Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
January 2005 A Pinch of Spice, a Dash of Oak
Wine writers often like to answer the question, "What wine should I drink with [food]?" by smiling and saying, "Whatever you want to drink!" The idea is that the consumer is the ultimate arbiter of what works and should not be afraid of violating any "rules" and looking foolish in front of snooty sommeliers or other oenologically superior beings.
This is what H.L. Mencken would have called buncombe. I'd use the more modern expression, but I'm trying to watch my language around my four-year-old daughter. This "Anything Goes" fallacy of food-wine pairing is the extreme extension of the wine writer's goal to make wine more accessible for consumers. But if our advice is to ignore all advice, well then who needs wine writers?
Here I could digress into an extended omphaloskepsis of why wine writing is - or should be - more than a mere craven bid for free samples and VIP treatment at wineries, that our goal should be to help illuminate the myriad possibilities of wine enjoyment, but all too often wine writing instead reinforces the image of wine as an exclusive pursuit of the leisure class or trivializes it by oversimplifying. But I won't.
There's no escaping the effect food has on the flavor of wine, and that different foods have different effects. That's why I was eager to attend a "component tasting" last month at Washington's DC Coast restaurant conducted by the restaurant's beverage director, Scott Clime. A dozen restaurant regulars were willing to shell out $80 to explore the interactions of food and wine so that they may make more adventurous choices in future restaurant visits.
DC Coast serves bold-flavored contemporary American cuisine. The same restaurant group also runs Ten Penh, which fuses Asian ingredients into essentially French/American cuisine, and Ceiba, a yup-scale Latin American restaurant. Clime runs the beverage program at all three, so he needs to know how different ingredients and spices interact with the acidity, fruit, sweetness or oak flavors in the wines he features on their lists.
Each patron had a row of small dishes arrayed in front of him, containing in succession crumbled Maytag blue cheese, applewood-smoked bacon, a lime wedge, some sea salt, a few bits of shrimp ceviche, a dollop of hoisin sauce, and a too-small bite of Cuban chocolate cake. Off to the side, perhaps so its pungency wouldn't leap into the other dishes, was some kimchee. Each customer was also given seared scallops over parsnip puree and a few nibbles of aged ribeye steak.
Against these were paired five white wines, three reds, and a white dessert wine. We were encouraged to taste each wine by itself, then with various flavor elements. Clime used these examples to illustrate some basic principles of food-wine pairing:
Acid cuts through acid. Acidic foods dominated by citrus flavors or vinegar require wines with bracing acidity, such as sparkling wines or tart whites like Sauvignon Blanc. The acidity of the food softens the acidity in the wine and brings out the wine's fruit flavors. Softer wines, such as Chardonnay and many reds, would be rendered flabby by the acidic food.
Sweetness tames sweetness. A general principle of dessert wine is that the wine should be sweeter than the dessert. This works earlier in the meal, too, and helps explain why many American wines push the envelope of ripe sweetness and high alcohol - we simply prefer sweet foods (fruit sauces on meat, anything "caramelized," etc.) A corollary is that sweetness in the wine can tame heat (spiciness) in the food.
Salt and fat will rifle through tannins and astringency. Red wine lovers have known for years that the best food for that massive, young, tannic Napa Cabernet is a juicy, well-seasoned steak. The fat in the meat coats your palate and protects it from the harsh tannins of the wine. That unshackles the fruit and allows it to strut its stuff. Heat, as in the kimchee, can destroy a tannic wine, making it angular and harsh.
Clime used the hoisin sauce as an example of excessive sweetness killing almost any wine, going so far as to argue, "The best wine with Chinese food is beer." I disagree with him there, as Chinese dishes will balance the hoisin with savory or tart flavors to tame that sweetness. Balance is essential in cuisine as in wine.
Indeed, tasting only one flavor element against a wine doesn't give you the whole picture. "When you combine ingredients in a dish, there is always one ingredient that dominates on your palate," Clime explained. "This main ingredient will determine the flavors and the effect on the wine."
Even so, simplicity is sometimes ideal. The nicest harmony achieved during the tasting matched the Maytag Blue with an Alsatian Gewurztraminer. The salty creaminess of the cheese mellowed the flowery sweetness of the wine while accentuating the wine's acidity, making it even more refreshing.
"I could sit down with a wedge of blue cheese and a bottle of Gewurztraminer, and I'm done," Clime said. Simplicity indeed.
Here are my notes on how the various wines at the DC Coast tasting fared with the flavor elements:
- Gruet Brut Non-vintage sparkling wine, New Mexico: Crisp and citrusy, the salt softened the dryness of the wine and emphasized the fruit. Oysters, anyone?
- Westrey Pinot Gris 2002, Willamette Valley, Oregon: Delicious, toasty and nutty; the briny scallop and creamy parsnip puree brought out a citrus note in the wine. Very refreshing.
- Green Point Chardonnay 2002, Yarra Valley, Australia: Rich, buttery and lush with tropical fruit, the scallop softened the wine and flattened the oak, thereby illuminating the fruit.
- Domaine Ehrhart, Hengst, Grand Cru Gewurztraminer 2002, Alsace, France: Rose hips, lychee, jasmine; sweet and a bit zaftig by itself, the wine toned down the heat in the kimchee, while the heat balanced the wine's sweetness and fruit. This wine and the blue cheese danced together like Fred and Ginger.
- MatelloPinot Noir 2003, Willamette Valley, Oregon: Lovely nose and fruit, with mineral tannins to give it structure. This one was fruity enough to work well with the hoisin, and it shined with the bacon, which lightened and brightened the wine.
- Mapema 2001, Mendoza, Argentina: An oaky, New World-style Bordeaux blend with spice flavors (clove, allspice) and medium tannins. The bacon brought out smoky flavors in the wine while the ribeye coaxed the fruit to the fore. Fat cuts tannin.
- Stags' Leap Winery Petite Syrah 2001 Napa Valley: Dark and thick, with a bandaid smell dominating the nose. This wine mellowed with the steak and was even better with the bacon, which matched the smokiness of the wine. The kimchee, however, destroyed this wine, leaving only searing heat on my palate.
- Andrew Rich Late Harvest Gewurztraminer 2002, Willamette Valley, Oregon: The chocolate cake, rich and dense, cut through the sweetness of the wine and made a perfect match.
WINES OF THE MONTH: Looking for a good, inexpensive bubbly for your Valentine's Day celebration? Try Cray Montlouis 1998 (about $13 retail). This sparkling blend of Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pineau d'Aunis from France's Loire Valley is more proof that bubbles don't have to hail from Champagne to be good. The complex, toasty nose evolves to bring out red currant and some tropical fruit as the wine plays delightful tricks on the palate. A slight sweetness on the finish says Chenin and not Champagne, but the wine is refreshing and has enough heft to go with food, such as raw oysters. Gorgeous! Spend your wad on dinner or a gift and let your date think you spent a lot on an exotic wine. (Imported by Boutinot Wine Estates Inc. of Livingston, N.J.; distributed in Virginia by Dionysus.)
And here's a stunner: AmRhein 2002 Petit Verdot from Virginia demonstrates the potential this obscure blending grape has in the Old Dominion. Impressively complex aromas of tea, olives and woodsy spices (clove, nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon), The palate is long, complex and entrancing. I have no idea how much it costs, but if someone offers to pour you some, don't turn your nose up at it.
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Dave McIntyre is Wine Editor of Foodservice Monthly, a trade publication for the restaurant industry in the mid-Atlantic region. His writings have appeared in Wine Enthusiast, The Washington Post, Washington Life, Capital Style, the newsletters of the American Institute of Wine & Food, Decanter.com, Sidewalk.com and WineToday.com, among other publications. He has appeared on radio on NPR's Kojo Nnamdi Show and on WTOP's "Man About Town" segment. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Capital Area Chapter of the American Institute of Wine & Food. Dave McIntyre's WineLine is archived on Robin Garr's WineLoversPage.com. E-mail Dave at McIntyreWineLine@yahoo.com.