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Posts Tagged ‘wine and food pairing’

Have you ever wondered why white wines and red wines seem to have completely different aromatic descriptions?  White wines are all about citrus and tropical fruits and maybe hints of butter and vanilla and red wines focus on red and black fruits with maybe earthy things like leather, tobacco, oak, and just straight up meat.  But what do they have in common?  I mean, regardless of whether it’s a red grape or a white grape, it’s still a grape, right?

If you rely on the aroma descriptors that you get from the back of the bottle, or a “wine expert” (like me!), or even the winemaker themselves, you will rarely find any that overlap in the Venn-Diagram-Of-Red-And-White-Wine-Aroma-Descriptors…pretty sure that’s a thing…it’s not a thing on the internet, so let’s make it:

WineAromaVenn

…so no overlapping there…NOT. A. SIN. GLE. ONE.

(all of these flavor descriptors were taken from Wine Enthusiast articles and a little Editor’s note here, I took out “Watermelon” as a descriptor for Merlot because only WE lists watermelon as a descriptor for Merlot). 

Why is this? Why do we not describe red wines and white wines as having any overlapping characteristics?…I’ll hold you in suspense a little longer.  Perhaps a more peculiar case first:

img_2184

What inspired this investigation was drinking the Blanc de Cabernet Franc from Leah Jorgensen Cellars.  This is a white wine made from the Cabernet Franc grape which is usually made into a red wine.  She also makes the red version and yes, they are both fantastic.  But what piqued my curiosity was how each wine was being marketed.  This is the same grape, from approximately the same location (She buys her grapes from a few different vineyards it looks like, so it’s tough to say the exact grapes used for the red version came from the same place that the white version grapes came from), made by the same winemaker; the only apparent difference is that in one version, the skins of the grapes were left on, and the other, they were left off*.  Yet, here are how the two wines are described:

White – The world’s original white Cabernet Franc – this medium-bodied wine typically has delicate nuances of “early blush” apricot, golden raspberries, Meyer lemon, blood orange, white tea leaf, tarragon, and hazelnut – making up a pretty, complex white wine from red grapes. This vintage, the wine also offers subtle botanical notes of elderflower, jasmine, lime blossom, sweet pea shoot, even a hint of ground cinnamon, with flavors of clementine, lemon meringue, light honey leading into a creamy and nutty mid-palate that finishes with refreshing salinity. Drink now for freshness, but this wine will age in the bottle for a minimum of five years, due to the phenolic content from the red skins. Pair with white fish or shellfish, especially oysters and scallops; pasta with simple cream sauce; pork chops with apple compote; roasted chicken; crab stuffed poblano peppers with cream sauce; polenta and beans; a young, creamy, nutty Gruyère.

Red – This wine expresses fresh, bright, vibrant aromatics lifting and floating above the glass, brimming with intense floral notes, perfume, and sweet fruit. This wine was like a bouquet of flowers saved from a precious occasion, hung carefully upside to dry and preserve the natural oils – rose petals, hibiscus, violets, carnations. It reminded me of a delicate floral fragrance I wore when I was a young woman – “Petite Cherie” by Annick Goutal – not for the individual scents of pear, peach, musky rose, freshly cut grass, and vanilla (those descriptors really sound more like a portrait of white wine, anyway), but, for the sum of its parts, the alchemy of these scents that, when coalesced, create something that smells nothing like the individual oils, but, something of a magical emanation created by some ethereal woodland fairy queen. Then, another swirl of the glass sparked cinnamon bark, cigar, sweet birch bark, the distinctive spicy-citrus aroma of black walnut leaves, brambles, and ripe cherries.

Notice in the description of the red wine it’s even mentioned that some characteristics seem like they should be describing a white wine…just not the white wine made from the same grapes by the same wine maker.  Since a good portion of wine aromatics are determined by the grapes themselves, it would stand to reason that these two wines should at least have something in common aromatically speaking, shouldn’t they?

Now let’s look at the reasons as to why there appear to be zero similarities between how red and white wines smell and taste.  I would contend that most of this disparity is a result of how we interpret the aromas coming out of the wine we are drinking and less to do with actual chemical differences between red and white wines.  In the world of research, this very much appears to be a undecided question, but here is my reasoning:

  1. Our sense of smell is influenced by a whole host of things that aren’t just aroma molecules hitting our smell receptors: memory/training, mood, and the remaining 4 senses, with emphasis on sight.  When we see a food of a certain color our brains, in an effort to be as efficient as possible put all of the memories of similarly colored foods in the fronts of our minds to compare the current item with.  You could call it laziness, but we seem to stop with whatever the brain serves up first instead of consciously digging deeper.
  2. Aromatic descriptions used in wine, beer, whiskey, tea, coffee, etc. are developed for the primary purpose of comparing and contrasting when having a live discussion.  However, we already have categorized a wine into whether it is red, white, or rose before we get to smelling it so if someone goes about comparing and contrasting wines in different color categories, there’s already an assumption that everything will be different.  Aromatic descriptions are actually not a great way to categorize wine from a global perspective.
  3. Aromas, chemically speaking, can either be fairly simple (butter = diacytel) or complex (coriander = pinene, 3,7-dimethylocta-2,6-dienal [citral], linalool, and camphor)…and even with the “simple” aromas, it really is a mix of chemicals that exist, but one just tends to dominate.  Then, to make this even more complicated, there is an incredibly wide range as to the potency of these aromatic compounds.  Just looking at the variants of methoxy-pyrazines, which are responsible for those vegetal aromas, our noses can detect them at 0.000002 ppm in water or white wines or 0.00001 ppm in red wine.  In normal speak, these are tiny, tiny amounts; fractions of a drop. For diacytel, the detection threshold can range from 0.2 ppm in white wines to 2.8 ppm in red wines.  This means that you need 100,000+ times the amount of diacytel to be present than a methoxy-pyrazine in order for us to smell it!  Not only does these threshold levels vary between white and red wines, but they can also vary between white wines and between red wines.  These variations are the best evidence to say that there actually could be distinct and disjointed aromatic differences between white and red wines, BUT (and I like big ‘buts’ (I cannot lie)) the thresholds appear to work on a spectrum, meaning there is bound to be some overlap somewhere.  The research on this topic is nowhere near where it needs to be to make any definitive statements.

 

Therefore, the next time you are sitting around intellectually comparing and contrasting a curated selection of wines (Pretty much a Tuesday, right?), try stretching your mind a little and asking yourself what a white wine and red wine could have in common.  For example, take a food like fennel or the spice anise and see which white wines it brings out those attributes in and which red wines it brings out those attributes in.  I don’t say this lightly, but you may just blow your own mind.

 

 

*Chances are different yeasts were used and some oak in the red, but the wines were most likely fermented in the same tanks, at similar times, with the same bacteria roaming around, by the same hands.  Additionally, it looks like the the white wine also underwent a bit of Malolactic Fermentation (which most reds go through), so the differences between how the two wines were made are slight.

 

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WineFoodPairing

“What’s the best wine to pair with this dish?” is a question every wine expert gets asked a little too often.  I have some issues with this question (Of course Aaron has issues with something), but it’s not the fault of the curious wine drinker; the issue lies with how wine experts, so-called wine experts, and wine publications insist that this is an important question to ask.  The problem I have with the question is that it relies on a couple of false assumptions:

1.) That there is a “best/perfect/ideal” pairing for every plate of food and it will be nearly universally agreed upon despite people having that interesting human trait called Preference.  I have debunked this myth before.  In this respect, the curious wine drinker may be better served by asking a wine expert what an interesting or unexpected wine pairing to a dish may be as the result may be much more rewarding.

2.) That wine and food pairing can only go a single direction; as in a wine can only be paired to a food and a food cannot be paired to a wine.  If you are sitting at a table in a restaurant with a discreet list of food items and set wine list, it makes sense to ask the Sommelier or waiter (if you trust they’ve actually tried all the wines) which wine might be enjoyable with the dish you’ve ordered as you are somewhat limited in your options.  But what if you’re cooking at home and you can make whatever you want, how you want it?  Well, that’s when things get interesting.

In previous posts I have explored what wine and food pairing really is about instead of the romantic notions of “classic” pairings that aren’t really based on anything except tradition (Cab Sauv w/ Steak, Syrah w/ Lamb).  When people give recommendations outside of these traditional pairings they usually focus on flavor matching, meaning if you have a dish with red fruits in it, they’ll pick a wine that has red fruit flavors.  Most of these recommendations don’t get down to the molecular level where things really get interesting, but at least the wine drinker starts to connect why they are enjoying something and developing the skill to be able to find new pairings themselves.

The other aspect of wine and food pairing which is so very slowly being utilized by experts is flavor balancing, but an aspect of it has been the sole focus of wine and cheese pairing for decades.  If the wine is a bit bitter or astringent, balance it in the food with acid and/or salt.  And cheese pairings! If it’s a creamy, fatty cheese, pair it with a wine that has higher acidity.  But again, a person’s preference plays into this as well so it’s better to explain what happens when you mix and match as a pairing that tackles the harsh tannins of a particular wine may be thoroughly enjoyed by someone not fond of the cotton-mouth feel, but frowned upon by someone who does.  In this respect, “Balance” is somewhat subjective, but helping someone discover how salt and sour tastes fit on one side of the metaphorical scale and sweet, bitter, and umami are on the other will assist them in figuring out what sort of balance they are looking for.

Taking these things to account, it’s important to remember that wine and food pairing needn’t be a unidirectional exercise.  If you have a wine that has notes of lime in it, why not add some lime zest to the dish you are preparing?  If the wine is a bit flat and lacking some acid, why not add a bit more acid to the dish you are preparing to give the wine some life? Wine and food pairing is, to use a math/programming term, recursive which creates an infinite loop of enjoyability.  This is why gastronomes don’t necessarily care whether they take a bite or sip first, they just know that it needs to be followed by the other to find true satisfaction.

So if you are a curious wine drinker, the next time you feel compelled to ask a wine expert which wine you should pair with a dish, instead ask one of the following questions:

  1. What would be an interesting or unexpected wine pairing with this dish?
  2. I really like the [your favorite part of the dish] in this.  What wine would highlight that aspect of it?
  3. I have this wine [indicate in a grand gesture ala a magician revealing a trick] and this dish [twirl a fake mustachio or real one if you have it].  What could I do to the dish to really tie the wine to it?

And if you are a wine expert, do your best to keep your preferences in check and turn the “best wine pairing” question into one of the above.

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Rating: 5/5

Brined cornish game hens, rubbed with clove and paprika and put on the grill. Risotto made from arborio, onions, broth, white wine, golden beets, and spiced with thyme, paprika, and clove. Ligonberries deglazed in white wine, spiced with clove, cinnamon, and thyme; spiked with some honey. Also with green beans sauteed in some olive oil.

Wine: Camino de Navaherreros 2010

IMG_1239Notes: I take delight in exploring the extreme perimeters of what my 4-year-old nephew will even consider eating. Apparently this risotto “Tastes like potatoes,” so I’ll go ahead and consider this to be a win for me on this one given my high number of failures in this game.

Anyway…

Lately I’ve been devouring François Chartier’s Taste Buds and Molecules which highlights his research in matching the volatile compounds (aromas/tastes) of wines to those found in food. While limited to flavor matching, it’s an interesting approach because wine science is just getting to the point where enough information has been cataloged to start doing this. I’ll probably post on topics around this at a later point, but for this experience, just know that the components of clove are chemically the same as those found in a number of red wines and grilled meats always have an affinity for wines put into some oak.

The results were of course spectacular. The theme of clove in varying potency levels in each of the parts of the meal were all brought out by the wine and vice-versa. The red fruit in the wine also made good friends with the ligonberries. Retronasally-speaking (breathing out through your nose after you swallow) all this flavor matching creates this heightened immersion into the food and wine which if done in overabundance could be overwhelming.

By the way, yes that is a guy riding a bear on the label which I think is now one of my favorite wine labels. “Herreros” translated means blacksmiths I believe or a skilled tradesmen, but I have no idea what the “Nava” part would be. So it’s the Path of the something-something blacksmiths that carry spears and ride on bears. I definitely want to take that journey.

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Pictured: Rebellious youth. His mother is ashamed.

Recently, I was feeling particularly rebellious after listening to a somewhat inaccurate lecture on wine and food pairing.  In the wine world, there are a lot of traditions that just aren’t based on actual facts.  Most of them center around pairing wine with food and most of them attempt to tell you whether you’ll enjoy the experience or not.  This is like someone telling you that if you go to a NASCAR race you will enjoy it without checking to see if that is your particular cup of tea or not.  And if a tea metaphor is being used, NASCAR probably isn’t your thing, but I digress.

Now, as I’ve mentioned before, when I’m feeling particularly rebellious, I do what anyone would do:  Sit down and set about proving whomever it is wrong, preferably while listening to some particularly loud music while wearing particularly unruly clothing and using a particularly #@!$ing uncouth vocabulary.  In other words, I sat down and paired a blended (Zin and Cab Sauv) red wine from Sonoma with a bunch of things that the “experts” tell you not to, just to see what really happens.  Admittedly, I’ve tried each of these combinations before which is why I was feeling rebellious, but never at the same time and never with writing utensil in hand.

The pairings were chosen based on the amount of times I’ve been told to never pair a red wine with them.  Citrus fruit (I only had a lime, but a lemon works too), Soy Sauce, Vinegar, and Salt.  For the vinegar and salt, I even selected two different types of each, just to cover all the bases.  Then I compared six aspects of wine between the control (just tasting the wine by its lonesome) and each pairing.  In this case, I’m using the terms “Fruit” to describe, well, the fruity flavors of a wine and “Bouquet” to describe the earthy, meaty, and generally not fruity characteristics.   And yes, of course I put it into a table:

Conclusions:

Each one of these lowers the perception of tannin or astringency (that cotton ball feeling in your mouth).  This is the main reason why the wine world rejects the pairing of red wine with any of these components.  If you don’t mind the reduction in tannin though, or perhaps if you didn’t want it there in the first place, this practice makes perfect sense!  However, the trade-off with most of these is that they also reduce the perception of the fruit characteristics.  The two notable exceptions to this are the lime and the Kosher salt, which do a fine job of maintaining the fruit.

Other observations:

  • Soy sauce is the only pairing that will enhance the non-fruit characteristics, mainly due to umami (savoriness) matching with the umami in the wine.
  • Vinegar will increase the acid, no matter what kind it is.
  • Iodized table salt sucks.  It blows.  It’s the pits.

Side Rant:

Salt should take bitterness out of things; that is its role in food.  In this case though, it actually increased my perception of bitterness.  Now, it didn’t increase the amount of bitter compounds, but it didn’t mitigate bitterness in the amounts that I had it (finger-tip’s worth) while slightly reducing everything else, thus increasing the perception of bitterness.  I see why people feel the need to douse all of their meals with this stuff.  It doesn’t work in small quantities.  Hypertensive Americans should revolt against iodized salt…or just use Kosher salt instead.

P.S. The science world has actually proven that pairing a big Cabernet Sauvignon with a steak works because of the salt the seasons the steak and not because the tannins are latching on to the fat.  Read Molecular Gastronomy if you’re into geeky food science happenings.

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