Skeptical Wine-ing, Part III: Everything I Know About Pairings I Learned From Wine and Popcorn
Pictured, my friend Bridget O’Malley’s genius pairing: rosé champagne and Twizzlers.
Every year in wine media I see posts about what wines to pair with Thanksgiving dinner. With Superbowl Sunday. With Easter ham. With Flag Day. Even though I think people obsess about pairings a lot less than they used to, pairing advice, much of which I find completely useless due to the generalities on which it relies, is still ubiquitous, and I still got questions all the time when I worked in wine sales about what to pair with a certain food. And just last week, I cooked up an arroz con pollo and picked up a nice carménère (a Chilean grape that’s sort of like a curvier cab franc) for reasons I’ll explain below. The pairing was great, but just for fun, I googled the recommended wine pairings for the dish from various wine sites. They ranged from pouilly-fumé (a French wine made from sauvignon blanc) to American chardonnay to Rioja (a Spanish red blend). Kind of a wide range there, and if I’d been new to cooking with wine pairings I’d have been rather confused.
Inspired by the rash of recent posts about pairing wine or beer and Girl Scout cookies––an activity in which I’ve been known to engage frequently, especially now that cookie season is nigh––I think it’s time I did a post on pairings and why, like a lot of wine “knowledge,” I think it helps to know the basis for the rules before you decide to break them.
There are a few myths I’d like to clear up.
You pair red wine with red meat, white wine with chicken and fish, and hmmm what’s a vegetarian?
I know we Americans have a penchant for describing a meal by just naming the protein: “I’ll have the fish.” “We’re having steaks.” But there’s a reason certain spices and sauces go together and others don’t. Would you put sriracha on chicken alfredo? Dust even more pepper on steak au poivre? Dump cheese on halibut? Think of wine’s flavors as a garnish or seasoning, and consider whether it matches the preparation, not just the protein, of your dish. Plain grilled chicken might be lovely with a delicate sauvignon blanc, but if we’re talking a thick curry sauce, you’re going to need to up the ante with something rounder and richer. And think outside the white/red box. Chardonnay is a white wine, but I have always recommended a full-bodied chardonnay with grilled steak: chardonnay’s buttery flavors stand up well to the fat in red meat, and its robust alcohol levels make it too hefty for a many lighter dishes. Likewise, pinot noir is great with smoked salmon and many vegetarian dishes, but usually much too light for something like a cheeseburger.
Every grape has one specific pairing.
Many of us are familiar with fruity, friendly malbec, the affordable and juicy Argentinian favorite that’s easy to find and easy to drink all by itself. But malbec has another side, and you wouldn’t like it when it’s angry: the French version, called Cahors, features rippling tannins and requires a much more fatty, rich meal to satisfy its muscle. Many California chardonnays are buttery and oaky, but the Canadian and New York versions are often much more delicate and call for more delicate foods. Because learning how grapes vary from one region of the world to another can take years, just keep an open mind and don’t be too quick to write off certain grapes because you’ve tried them in wines from another part of the world.
There is a “best wine” for an entire holiday or multi-course meal.
When we’re talking about more than one dish––not to mention more than one diner with more than one set of taste buds and preferences––there’s no single perfect wine that will magically go with everything and turn your family event into a Hallmark card. One year, my family went out for dinner on Thanksgiving, and the wine list at the restaurant was rather unfortunate––the markup was hideous, the selection wasn’t great, and we all went home sober at 4 pm. I then revealed to my family that I had a case of Leonard Oakes frontenac, a red wine from my home wine region of Niagara County, in my trunk. That year, Leonard Oakes frontenac was the best Thanksgiving wine of all time.
I write a lot about cheese and beer, because I find the duo to be an accessible way to learn the basics of pairing principles. But those principles can easily be applied to a variety of simple foods––and if you’re just starting to play with pairings, simpler is better. Pairing suggestions for wine rely on a few solid principles that can be applied to most taste situations:
Balance of sweetness with acidity, sourness, bitterness, salt, or umami.
Wine, like plain fruit, has both sweetness and acidity. When making wine, few elements are more important than ensuring the two are in balance, especially in white wine. Ever had a riesling that was too sweet, tasting syrupy and coating your tongue in an overbearing fashion? The term we use for that sensation is “cloying,” and it basically means annoying, as in “the honey flavors are a bit cloying; I couldn’t drink a full glass.”
To keep that in check, you want an equal amount of acidity, which acts like a Zamboni for your palate (I believe I owe that marvelous analogy to Anthony Giglio), clearing and refreshing your taste buds and leaving a mouth-watering effect that should have the same effect as squeezing a lemon or lime on your food. In a perfect world, proper balance of sweetness and acidity is achieved in the vineyard, where winemakers test the grapes regularly and schedule picking for when the Brix (sugar), pH (active acidity, or the strength of the acidity), and TA (total acidity, or acidity by volume) are right in that sweet spot of balanced ripeness. But sometimes the winemaker isn’t happy with the levels in the crushed juice (the “must”), and can adjust either the sweetness or acidity or both, typically by adding sugar or tartaric acid or by stopping the fermentation early (leaving residual sugar). Malolactic fermentation, a standard process for most wines after the primary fermentation, also smooths out acidity and creates a round, creamy mouthfeel by converting malic acid in wine to lactic.
All that is to say that wine’s sweetness and acidity should be in balance, but whether it is or not you can improve your experience by throwing food into the mix. Drinking a very sweet wine, like ice wine? Try it with a slice of bleu cheese or cashew pate on a wheat thin: the savory, salty cheese and cracker make the sweetness taste like a garnish, not a one-act show. Think of peanut butter and jelly, sweet and sour tofu stir fry, or grapefruit and avocado––they’re all examples of sweet getting balanced by savory, buttery, meaty, salty, and/or tangy.
Unfortunately, it only works to a point. When trying to pair dessert, tread cautiously: if you have a tongue-scraping dry white wine like sauvignon blanc, it’s not going to play nice with chocolate cake. Your food should be no less sweet than the wine, so as not to clash like a glass of orange juice right after you’ve brushed your teeth. When pairing desserts with wine, sweeter wines like port and super-ripe styles like Australian reds will help you avoid this clash: just as extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, extra-sweet food requires extra-sweet wine.
Drawing out equivalent flavors.
This is for those who really enjoy picking out flavors in wine. Are you getting a lot of blueberry from that syrah? Perhaps a nice wild blueberry compote for your pot roast or a really savory baked good with dried blueberries would knock it out of the park. I work part-time at a chocolatier specializing in single-origin dark chocolate, and have had great success pairing our curry-flavored truffle, which offers hints of the cardamom, turmeric, and cinnamon, with South African red wines like the Pepper Pot, which features similar spice notes. That carménère I paired with arroz con pollo? It worked so well partly because of carmenere’s classic bell pepper flavors––the recipe I used features green bell pepper and pimiento garnish.
Body and structure.
More important than the kind of protein and almost as important as the seasonings, structure will dictate what kind of wine to pair. Structure refers to tannins, alcohol, and acidity in the wine––components you feel on the palate rather than the nose. Tannins, which I discussed briefly in Part II, leave a gritty sensation on your teeth and gums after you swallow the wine. Acidity will make your mouth water and lips pucker. Alcohol is easily mistaken for the first two: it dries out your mouth, but independently of the lip-smack of tannins or the tingling feel of acidity, and it also creates a full, palate-coating mouthfeel. You don’t need to worry too much about these individual components, but together, they make up a wine’s body. Is it a big ol’ monster of a wine? Don’t match it with rabbit food. Is it a delicate, graceful ballerina? Don’t pair it with a steak. When you are asking a salesperson to recommend or describe a wine, perhaps the most helpful thing they can tell you is what kind of body it has.
All that said, the best way to learn what pairings you enjoy is to experiment with them, and go with your current mood and taste above all. Maybe your high-rolling buddy just brought over a $200 bottle of wine and you don’t want anything but plain crackers to distract you from tasting all its complexities. Maybe the wine label says to pair the wine with steak but you’re a vegan and you want to know what it tastes like with your prized veggie burger recipe. Maybe you just got home at 2 in the morning and you’re pretty hungry and there’s a bottle of chardonnay in the fridge that you just remembered you brought home from work and you just want to pop some popcorn and sprinkle peanut butter and bacon on it and the combination is the best thing you’ve ever had. (Hypothetically. Ahem.) Think of paying attention to pairings in the same way as getting better speakers to listen to your favorite album, or the perfect Joan dress for your Mad Men party. It’s not a necessary component of the enjoyment, but it can be a hell of a lot of fun.