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Could you recommend a meal to go with this wine?

Food and wine pairing seems to be a scary topic. Sure, there are plenty of sites we can reference, and there are the tried and true recommendations, but when it comes down to it, pairing food and wine causes some anxiety. It does for me at least. It appears that I have reached a point of no-return in my wine drinking in terms of my intellectual engagement with what's in my glass. Even during a casual weeknight meal, I swirl and sniff my glass, teasing out what aromas I can sense, then determining tannin, acidity, body, alcohol, and flavors on the palate. I don't always write down the tasting notes as often as I should, but the wheels are turning. An extension of my constant engagement with wine is what we are having for meals throughout the week. I'll think of what wines I want to try during the week--maybe I want to focus on a particular varietal, region, or country, or it could be a more eclectic week in terms of tasting. I like to have wine with dinner, so naturally the problem of pairing arises. Perhaps we shouldn't view it so much as a problem, but rather as a pairing opportunity.

Everybody has their own unique palate, fashioned not only by genetics, but also by our upbringing. The flavors you grew up around in the kitchen are going to be more prominent in your sensory database than a scent you've rarely or never been around before. That doesn't mean that you can't smell or taste all the aromas in a glass of wine--you just may not be able to put a word to what you're tasting. The foods you love and know are therefore not only going to have an impact on how you perceive the wine you drink, but on the the types of wine to which you may be drawn. The good news is that our palates can always grow and expand--in terms of food and wine. Wine, beer, and scotch are not the only acquired tastes in the world; people seem to focus on alcohol when talking about acquiring a taste for something, but all foods can fall into this category as well. In high school, I hated sushi and cilantro--I can't imagine not liking them now, partially because I am a culinary masochist. I repeatedly tried sushi over many years before finding a style that I liked. I realized that it was not the raw fish that bothered my palate, but rather the seaweed paper, so nigiri (raw fish over rice) was my intro into finally liking sushi (with the seaweed).

The more adventurous you are, the easier food and wine paring can be. This could be personality or upbringing, but genetics also plays a part. Some of us are just more sensitive to certain tastes like tannin, umami, and spice than others. The more sensitive we are, the more careful we need to be when pairing food and wine. The old adages of white wine with fish and red wine with meat are true to a certain extent, but even for a sensitive palate, this advice limits creativity and exploration too much for me. A more successful wine paring strategy might actually be to start by avoiding a few that are known to produce unpleasant experiences. Chili spice, sugar, and umami in high volumes can all make wine pairing difficult. Very spicy dishes, very sweet desserts, and foods high in umami without salt to balance the flavors are generally regarded as a no-go zone for wine. They all increase bitterness in the wine and mask the fruit flavors. Chocolate and dry red wine--not actually a good pairing. The sweetness and complexity of the chocolate will completely drown out the flavors of the wine while making it seem bitter. I emphasize dry because port--ruby, tawny, age-indicated tawny, any really-- is actually a great pairing with chocolate. It is perhaps the only wine that can match chocolate's complexity and sweetness. Once again, these no-go pairings will present different levels of discomfort to you depending on your palate sensitivity. If dry red wine and chocolate doesn't bother you, then it doesn't bother you.

However, if you are looking to experiment with your wine and food pairings, avoid the big no-nos as a precaution and then get to work. Your experiments may not always result in fantastic pairings (the truly subliminal pairings are few and far between), but at the very least they shouldn't end in disaster. If you want to pair red wine with fish, just try to match intensities--lighter flavored fish with lighter, fruitier reds (garnacha, gamay) and more flavorful, meatier fish can be paired with reds with more tannin and alcohol. I'm not necessarily suggesting pairing salmon with Napa Cab (particularly a young one), but a wine like Tempranillo or Pinot Noir (Rioja or red Burgundy) would go nicely, especially if the fish is grilled. White wine with meat is fine as well. Veal has a particularly delicate flavor that goes well with white wines. You could pair Wiener schnitzel with a crisp Austrian Riesling or Grüner Vetliner, but in a stew or with a cream-based sauce you might want to reach for an oaked Chardonnay. Vegetables and legumes are also versatile pairings with wines. The method of preparation is a key aspect. Steamed or sauteed veggies will pair better with whites, but grilled or baked veggies can pair well with reds. I particularly like ratatouille with Crozes-Hermitage or a Côtes du Rhône red blend. Eggplant is a main ingredient and has a very meaty flavor that can stand up to tannins in red wine. When I eat lentils, I tend to reach for a bottle of Tempranillo. The earthy flavors of each compliment one another nicely.

Another option is to choose your wine first and then your meal. I do this all the time at home and in restaurants. I might really be hankering for an oaky, buttery Chardonnay, so I'll choose my meal accordingly. Some might see this as backwards, but it works for me--until life happens, that is, and we suddenly have to change dinner plans at the last minute. Then I have my little personal crisis where I have to choose a wine all over again. However, this keeps my pairing skills sharp. Whether you are pairing food to wine or wine to food, the "rules" are really the same though.

A quick note on spicy food and wine. I love spicy food, and of course I love wine, so this pairing is a problem...I mean opportunity... I frequently encounter. Spice is not one dimensional. It could come from chili peppers, wasabi, peppercorns, or even garlic! Some spice builds constantly, other spice stays fairly level, while other spice flares up suddenly and then disappears (ever taken too large a bite of wasabi paste...? Yikes!). Chili peppers also range in heat from almost nothing to heart-palpitation-inducing. Their flavor and heat can also be mitigated by complementary ingredients and/or cooking methods. Indian, Thai, Korean, and Chinese (particularly from Hunan and Szechuan) cuisines are famous for their spice, but the spices they use are unique to each. Indian spice tends to be not just hot, but also very aromatic, with complex flavors. While living in Madison, WI, I enjoyed the lamb curry from Curry in the Box frequently. It is a tomato based curry that is described as "very spicy." However, I found that a bottle of Brouilly from Chateau de la Chaize paired wonderfully. Brouilly is a cru (village) in the Beaujolais region of France and is made from the Gamay grape. Gamay is tends to be very fruity and very low to medium-low in tannin, so it is a good candidate for a red wine to pair with spicy foods. Grenache, or garnacha in Spain, is another grape that has good potential for pairing with spicy food. It, like Gamay, has low tannins that won't clash with spice. Just watch out for grenache blended with other grapes like Syrah and Mouvèdre, which do have high levels of tannin. These blends, like Côtes du Rhône or Châteauneuf-du-Pape will not pair well with spicy foods. Just keep in mind that reds are an option. You don't constantly have to reach for that bottle of sweet Riesling (unless you want to of course).

The occasion and stature of your bottle of wine will of course determine how adventurous you want to be in your pairings. If you have been saving a special bottle for a long time, you probably don't want to risk a bad food pairing that will detract from, or worse interfere with, the wine. Sometimes these really special bottles can be enjoyed on their own. Vini da meditazione are "meditation wines." That is to say, they are for sipping and savoring on their own. While many think of dessert wines when they think of a vino da meditazione, such as port, Sauternes, or Tokaj, any complex, particularly older wine worthy of contemplation could fit the bill. Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Bordeaux, even Champagne and Sherry are worthy "meditation wines." Nonetheless, if you are really wanting a bite with the wine, a hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano is a perfect pairing for these wines...yes, even with Champagne and Sherry (just not the sweet kinds). Aged Champagne and Parmigiano-Reggiano are both high in umami; while umami can often clash with wine, the saltiness of the cheese balances the umami, resulting in a wonderful tasting experience. Even a young Barolo or Bordeaux pairs well with this cheese, once again thanks to salt. The saltiness of the cheese actually enhances the fruitiness of the wines, making the young tannins seem smoother.

While the subject of wine and food pairings leaves room for endless discussion, I'll leave you with one of my favorite foods to pair with wine: chicken. Chicken, especially a whole roasted chicken, is a great blank canvas for a myriad of flavors. The herbs you use and any sauces or gravies you make to accompany the chicken can be catered to meet your wine pairing needs. The simplest of preparation, with butter, salt, and pepper is already a good start. Champagne, any medium-bodied red really, or any Chardonnay, from crisp and floral to oaky and fruity, would pair well. Add some rosemary and thyme, and southern French reds or red wine from Spain's Penedès would pair well with their oft-found notes of garrigue. Garrigue is simply the term used to describe the shrubland often found in southern France, where (you guessed it) wild rosemary and thyme grow in abundance, among other herbs. When cooking with a cream-based sauce, you could match the fullness of the sauce with a full-bodied, fruity white such as an oaked Chardonnay or Viognier, or you could offer a contrast to the sauce with a crisp white such as a dry Riesling or an unoaked Chardonnay. Frying your chicken? Champagne anyone? Here is my recipe for roast chicken, loosely based off of The Joy of Cooking:


Roast Chicken

1 Whole Chicken 5-7lbs

4 tbsp (1/2 stick) of butter or oil

2 tbsp of the herbs of your choice (I like rosemary, thyme, and sage)

Extra sprigs of herbs for the chicken cavity

Carrots (1-2)

Lemon

Salt

Pepper


  1. Preheat the oven to 350.

  2. Gather your herbs and chop.

  3. If using butter, melt it in a ramekin. Spread the butter or oil all over the chicken, inside and out.

  4. Salt and pepper the chicken and then sprinkle the herbs, inside and out.

  5. Cut the carrots into large chunks and the lemon in half and place into the chicken cavity along with a few springs of herbs.

  6. Place on a baking pan (one deep enough to catch the juices) and place in the oven. Baste the chicken every 30 minutes. It will take about 20 minutes per pound to fully cook (1hr 40min-2hr20min). A meat thermometer should read 165F when inserted into the thigh.

  7. Start checking the temperature after the third basting. Nothing is worse than an overcooked, dry chicken!

  8. When the chicken is done, remove from the oven and let rest for 20-30 minutes before carving.


I like to serve this dish with rice and a veggie such as roasted asparagus or steamed broccoli.


Lastly, choose your wine! I like Charles Heidsieck's Brut Réserve Champagne or E. Guigal's Côte du Rhône, but have fun experimenting!

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