Posts Tagged ‘syrah’

Actually made by witches.

I’ll forgo the usual format since I’m not pairing a wine with food this time.

For those that have asked me what my favorite wine is I usually give an annoying response telling you it depends on a lot of things like what I’m eating (if anything), the season, the weather, what socks I’m wearing (if any), etc.  It’s very much like asking me what my favorite song is.  Do you mean right now?  Of all time?  I have no idea what my favorite song of all time is; I just can’t commit to a decision like that.  Right this second it’s anything remotely resembling a Radiohead song, but I think that’s only because of this brooding state I am in.  I can’t even tell you what I’m brooding on, but I do know how I got here.  And that brings me back to the wine.

It is a particularly rainy day here in Minneapolis with a bit of thunder on the side.  In preparation for a wine presentation, I needed to have a picture of good wine smelling form.  I generally try to stay away from stealing too much from the internet so I just took one of myself.  As my prop, I opened up a bottle of Tannat/Syrah/Viognier blend from Uruguay that I have been wanting to try.

Pictured: perfect form

Tannat is one of those special grapes that France has been trying to distance itself from for some time because of its tendency to punch you in the face then push you into the darkest cave where you are shown all of your fears at once.  Naturally, some other country sensed an opportunity to transform the beast just like the end of a Disney movie.  That country was Uruguay, but instead of transfmogrifying it into a reformed prince, they just made it more of a beast.  As far a deep red wines go, this one takes you to the abyss.  No sooner had I had a sip of pure cedar, graphite, and cinnamon, with maybe a hint of some dark-as-midnight fruits in there, did I settle into some good brooding.  It wasn’t even about anything.  I had nothing to be pensive about.  I would say Nebbiolo, the Italian champion of good brooding wines takes you to the edge of healthy emotions on a cold winter’s day and a glass full.  Tannat, in a few sips, hangs you over the edge of that cliff on a mildly rainy day and then laughs about it.

Now for those that prefer to keep it light and cheery, you may be reading this thinking that you want to stay the hell away from anything that looks like Tannat.  However, let me offer the counterpoint to your mindset.  People tend to unconsciously show their emotions through what they wear, their body language, the foods they are eating, and a whole host of other expressions.  It allows us to mull about in the emotion for a bit while it runs its course or while we are focused on a certain thought.  Wine’s place is to provide enhancement to a certain experience which generally revolves around food.  Given the intricate link between aroma and memory in our brains though, a few sniffs of a wine can bring a flood of memories, including emotions to the forefront.  So a bright, cheery wine while you’re particularly moody, may come across as somewhat of an annoyance.  On the flip side, some Tannat may seem aggravating if you’re in a bright and cheery mood.  But, if it’s a rainy day and you’d like to ruminate on something, you’d best take a pour and take a trip down the rabbit hole.

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I know, I know, it’s taken me forever to get this up!  Hopefully, this conclusion to my exploration of the sushi and wine experience makes up for trying your patience.  I promised charts.  I promised science.  I promised that you’d be able to comfortably pick out what wine you want for the experience you want when having sushi.  Ladies and Gentlemen, I deliver all of those things in this riveting end point to your wine and sushi voyage.  For the very impatient (aka lazy bums, slackers, non-geeks), please scroll to the chart at the bottom to get the answers without having to learn.

Where We Left Off…

In Part 1, we did a review of the existing “literature”.  By that, I mean we Googled the heck out of pairing wine with sushi and came up with a whole lot of nothing useable.  Preferences were listed aplenty, but no guides existed to help you in the sushi restaurant.

In Part 2, we reviewed the components of wine and sushi and laid out some plausible theories as to what kinds of interactions could go down when mixing and matching.  Here I brought in the insight of Tim Hanni, MW to get his take on what actually happens when wine and food are mixed in our noses, our mouths and our brains.  We also discussed some of the existing claims out there and Tim happily took down a lot of the nonsense that has been floating around.  At the conclusion I delivered 4 specific interactions that really affect the sushi and wine experience.  To repeat and save you the trouble of clicking the link and having to read:

  • When a flavor component of the food is similar to that in the wine, the experience of that flavor is enhanced.  This is called flavor matching.
  • The perception of alcohol will increase when paired with sweet, umami-tasting or spicy foods.
  • The perception of spiciness will decrease when paired to a wine with more acidity.
  • Tannins will noticeably diminish when they encounter salt (soy sauce), citric acid (lemon juice) or vinegar (pickled ginger).

 Some More Science

In doing some more research on flavor components, I came across a fascinating article in Nature entitled Flavor Network and the Principles of Food Pairing.  When you mix wine with food, it’s really an extension of the existing ingredients that are already in the dish. We have our preferences as to which herbs and spices work in which dishes, so we should have our preferences as to which wines work with which dishes too.  In the article they broke down all of the components of food down to the compound level.  You see, it’s the combination of certain compounds that we interpret as flavor and aroma.  Then they ran through various recipe sites on-line and compared which components always showed up together and which ones did not.  The most interesting outcome of this study was that they found in Western cooking, we generally like to put together ingredients that share compounds.  In Eastern cooking, we generally like to put together ingredients that do not share compounds.  Now think back to the first interaction I listed.  If two items match up on flavor/aroma compounds, then that flavor/aroma will be enhanced.  If two items don’t match up on the compounds, then nothing is really enhanced, but things are made a bit more complex.  Trouble wrapping your head around that one?  Thankfully, the authors of the paper came up with an excellent chart to show which ingredients share components (closer together) and which ones have differing components (farther away).  Definitely click on it to get the larger view.  

To associate this with our sushi and wine pairing, this means that if we have a wine that shares a lot of compounds with the components in the sushi, we are going to get an enhancement of that particular flavor or aroma.  The wines that do this are going to typically be whites since they carry a lot of the green, tropical fruit, floral, and minerally components.  If we have a wine that diverges from the compounds of the sushi components, we are going get a more complex sensation of taste.  This will happen with the vast majority of reds with their more earthy, red fruit, and black fruit components.  I generally like to think of this concept in terms of sound waves because they do the same thing.  A sound wave is enhanced if the same wave gets overlaid on to it and the sound wave is neutralized if the exact opposite wave is laid on top of it.  [As a side note, the latter method is essentially how noise cancellation works.] [As a side note to the side note, I think the idea of creating flavor or aroma component “chords” is something very real and needs to be explored]  Therefore, the first decision you have to make is whether you want an enhancement of certain components with your wine and sushi pairing or if you want to add complexity to your experience.  Posting the common aroma descriptors of each varietal would make this post a bit lengthy, so I’ve simplified the concept in the chart at the end.

The second decision you have to make is how much of a wasabi kick you are looking to get.  If you’re eating sushi the “proper” way, you should only have a tiny dab with your bite (if any at all), but some people have been known to take a chunk just to get that brain burn feeling.  Again, a reminder that the wasabi you are having is really horseradish, mustard and food coloring and not actual wasabi, but the effect is generally the same.  One way to control the amount of kick is to simply control the amount of wasabi you are ingesting at a time.  However, one can neutralize some of the effects of the spiciness by taking a swig of wine that has some noticeable acid in it.  This is nice for those who are not so daring to swallow a chunk of wasabi outright, but might enjoy the pepperiness that it brings.  The exact proportions will differ by person, but it’s certain that if you take a lot of wasabi in at once, no amount of acid will diffuse that shooting burn you’ll get through your brain.  It’s the in between area that there is room to play.  On the flip side of that, if you have a wine with more pronounced alcohol content, that kick may be heightened depending on your level of sensitivity.  The more tolerant taster who doesn’t noticed higher alcohol content in wines as much (as a burning sensation in the back of your throat near the nasal cavity) may be more tolerant of spicy foods to begin with.  The more sensitive taster should take note though.  For those who like to live on the edge, take something 100 proof alongside a big chunk of wasabi.  I’m sure it will be a trip you won’t forget.  If anyone wants to create a shot based on that, all I ask is that you send a small portion of the revenue from all of your “I survived….” merchandise my way.

Last, we consider the tannin factor.  That cotton feeling you get wrapping around your tongue generally with red wines.  This was a big point of contention on the internet as the red wine purists couldn’t understand why their tannins had disappeared and the rest of the people didn’t want them there in the first place.  But are we just restricted to white wines or red wines sans tannins when eating sushi? No! You can have the wine you want with the experience you want, but you may need to take steps to get it that way.  Let’s remember that the sensation of tannin decreases significantly when you add in citric acid, vinegar or salt.  We can get citric acid from a lemon slice, vinegar from pickled ginger and salt from soy sauce while we’re eating sushi.  Use these as your tools.  You want all the tannin goodness your favorite wine can provide?  Stay away from dunking your bite of sushi into soy sauce; forgo the slice of pickled ginger in between bites.  Your tannins will be there every step of the way.  What’s that? You inconsiderately ordered a bottle of tannic red wine without asking the people you are with what they want and they don’t want any tannin at all?  Well they’ll be resigned to getting a bit more soy sauce on each bite than they’re used to; having a slice of pickled ginger in between bites; or maybe just squeezing a bit of lemon over everything.  The moderates can find their ideal balance somewhere in between with a little trial and error using the tools available.

Now, I wouldn’t have gone through all this work without trying these theories out on unknowing participants.  That’s not my style.  An event was put together with 15 people to verify the effects of these interactions with 4 different wines and an assorted collection of sushi.  Was it scientific? Not remotely.  Did it successfully verify that people who just like wine and also like sushi can use this information to identify what wines they like best with sushi? Absolutely. We used all of the common ingredients found in sushi restaurants in Minneapolis and tasted four wines throughout the night: Grüner Veltliner, Viognier, Carmenere, Shiraz.  Keeping in mind that the impression my internet searching left me with was that people shied away from reds when eating sushi, it was a fun surprise to discover that with the tools I had given the group, the overall favorite pairing was the Shiraz.

The key, as with just about everything, is balance.  More importantly, it’s knowing what you are balancing.  Three questions need to be asked when you sit down to sushi and you’re deciding what wine you want.

  1. How much wasabi kick do I want?
  2. How much tannin do I want to be noticeable?
  3. Do I want flavor enhancement or flavor complexity?


Add acid to manage excessive wasabi kick

Alcohol will increase the wasabi kick moderately

Finally, here is the chart that was given to the willing subjects.  The wines listed are all of those available at the various sushi restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul.  Notice how it guides you toward achieving balance through trade offs.  Happy pairing!

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Rating: 5/5

A 1lb New York Strip steak cooked for 3hrs Sous Vide in butter, shallots and thyme then browned on the skillet.  Side of (who cares really when you have a piece of meat that good?) sauteed kale and mushrooms.

Wine: Dusted Valley Stained Tooth Syrah 2009


There are many ways to cook a steak, but only a small few if you want it to be delicious.  My preferred method is to use a combination of iron skillet and in-oven cooking.  However, if you have the time, I recommend venturing into sous vide territory.  The expression literally means ‘under vaccuum’ and is generally how a lot of of high-end restaurants do their exquisite pieces of meat.  You seal the meat up with a fat (butter in this case) and some assorted herbs and spices to your liking, remove all air and then submerge the package into water that is the exact temperature that you want the meat done at for however long it takes to cook the meat (An hour per inch thickness at minimum is a good rule of thumb, but you can let it sit in there for as long as you want).  Don’t forget to reserve the juices for dipping after! Now, the high-end restaurants have very expensive contraptions that make this process insanely easy, but with a little McGuyver-ing you can do it with a heavy duty freezer back, a big pot and a temperature probe.  There are plenty of on-line resources for this one so have at it and for a special treat, try poaching an egg sous vide style.  But back to the wine and food experience!

The steak was cooked to a medium-rare level which is how I like them and was oh-so-tender with a dash of finishing salt just before I dove into it.  The wine was a big, fruit-forward Syrah from the lovely folks at Dusted Valley with plenty of tannin and acid which was all beginning to come together nicely here at the beginning of 2012.  I’ve been loving the Washington state Syrahs these days and this is no exception.  The base of this wine is Syrah and Viognier, the blend that originated and was made popular by Northern Rhone.  This blend is also doing spectacularly down in Aussie-land as I’ve featured before.  However, Dusted Valley takes a quick trip down to Southern Rhone and blend in some small amounts of Grenache and Counoise which gives it a bit more depth.  Any remaining tannin that would have stuck out was absolved by the light salt application and you are left with are the dark fruits and a bit of earthiness working with the mushrooms.  Simple meal, wonderful results.  For the steak lover, this is pretty much the tops.

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Rating: 5/5

Chickpeas and chopped dried dates put into a masala (a mixture of spices) created from tomato paste, garlic, cardamom, star anise, yellow onion, cumin and cayenne pepper.

Wine: Yalumba Shiraz/Viognier 2008


Yowzah!! This was fun.  If you ever have a night where all you feel like doing is wrapping yourself up in a blanket and listening to the cold winds whipping around outside, this is your meal. As a bonus (for some; not me), it’s vegetarian and vegan friendly if you’re in to that sort of thing.  The cayenne actually plays an interesting role in this dish in the fact that if you just put a dash, it acts as a supporter to the warmth in the spice blend.  If you put in more than a dash, the rest of the spice blend acts as a warm supporter to the heat “pricks” of the cayenne.  I went with the former which paired beautifully with the wine from Eden Valley, Australia.  Now, to avoid some confusion, there was only 3% Viognier in this bottle so it’s hard to really call this a blend (but this is how they do it in Côte-Rôtie, France!).  Yalumba could have legally said the whole thing was Shiraz and that would have been fine.  Most of the world states that if you have at least 85% of a varietal in a bottle you can just call it by that varietal.  However, I always appreciate a vintner’s honesty when they go the extra mile and tell me what the exact blend is.  The best part about this pairing was how even though the fruit tones were muted because there was nothing in the food to enhance them, the wine still was incredibly balanced and took on a darker life that was very interesting and enjoyable.  It also helped greatly that the finish on this wine lasted as long as the warmth from the spice blend did.

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