from an average vintage. And if you come across a bottle from the 1800’s then expect to remortgage your house. But there are plenty around $35 too, so you don’t have to break the bank to enjoy it.

Sauternes is part of the Bordeaux region, in south west France. In the fall, autumn mists lift off the river Garonne where it intersects with the Ciron, because of the temperature differences in the water. This mist shrouds the vineyards and creates very humid conditions which are the catalyst for the development of botrytis, or noble rot. It doesn’t sound good, and it doesn’t look good either, but this noble rot attacks the berries and punctures small holes in the grapes which cause them to shrivel. As a result the water content of the berry evaporates and you’re left with a high degree of sugar, and ultra-ripe tropical fruit flavors.

But botrytis doesn’t affect all of the grapes at exactly the same time. This means that picking has to be done by hand, with harvesters passing through the vineyard in waves, selecting only the berries with noble rot. At some estates the pickers may go through the vineyard several times, armed with no more than a pair of nail scissors. To put it in perspective, a single grape vine will often produce one 75cl bottle of red or white wine, but in Sauternes the yield is so low that you’d be lucky to extract one glass of the sweet liquid gold from a single vine.

Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc are the grapes of choice. The former is highly susceptible to botrytis and the latter helps counter-balance the sweetness with a refreshing acidity and a spectrum of different flavors. The fermentation is halted at approximately 14% alcohol leaving plenty of unfermented sugars in the wine, and then it is transferred to oak barrels for around two years of maturation.

Expect honey to predominate, with notes of pineapple, brown sugar and crème brulee, in a full bodied style. The French love to serve it with foie gras as a starter, but I prefer it with a cheesecake at the end of a meal. When it comes to sweet wines, Sauternes is still my first choice.

But those Hungarian Tokaji’s can be so good too. It’s like picking your favorite child. I take back my comment about Sauternes. Tokaji is gorgeous, replete with an expansive bouquet of marmalade and honey, and a thread of acidity that can enable them to last for decades.

True, Tokaji is not as well-known and perhaps the fact that it is made in Hungary doesn’t exactly help win consumer’s affection. But it is the Wine of Kings and the King of Wines, as they say. And the way they make it is entirely unique.

Botrytis is triggered by the same phenomena as in Sauternes, caused by temperature differences in the waters of two rivers that intersect. But here the grapes are different. You have Harslevelu and Furmint, which are hardly household names. A dry white wine is made from Furmint and then the botrytis affected Harslevelu is added. On the label you will see a statement about the number of Puttonyos. The number of Puttonyos ranges between 3-6, and if you buy a 6 then expect it to be sweeter than a 3,4, or 5. Puttonyos is the name of the wicker baskets that the pickers use, filled with botrytis affected grapes.

Let’s face it. If you bring out a bottle of Tokaji, which may cost you around $50, and relay the story of the wicker baskets and the Puttonyos, you’re probably cruising for an “accidental” goodbye kiss on the lips from your flirtatious neighbor.

Moving on. The Loire, including Coteaux du Layon, Quartz de Chaume and Bonnezeaux, made with Chenin Blanc, can display succulent honeyed flavors, in a wine that tends to be a little lighter and more acidic than Sauternes. One of the nice things is the price, which tends to be less than Sauternes and Tokaji, at least for Coteaux du Layon. I’ve found some stunners that are around $30, which is half the price of icewine. Try these with some blue cheese, as the saltiness is offset by the sweetness of the wine.

Germany and Alsace can produce some fabulous sweet wines too. In Alsace look for the words Vendange Tardive (late harvest), or Selection de Grains Noble for the botrytis affected ones. Riesling and Gewurztraminer is king, and I love the incredibly intense aromas of an Alsatian Gewurztraminer. Red roses, spice, honey, apricot and a rich oily texture are the hallmarks.

I always look for the wines of Domaine Weinbach, a family-owned producer, established hundreds of years ago. This is traditional winemaking at its best. When I asked Catherine Faller how she handles the winemaking, she replied that she does nothing more than pick the grapes at the perfect moment, press them, and then let nature take its course.

But whilst sweet wines are a rarity in Alsace, Germany specializes in them. Look for the designations Auslese and Beerenauslese on the label if you want something with an undeniable amount of sweetness. These rather complicated terms refer to the amount of sugar in the grape at harvest. This is the basis of the German wine laws, where sugar is prized above all else.

The great thing about these wines is the phenomenal balance between sweetness and acidity, delicacy and power, and the unusually low alcohol. Most of the sweet wines from the Mosel have an alcohol degree around 8.0%. This is a good thing, because nobody likes being hung-over.

The Mosel valley in Germany produces many of the benchmark, classic wines. Some of the vineyards are planted on slopes that are so steep that one slip and you could end up in hospital. Fritz Haag, Egon Muller, Selbach-Oster and Dr Loosen all produce stunning wines.

Of course, if you had a guest from the Middle East I might consider serving them Canadian icewine. It’s local and the fact that the grapes have to be picked at -8 Celsius would be as foreign to them as the desert heat is to us.

Canada produces more icewine than any other country, especially in Ontario where there are massive volumes made. Riesling and Vidal are widely used, and producers wait until frigid temperatures freeze the grapes on the wine. This can happen as late as January, which highlights the fact that many sweet wines are made by taking a tremendous risk.

Once the grapes are picked, which is often during the night, they are pressed whilst still frozen and the small amount of sweet juice is inoculated with a powerful yeast to trigger the ferment. A few months later, usually at around 11% alcohol, the ferment is halted and a colossal amount of unfermented residual sugar remains. These are some of the sweetest of all wines, and sometimes can be syrupy, and cloying. Frankly, icewine would be last on my list, especially given the ridiculous prices many producers charge for a ½ bottle. At least you get some fancy packaging thrown in.

There are other sweet wines that you should track down, like the amazing Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, from the southern Rhone. Although this is a fortified wine, it is only lightly so, and the gorgeous floral, orange and honeyed aromas will blow everyone away. At around $25 for the half bottle you’ll be the hit of the party.

The list could go on. But that’s enough to get started. So next time you are planning a dinner party, or have romance on the brain, make sure you don’t forget the sweet stuff. There’s a reason why they call it the nectar of the Gods.

WINE, PRODUCER & FOOD PAIRING

Sauternes, Ch. Doisy Vedrines with Blue cheese

Tokaji, Ch Dereszla with Strawberry Cheesecake

Alsace VT, Domaine Weinbach with Crème Brulee

Mosel Auslese, Selbach-Oster with Tropical fruit plate

Canadian icewine, Inniskillin by itself, well chilled

California Zinfandel – No Wimpy Wine

When I think of Zinfandel I think of big, juicy, high-octane red wines from producers like Seghesio, Ridge, Ravenswood and Rosenblum. My mind drifts off to the rolling hills of Sonoma, especially the Dry Creek area, where you find some of the best wines. Amongst the mustard flowers you see these thick gnarly old vines. Some are over 100 years old. Zinfandel, the signature variety of California, is definitely rated “Buy”.

A number of countries are blessed with having their own signature grape variety. Argentina has Malbec, Chile has Carmenere, there’s Pinotage from South Africa, and the list goes on. But I reckon that California has one of the best grape varieties to call its own. Zinfandel can produce some excellent wines at the very top end.

Ravenswood’s slogan “no wimpy wines” pretty much sums up the style of the big wines, which are amongst the most powerful and concentrated of any red. A classic high quality Zinfandel is always very dark in color, with plenty of viscosity when you swirl it in the glass. Because of the warm climate in most of California the nose is typically jam-packed with ultra ripe fruits, which can include strawberry, sweet black cherry, and there is often a spicy note too.

The palate is very full bodied, usually clocking 14.5%+ alcohol, and the tannins tend to be fairly smooth and supple. In the big wines you can often find raisin and jam notes, along with cloves and licorice, vanilla and coconut. It’s hedonistic pleasure in a glass.

But there are various styles of Zinfandel, principally distinguished by their weight in the mouth, the ripeness of the fruit, and their alcohol degree. Some producers, the more extreme ones, flaunt wines at 17%+ alcohol, which is amongst the highest in the world for regular wines. They delight in calling them “fruit bombs” or “blockbusters”. These styles of Zin pair well with loud Hawaiian shirts, a plate of ribs, and a romantic conversation with someone who doesn’t challenge the intellect.

But there are also some Zinfandel producers who prefer a lighter and more elegant style, which wouldn’t be too far off a very ripe and full bodied Pinot Noir. The trick to recognizing these is often by looking at the alcohol degree on the label, and if it is 13.5% or less then chances are it will be a lighter style.

But Zinfandel is versatile enough to produce another style of wine, known as white Zinfandel. Astonishingly, white Zin became the best selling wine in the United States for two decades. Granted, classic producers of red Zinfandel typically roll their eyes when you mention white Zin, as if an ugly duckling was ruining their brand image. And to a degree they are right, although they’re probably jealous of all the money the white Zin producers are racking in.

The pioneer of white Zinfandel is Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home. He had the great misfortune to have a stuck fermentation in one of his tanks back in the 1970’s. Instead of making a dry red Zin he ended up making a slightly sweet pink wine that charmed the pants off Americans for decades. His winery now sells over 4 million cases a year of it, and Bob is a very happy man.

He explained that for most people the jump from drinking sodas/pops to dry tannic red wine is too much of a stretch. So the best way to ease into wine is with something chilled, a touch sweet, and with candied strawberry notes. In the winery the maturation time for a white Zin is short. You can skip the oak barrels, and have it shipped in a flash. So it actually pays wine producer’s bills too.

When it comes to viticultural origins, you can bank on Zinfandel to spark wine lovers into a demonstration of superior knowledge. The first person usually remarks that Zinfandel is actually the Primitivo grape of southern Italy. The second connoisseur usually then jumps in to mention that the grape has it’s origins in Croatia and is in fact a grape called Crljenak Kastelanski. If the pronunciation can be pulled off then the conversation usually ends there, and the other guests roll their eyes at the wine snob that won.

But whatever the origin, Zinfandel’s home is in California where it is the workhorse grape, planted throughout the State. If you had a glass of red wine back in the 1850’s then chances are it was Zinfandel.

It’s generally agreed that Sonoma produces some of the finest examples. The Dry Creek AVA is particularly well regarded, but the Alexander valley isn’t to be forgotten either. There are some famous wines from the Russian River as well and it’s quite common to see “Old Vines” proudly mentioned on the label of many Sonoma wines. Some of the plantings date back over 100 years. Seghesio is a favorite of mine.

But there are also some excellent Zinfandels in Napa too, particularly from vineyards “up valley” around St Helena and Calistoga where the temperatures are warmer. Caymus, Storybrook Mountain, and Ch Montelena all produce sought-after wines. I find these wines to be very polished, particularly plump and soft, with an explosion of sweet ripe fruit covering the palate. Caymus is impressive every time.

Another area to look for, particularly for value priced wines, is Lodi in the Central valley.

This area is where the bulk of California’s wine comes from, but that’s not to say that low yielding vineyards don’t produce high quality wines. Ravenswood do well in this sector, with their distinctive logo and fun slogan.

There are certainly other parts of California, like Mendocino and Monterey that produce good Zinfandel too, but these aren’t the best known areas. So in almost every corner of California you’ll find people making Zinfandel. And lots of them are small producers, usually with an artistic bent. Yes, there can be a certain hippy style to these farmers living on ranches in the beautiful valleys that line the California coast.

A key criteria for ripening Zinfandel is a high level of heat units. In wine speak, that means it should be pretty war, even hot, where you plant it. And whilst some of the coastal regions see a thick marine fog roll in during the summer months, these same valleys can also get nice and toasty from noon onwards.

And then, as harvest approaches, winemakers need to be particularly vigilant when it comes to picking. The sugars in Zinfandel can rocket up in a few days and all of a sudden you have grapes that might create a 17% alcohol wine. The good news is that nobody will accuse it of being thin and weedy – the ultimate insult for Ravenswood… So you have to be fast when you decide to pick.

Speaking of price, one of the attractive things about Zinfandel is that even for the most famous producers, including their single vineyard wines, you rarely pay more than $60 per bottle on the shelf in Canada. And when you compare that to the top Pinots, Cabernets and Syrahs, then Zinfandel starts to look like a bargain. In my tastings I’ve been impressed with wines costing less than $30 a bottle.

In terms of food pairings, a steak is a sure bet, and so are burgers and ribs. The more refined the wine, the more refined the food should be. Because they are usually very big and powerful you can go with a rich dish. But some of the slightly lighter styles can drink well by themselves because the tannins aren’t too aggressive.

So what’s the future for Zinfandel? With people making rude jokes about varieties like Merlot and other classics, and a cycle of boredom amongst consumers, surely Zinfandel is set to occupy a growing niche for many years to come. They’ll be detractors who say they lack ageability, can be short on complexity, and often a tab sweet. But personally, I like them.

If you want to learn more about the signature grape of California and join it’s legions of devotees then visit www.zinfandel.org. ZAP, which stands for Zinfandel Advocates & Producers is the HQ of all matters relating to the grape, and has information on their tastings, which have a cult-like following.

Wine and Food Pairing

Bonterra, Mendocino – All by itself

Ravenswood, Lodi – Burgers

Caymus, Napa – Roast beef

Seghesio Rockpile, Dry Creek – BBQ steaks

Ridge, Lytton Springs – Leg of lamb