“Pairing Food & Wine: In search of the perfect match”

I spent my early 20s not realizing there were actual differences between the types of red varietals and white varietals. All I knew was that I only drank white. Then I took a food and wine pairing class during my last quarter of culinary school and my drinking world turned upside down – there was this whole world of different wines, each with unique flavors, aromas, and even textures.

So, for my first job after culinary school I decided to learn more about wine and took a position as the chef and events coordinator for Sam’s Wines & Spirits, a local wine retailer. While there I wrote an article about food and wine pairing which was just released in their magazine Toast. You can read it here along with my original introduction.

One recent evening after work I was in the wine bar here at Sam’s in Highland Park with some friends. One of them had purchased a bottle of 2003 St. Emilion Petit Corbin-Despagne (Merlot/Cabernet Franc) for us to try. Let me tell you, this was one the most harsh, tannic wines I had sampled in a long time. It had a firm structure and backbone, but I just couldn’t get past the severe nature of the wine. We had to find a way to enjoy this seemingly undrinkable bottle. So, turning to cheese for the answer (often a good solution), we sampled the wine again alongside Piave, a sharp, hard Italian cheese. And you know what? The wine was suddenly amazing. The high fat content of the hard cheese had mellowed the tannins in the wine, thus bringing out the best elements of both.

The point: flavors of wine and food can be enhanced when paired correctly. Of course, that begs the question, how do you find the right pairing?

When choosing a wine to pair with a dish, consider not just the protein, but also the seasonings, spices, sauces and even the cooking method.

For example, let’s consider a chicken breast in its most simple preparation – lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, baked and served on its own. This light, mostly neutral dish would work best with an unoaked Chardonnay. Why? Because both are mild and the wine has decent acidity to stand up to the light seasoning.

Now, consider that same chicken breast, but grilled rather than baked. The additional flavor of the grilling char requires a heavier wine, such as a big, oaky Chardonnay or Cru Beaujolais, a medium-bodied red.

And a final preparation of the same chicken breast: grilled and topped with a mango salsa. The tropical fruit changes the focus of the dish from the chicken to the salsa, the strongest element, which would work well with a Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc.

Another consideration for successful food and wine pairing is to consider the level of acidity in both the food and wine. A food high in acid (for instance, a salad tossed with a vinaigrette) requires a wine with the same degree of acidity, such as Chablis or Riesling. On the other hand, a salad tossed with Ranch dressing is lower in acidity and benefits from wines of similar character, for example Marsanne or Rousanne, both rich, low-acid Northern Rhone white wines. A good way to look at acid is like a double negative: acidity plus acidity balances out each other.  Acid also balances fat, garlic and spice.

Just as acid balances fat, so does tannin. That is why a heavily marbleized steak needs an astringent wine, such as Bordeaux. The tannin cuts through the fat and cleanses the palate. But when drinking this type of wine be careful of too much salt, which accentuates the tannin (this is also true of wines with high alcohol content as the salt will magnify the taste of alcohol).

One of the most difficult elements to pair is sweetness, which in wine is referred to as residual sugar. Like acidity, sweetness pairs with sweetness. Foods such as fruit, pastries and even caramelized onions match well with off-dry white wines (such as the Riesling recommended with the mango salsa) or young, fruity, low tannin and low alcohol reds (i.e. Pinot Noir). These wines also work nicely with spicy foods because they mellow the heat.

In the end, the most important thing when it comes to food and wine is simply to have fun. They are meant to be enjoyed both separately and together, so try new flavor combinations and make the most out of the experience.

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