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Posts Tagged ‘wine 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:

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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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Flavor

Fourth part to a sensory series.  Read Part 1: How We Smell, Part 2: How We Taste, and Part 3: How We Touch.

The past 3 posts of this sensory series have been about how we smell, taste, and touch.  Each of these factors in to what we commonly refer to as the flavor of wine.  A lot of this has to do with proximity.  Each of these items are being processed next to each other in the brain (especially, smell and taste).  In fact, they happen so close to each other that sometimes we even get confused that things we are smelling are actually what we are tasting.  Something cannot smell sweet.  It can only taste sweet.    When the confusion between senses happens consistently, it is known as the condition Synesthisia. Jimi Hendrix could see color when he heard music (Listen to his song Bold As Love to hear about it).  He was a Synesthete.  I don’t believe there is any research on how LSD effects this condition.

Regardless of which wine evaluation methodology you are utilizing: The Court, International Sommelier Guild, or rating system like Robert Parker, Wine Spectator, etc. the majority of what is being evaluated can be encapsulated into flavor.  How We See (The Color of Wine) is next up in the series which is the other (minor) part of wine evaluation.  Yet, there is so much about flavor as we have seen where we have room to personally conclude whether we have preference for something or not.  The subjectiveness of flavor, whether consciously or not, is always somehow factored in to an evaluation of wine.  Therefore, there is an extra layer of complication for the casual wine drinker in finding a wine that they like.  They can’t simply just go to the experts to see what was rated the highest, they have to factor in whether those experts like the same wines they do or not.

This is particularly telling in the US rating systems which were created by people who generally don’t like sweeter wines even though most of the American public secretly does.  This is also mostly why I never rate wines on my blog and try not to use subjective descriptors.  I don’t know you.  Therefore, I could not accurately judge whether a wine is likable to all of you or not, nor could I trust myself to not subconsciously press my preferences on you.  I do however try and list the objective qualities of the wines I am pairing and then let you conclude whether that’s something you’re interested in trying or not.  The other part to this is that because our perception of flavor is so tightly entwined with our emotion and memories (Remember, you are comparing the aroma “image” to your memory stockpile of images to figure out what it is) that something as simple as you having a bad day when you have the wine, could affect your ongoing perception of it.  Tannat is my go-to brooding wine for instance.  Another example is how I have not drank a glass of wine from Bandol since I had it while breaking up with a girlfriend one time.  Is it any wonder that we have both a taste and feeling called ‘Bitter’?

I’m not saying that if we have a bad experience with a wine that we will continue to have a bad experience with it though.  I will drink a Bandol again, and one day you may actually enjoy that wine you thought you’d never like as long as the circumstances are right.  This is due to what is known as the plasticity of the brain.  We change.  What those circumstances are though is what wine and food pairing is all about at a fundamental level.  Previously in the series I mentioned how mental framing and priming can be used to brainwash you and shape how you experience a wine and food pairing.  OK, maybe brainwash is too strong of a word, but part of what I do during Wine and Food Experience events is to shape how people approach the tasting.  The idea behind matching the aromas of a wine to the aromas in a dish are a way to prime the mind to enhance that particular item.  The new wave of molecular wine and food matching is built entirely upon this concept.

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Found within this is the secret to wine and food pairing.  To create a good wine and food pairing, you don’t need to memorize the ingredients of thousands of dishes and understand the differences between wines of hundreds of different regions.  All you need to do is meet the [reasonable] expectation of the person who will be consuming the pairing.  The good news is that this is much easier than people think.  Most people have a pretty vague expectation:  They want to enjoy the wine they are drinking and enjoy the food they are having. They aren’t expecting to have their minds blown or taste something they have never tasted before.  The want agreeable flavor.  I know this sounds unapproachable by average home chefs and their non-existant wine cellars, but trust me.  If you can cook (Or buy, I won’t tell anyone) something you like to eat, and you know of a wine you like to drink, you can make it happen.

Here’s how you do it when you know what you want to cook.  First, tell yourself that this meal is going to be pretty good.  Imagine yourself eating a pretty good meal if you want.  Then, figure out the main components of the dish.  This can be as simple as looking at the recipe you are using or just perhaps recognizing what items your hands are putting in to your cooking apparatus.  The easy part about this is that you don’t have to be specific.  Fruit for instance, can be categorized as to whether it is red, dark, tropical, or stone (apples, pears, etc.).  Then you go to the wine shop and ask for a wine in your price range that has one of those main components in it.  This is called flavor matching.  Lastly, you sit down with someone and enjoy the meal you made with the wine you bought and you actively notice the component of the wine that matches with the food.  Huzzah! You are a pseudo-professional at this now.  What if the wine tastes thin?  Garnish the food with some lemon or another acid.  What if the astringency of the tannins are too much for your liking in the wine?  Back to the lemon/acid, or add some large grained salt.  Problems solved!

Here’s how you do it when you know what wine you want to have.  First, tell yourself that this meal is going to be pretty good.  Then look at the back label for some wine descriptors or Google the wine to find some.  Next, search for some recipes that have one of those components from the wine in it.  Now make your meal and sit and enjoy it with someone.  Huzzah again! You are a gastronomical hero.  Follow the troubleshooting tips in the previous paragraph if you run in to any of them.

The whole concept of flavor matching and very importantly, noticing it, is a big part to enjoying wine with food.  All you are is adding two similar aromas together and by their nature, they enhance each other.  Aroma after all is the main component of flavor.  The tastes mostly follow this additive quality as well.  Bitter + bitter = more bitter.  However, tastes can also be used as fill-ins when you think something is missing from a dish.  Keep in mind that good flavor is all about balancing all of them.  Ayurvedic cooking even makes a point of incorporating all of the tastes into ever dish.  Interestingly, they came up with and still maintain 6 different tastes: Sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent.  You’ll note two of those overlap with items discussed in How We Touch.  Modern research is studying how the lack of flavor balance in meals may be contributing to the obesity epidemic.

If the dish would taste perfect with just a touch of sweetness, but you didn’t add any in, have a wine that is a little sweet.  Of course, a lot of times you don’t know this until you’re in the middle of consumption so you’d probably just get a dash of sugar, honey, maple syrup, or that HFCS you have in your cabinet.  The point is, you have to go in expecting that you might change one minor thing, but with the goal of balancing.  Speaking of which, as far as touch goes, as long as you stick with the salt and the lemon, you’ll be fine there too.

Then what are professionals for? You might now assume that since you can deliver wonderful wine and food pairings now and impress your friends and the ever-growing multitude of lovers that a Sommelier or other wine professional is now obsolete in your life.  Being one of those experts, I will brazenly tell you that in a lot of respects you are correct.  However, if you haven’t bothered to memorize all the general wine descriptors of wines and how they vary between regions, you’ll need someone at the wine shop to point you to the right direction.  Also, did you know that the eugenol in the wine that comes from aging it in toasted oak is also found in clove?  No?  Well you’ll probably want an expert to point out some of the more obscure matches that occur.  Professionals can also help you understand some of the general relationships between acid, fat, salt, and such so you can expand your repertoire and not be limited to the same wine and food pairing every Friday night.

The more you learn about how wine and food work, the more you may seek out the novel and expand your experimentation.  Honestly though, if you can match some aromas and know when to use lemon or salt, you’ll have a great time and get be able to have an enjoyable experience 80% of the time.  The other 20% of the time you can give me a call.  Wine, and by extension, wine and food pairing is much like fashion: It’s more important that you wear something that fits than you stay up with the latest trends or try to make a statement.  Those that can pull off the bold statements either know a whole heck of a lot, or they’ve convinced the world that they do.  Also much like fashion, your preferences may change over time.  And that’s OK too.

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-Norman Rockwell

Every year there are countless recommendations given out as to what wine you should be pairing with your Thanksgiving meal. These recommendations are always made with the utmost confidence that this exact wine will be the perfect match to whatever meal you have and no other wine would do. Everyone eats the exact same thing at Thanksgiving, right? The turkey, the gravy, the cranberry sauce, the stuffing; yours will taste the same as your neighbors, right? Except the pumpkin pie! Your mother makes the best pumpkin pie and everyone else’s tastes exactly the same, which is to say…not as good.  You know the scenario:

 You write down the the recommendations you found in the magazine, on-line, on the radio or on TV, while wondering if you’re spelling it right and whether that word is the producer, the type of wine or where it’s from.  Such joy you have knowing you will be bringing the perfect wines for Thanksgiving! The hunt is on! But once you get to the liquor store, the hunt proves fruitless. The store doesn’t carry those wines (assuming you wrote down the correct thing to begin with) because you live in such a small town that they don’t carry every wine in existence. Fooled again, world of wine!  You got me!  What to do? Panic? You start reaching for the boxed wine….

The idea that there are one or two wines that are a “superior” match to everyone’s Thanksgiving dinner is quite frankly ridiculous.  The problem with specific wine recommendations is that they only work for specific meals.  The specific interactions you get between the wine and food with the environment you’re in comprise the experience.  Thus, the whole point of my musings on this web log.  You have to keep in mind though that a good experience is comprised of a range of factors.  Can you have a good day when it’s raining? Yes.  Can you have a good day when it’s 67 degrees instead of 65? Yes.  Can you have a great Thanksgiving meal with a wide range of wines? Yes.

So instead of worrying yourself over whether or not you’ll be able to find the specific wines that were recommended to you, let’s give you a variety of options, shall we?  Just remember to look for the bottles that have a specific region listed on them.  First, let’s think of the flavor components of traditional Thanksgiving meals: savory, herbs, spices of nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves, creamy, buttery, jams, tart cranberries, the gamey-ness of the foul.  Now what wines can work well with that?

Whites:

  • Pinot Grigio
  • Chardonnay
  • Viognier
  • Tokaji
  • or some Bubbly!
I generally lean towards the medium to heavier bodied whites so they don’t get lost in all the heavy foods.  A little acid is nice and can provide some zip through the heaviness if you want to lighten it up.  The idea is to match up wines with more stone fruit components (pears, apples, apricots, etc.) which generally happen in cooler climates than ones that have more tropical flavors (mango, pineapple, kiwi) that generally happen in warmer climates.  So could you get a Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley?  Yes, but I’d go with that more specifically if I were making a more herbaceous meal with lemon tones.  If you like your buttery chardonnay, it’ll go great with those buttery biscuits and mashed potatoes.  If you generally like buttery chardonnays, but feel like they are at the top of your butteriness threshold, go with a viognier.

Reds:

  • First pickings from the newly released Beaujolais Nouveaus (Gamay)
  • Grenache or  Grenache/Syrah blends
  • Pinot Noir
  • Zinfandel
  • Cabernet Franc

With the reds, the idea is not to get too far into the heavy body realm or too far into the big tannin realm.  The amounts of vinegar and salt in most Thanksgiving meals can typically match the bitterness in the tannins of the above varietals and blends.  The idea with the reds is to match up the red-fruit-jammy and herbaceous flavors while keeping an eye on the tannins.  For some, lots of tannins aren’t a big deal and they kind of like it.  But if you’re having a large number of people over, there are high chances that not everyone is like this.  So if you do want to try a more tannic red, just make sure those who don’t enjoy that sort of thing have a chance to get more vinegar, citric acid or salt in their mouths before they take a quaff.  If your fruits are swaying more to the darker end (blackberries, plums) then you can switch over to the medium-bodied dark fruit wines like Merlot, Syrah, Monastrell, etc.

Just remember, if you really like a couple wines, chances are that those can work for the “perfect” Thanksgiving meal.  You might have to make some small adjustments to your menu, but everything should work out fine.  Those of us who enjoy wine have an expectation bar at some level and as long as it meets that or surpasses it, we’re good.  We don’t fret over prefect pairings, especially if we aren’t doing the cooking or bringing the wine.  If you do have someone who you know has the highest expectation bar, go ahead and tell them to bring the wine.

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