This time of year I get many emails and questions about appropriate food pairings for special holiday meals or gatherings. I am an advocate for careful food pairings for the simple reason that well paired foods and wine make a meal magical!
First, I would certainly hope that you spend very little time choosing your wine for your laborious meal. The investment of time should be the work of the winemaker, wine steward or sales clerk in your wine shop. If in doubt, ask these folks for their advise. They are professionals and ought to offer excellent advise. Don’t be afraid to ask!
Next, I suggest being adventurous. Do not make the mistake of choosing the lowest common denominator (Aunt Gertrude only drinks oaky Chardonnays!). There are hundreds of varietals that pair perfectly with specific foods. Choose the right wine. Chances are that you have spent hours preparing a special meal and it deserves the correct wine choice. Serve Aunt Gertrude’s flabby over oaked Chardonnay as a cocktail wine in different glasses than are on the table. This way your guests do not bring their glass to the table and your carefully planned pairings are not thwarted by myopic palates.
But what if my wine shop doesn’t have a steward available?
Rather than go into a long diatribe over the chemistry of food pairing, I would offer you some rudimentary advise that can get you through the season.
Know the wine you are serving! If you are getting this newsletter chances are you are a wine connoisseur already! When you are out wine tasting, keep good notes with intent. If you are a spectacular curry chef, then look for wines that compliment your specialty. If you host an annual tamale party, keep that flavor profile in mind. Ask the tasting room staff. If the winery offers food pairings, like we do, take a picture of the plate and notes of the pairing. Most importantly, buy enough wine to cellar so that you can choose wines that you know from your own cellar. There are no label requirements for pH and acid levels in a wine, or phenolic aggressiveness of a wine. Alcohol is listed but unless you understand the balance of alcohol you may mistake a lower alcohol wine as a food wine when it is not. Don’t leave your wine choice up to a frantic grocery store gamble!
Choose higher acid wines! Most delicious holiday foods are yummy due to fat content. It seems obvious that fatty foods require an acidic wine to cleanse the palate, but I am always surprised to find a flabby wine served with rich foods. The job of the wine is to prepare the palate for the next bite, while complimenting the flavors of the food, hopefully in a synergistic way. A wine that leaves the palate gummy with excess fat requires a sip of water…defeating the purpose of wine. Although some may not prefer sipping a wine that is acidic, acid is essential for good food wines.
Choose a lower alcohol wine! High alcohol content wines effect our palates in many ways; they can burn and dull our tastebuds, they trick our palates into perceiving sugars and astringency, they offer a fruit forwardness that often disappoints in the mid and late finish. Often the high alcohol wine is made from fruit hung far past the ideal phenolic ripeness, creating a jammy or cooked fruit quality that over powers the more subtle complexities of the fruit that pair so well with food. Unfortunately the current trend of making these wines is still dominating domestic wine production. However, there are some excellent and notable wine makers who are focused on varietal typicity and character in their wines.
Choose lower tannin wines! Despite common conversations about Chewy astringent wines, the structure of a good food wine comes from a balance of factors; not tannins! A wine that is overly dry or astringent is a terrible food pairing choice, especially for holiday foods! Again the texture or mouthfeel of a wine plays an important role in food pairing. A simple rule is to mirror the mouth feel of the food; if it is herbal and smooth, subtle and savory without commanding any liquid help, choose a wine that is gentle in tannin.
Mirror, mirror, mirror! I know that many folks are intimated by the enospeak of somms and wine makers, but we are really only speaking our noses! If a wine smells like thyme and rosemary, chances are it has the chemical components of thyme and rosemary! I try to make wines that reflect their subtle chemical components, and not just the fruitiness of the variety. Wines that have more complexity often offer more food pairing choices, especially when the pairing mirrors aspects of the food. It is shocking how changed a wine can be if you pair one subtle characteristic with that in a like food; like Merlot with green olives or Albarino with oysters! That subtle feature pops out and heightens the food in unexpected synergy.
What to avoid in food pairing! Try to avoid the prejudices of so many wine drinkers; “I don’t drink white wine” or “I hate sweet wines!”. I will admit that I am partial to dry red wines. However, a robust Bordeaux blend will ruin a tasty lobster. We are often very open to different and new foods, and the same sense of adventure should apply to wine. Try to enjoy a variety of wines with your holiday meals…and have fun with it!