Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Pairing Food with Wine – Not Trees

New Chardonnay Support Group Announced
The Chardonnay Curmudgeons (CC), mirroring the success of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was formed to provide support to those addicted to heavily oaked, 100% malolactic fermented (MLF) Chardonnays. Bob Barker said the stated goal is to provide any means short of intervention to wean CC addicts away from Chardonnays so oaked the supplicant can tell the tree type, location, and age of the wood. Many addicts report deriving extreme pleasure from picking splinters out of their tongues. Many claim the pairing of their wine with buttered toast is the greatest food pairing.

Now that may be a bogus story, but I do wonder at the level of loyalty some wine lovers have for over-oaked wines. They will even try to pair them with seafood, turning their noses up at Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and even Pinot Grigio wines. I do have to admit to being a recovering CC myself. I often tried to pair an oaky/buttery (O/B) Chardonnay with seafood, but always found the taste of the wine distinct and different from the flavors of most fish and crustacean-inspired dishes. The flavor equivalent would probably be slapping a fish filet on buttered toast, which is OK if you wanted a fish sandwich, but wrong if you’re having Sea Bass and rice pilaf.

On the other hand, if you’re thinking hot tub wine, then an O/B Chardonnay will work just fine. While you don’t need a hot tub to enjoy one of these wines, it certainly helps. As a stand-alone wine or with some cheeses, these wines are adequate, but a true food-pairing wine has many attributes that overwrought Chardonnays do not possess. A food wine needs good acidity to help break down food and integrate the flavors. Lower alcohol avoids the “heat” found in more powerful wines that can blur delicate flavors. Little or no oak for a white wine permits the fruit flavors to come through more cleanly, and a touch of sweetness extends the range of foods a wine can pair with. The result is a marriage of food and wine that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Recipe for a Bad Food Wine
The problem starts with too much oak. The caress of oak in a French Chablis or Montrachet comes from subtler French oak. These wines maintain good balance because of the rich flavor of their grapes, lower alcohol, and good acidity. In New Zealand most Chardonnay is un-oaked, relying on maritime influences and grape flavors to shape the wine. In California and other locales in America, oak chips are used during the fermentation process, which has a most telling effect on the grapes. The process is similar to brewing tea, except the tea bag in this case is filled with oak chips and the wine is steeped until the desired oak consistency is achieved. No, I’m not making this up.

The wine is then often laid down in new American oak casks to complete the process. Other choices for the aging process are neutral oak barrels – most oak barrels become neutral after five years – or French oak. The aggressive nature of American oak often adds too much influence to white wine grapes. The cost differential between French and American barrels is one of the reasons many domestic wine makers choose American. The result, however, is that many white wines taste more like oak then grape. The one saving grace would be to maintain good acidity and lower alcohol, but this can be compromised by extended grape hang time and/or malolactic fermentation (MLF).

Additional hang time increases the sugars while reducing the acidity and punches up the alcohol level. MLF is started by inoculating the grapes with lactic bacteria to induce a second fermentation that converts the crisp malic acid, such as found in apples, into lactic acid, such as found in butter. This creates the well-known oaky/buttery (O/B) Chardonnay flavor profile, which reminds me so much of soda pop. While MLF is common in red wines, and does promote a richer mouthfeel, the lack of crispness in a white wine makes it more challenging to pair with many foods.

The end result is the closest thing to genetic modification you can approach in the wine world. Over-processed, over-oaked, and over the edge, these wines seldom pair well with food, and can become cloying on the palate even before the first glass is finished. Yet many wine drinkers will turn their noses up at the thought of substituting a more food-friendly wine with dinner.

Scene in a restaurant
Waiter: “May I suggest a Marlborough New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to go with your ginger/pecan encrusted Sea Bass?
Diner: “No, I’d like a bottle of Old Oaky Lactose-tolerant Chardonnay.”
Waiter: Wrinkling his nose in disgust: Very well, sir.”
Diner: Turning to his dining companion: “How do like that guy, trying to pass off some weird wine on us.”
Dinner companion: “What’s a New Zealand wine?”

Alternate White Wines
You might be thinking - if you got this far - so what would be a good substitute to an O/B Chardonnay? Since many wine drinkers are wedded to Chardonnay, one alternative is to seek out those wines that emphasize the fruit and show respect for the terroir. This is accomplished by picking the fruit while the acidity is still good, employing a subtler use of oak, and using no MLF or only a small percentage of the MLF fruit in the finished wine. There are many Chardonnay wines crafted in this way, and their numbers are on the rise as more wine drinkers turn away from over-manipulated wines.

However, most winemakers know there are better grapes for crafting food-friendly wines. Riesling wines, either domestic or imported, do provide such a flavor profile. Since the Riesling grape seldom takes to oak, these wines are primarily made without it; insuring good, rich, fruit flavors that this grape has in abundance. The wine is typically lower in alcohol, and has a natural sweetness that pairs with several challenging foods including oriental cuisines and spicy dishes. These wines are plentiful, offered in many styles, and often less expensive than equivalent Chardonnay wines.

Sauvignon Blanc is another good food-friendly wine that is generating more interest, primarily due to the popularity of New Zealand wines. Many wine professionals claim the NZ Sauvignon Blanc is the best example of this grape, and its success is prompting Californian and French wine makers to take note and copy the style. As a result many domestic makers of this grape are significantly reducing the amount of oak used in crafting their wines and emphasizing the fruit. The French Sancerre is another example of how to craft a wonderful white from this grape. The mineral-like quality of this wine makes it very popular, but seldom inexpensive.

The Chenin Blanc grape has not completely recovered from its jug wine days in the U.S., but it is another grape that is compatible with many kinds of food. The best examples come from France in the Loire Valley where Vouvray is popular. It also makes wonderful desert and sparkling wines. Because it is easy to over-produce the grape and make uninspiring jug wines, Chenin Blanc has gotten a bad rap. In fact I often pulled a Sideways riff by refusing to try the few examples California winemakers crafted into drier, richer tasting wines. “No Chenin Blanc,” I said, as easily as Paul Giamatti said, “No Merlot!” Well, I was wrong, and so was he.

I recall while I was still in the thrall of oaky/buttery Chardonnay, turning up my nose at Riesling wines – too sweet – and Sauvignon Blanc – too grassy – and Chenin Blanc – too boring! I didn’t give them a proper evaluation. Unless you are considering how a wine will go with food, or experimenting with food and wine pairing, a stand-alone Chardonnay often seems like the best choice.

Viognier has become popular as a Chardonnay-alternative. Although it can be a finicky grape to work with, it makes a lush full-bodied wine under the right conditions. The version of the grape grown in Languedoc, France is the most common variety planted in California, particularly the Central Coast region. It has also found a home in New Mexico where a number of producers are crafting very tasty versions. This is a good wine to segue to for the “only-Chardonnay” crowd.

Pinot Grigio is another good wine for seafood and lighter fare. The Italian Pinot Grigio is quite popular and plentiful, but try the Oregon versions, often called Pinot Gris, which are much richer in flavor with lush mouthfeel. This makes Pinot Gris a good entry wine for recovering Chardonnay-ites. Other choices that can work well include Semillon, which is often used in blends, but can make a very good food wine with flavors of baked figs. This is the principal grape of French Sauternes, such as Ch√Ęteau d’Yquem, one of the most expensive wines in the world.

Less common but also worth seeking are wines made from the Pinot Blanc grape. A very popular grape in the Alsace, it has been used as an alternate to Chardonnay in many places. I still remember a Congress Springs Pinot Blanc that was their featured wine a year or two after their Chardonnay won triple gold, (the first California wine to do that). But after I tried their Pinot Blanc, I began searching up and down the state for more of the same. Regrettably, not many wine makers took to the grape, but I still sample every one I can find.

So Chardonnay lovers, there are alternatives, particularly if you enjoy food and wine together. Who knows, you may find a new love, or multiple loves to enrich your wine life. After all, it is perfectly legal and moral to be a polygamist when it comes to wine, and in a world beset with more rules and regulations than we can keep up with, isn’t that good to know? Salut!

Monday, November 24, 2008

You Turkey! Finding the Right Wine for Your Bird

November 2008, Corrales, NM
If this is November, it must be turkey time, or how do we find a wine to go with the bird? This yearly guessing game stems from the fact turkey can be notoriously hard to pair with your favorite wine. On the other hand, this is also the time of year you’ll get too many suggestions for pairing wine and fowl. Some people - I’ve been told – even go to the extreme of eliminating the bird entirely and going for roast beef to ease the frustration of bad pairings.

That will cause most traditionalists to cringe, perhaps even double over in pain. Such extremes are really not required, however. There are two methodologies for pairing food and wine; decide on the food and find a complementary wine, or choose a wine and find the right food for it. It would seem we are constrained to the former, but there are ways to insinuate the latter in our decision-making process.

Let’s say you prefer red wine with a meal. The old rule of white wine with fowl would cause some problems, unless we view the entire meal. Remember, side dishes can offset some of these difficulties, even within the context of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Sweet potatoes with a caramelized brown sugar topping can go with many red wines. The stuffing is fertile ground for offsetting the flavor profile of the turkey. Adding a spicy sausage and compatible herbs can change a turkey’s DNA to conform to a favorite Sangiovese or Tempranillo.

Both of these wines, of course, can work with even a traditional bird if they have the right palate notes. I’ve sampled Sangiovese wines with a definite cranberry aspect that can favorably complement the trimmings. In fact, many berry-rich red wines can work with end of year holiday celebrations.

One of the key elements to look for is lower alcohol. Any red wine over 14.5% can be challenging to pair with foods unless the alcohol is well integrated into the wine’s structure. Aggressive oak-heavy wines can also be off-putting, muting the berry flavors that provide an integrating influence to the meal. The fruit flavors should be pronounced, with red berries working better than black berries, or plum-like notes which are characteristic of many red wines derived from fruit picked after a longer hang time.

A full-bodied wine can be too heavy to marry with white meat and root vegetables, medium and light-bodied wines pair better. Finally, a bit of sweetness to the wine also works, as too-dry reds will drive us to ladle on the gravy to offset the astringent hit. However, if you want an excuse to load up on gravy this type of wine could be a godsend.

Two other wine grapes that work well within this area are Barbera and Pinot Noir. Both are generally acknowledged as great food-wines, and both are typically vinified with less oak and medium body. Both offer rich berry flavors. Many Barbera wines have Bing to Dark Cherry flavors while Pinot exhibits aromas of cherry, strawberry, and even rhubarb in more herbal varieties. Spice accents of cinnamon also indicate a good companion to a turkey dinner.

If these are not your favorite red wines, maybe this is a good time to try them out. Otherwise, consider the other options. While Cabernet Sauvignon is often difficult to match, Cabernet Franc, with its cherry and raspberry flavors can work better. Most California Zinfandel is too highly alcoholic (up to 16.8%!), too heavy in tannins, and too full-bodied to pair up, but the rare lighter-bodied, lower alcohol versions can work because of the bright berry flavors this grape offers. Syrah, Shiraz, and Petite Sirah are generally too heavy as well, but if you love these wines seek to add flavors to the meal that will complement them better.

If you wonder how to accomplish this feat, consider the following. Try an Italian-flavored bird with garlic, rosemary, and oregano. Complement this with Italian sausage in the dressing, and maybe even a pasta side dish. I don’t advise covering the poor turkey in red sauce, however, as it will create a most revolting sight. Subtle notes are best. Alternately, go for Spanish or Mexican accents with peppers, cumin, and spicy sausage again, and other elements that will be at home with a Tempranillo or Spanish Rioja wine.

Right about this time of year, the Nouveau Beaujolais makes its appearance, and many people clamor to add it to their Thanksgiving shopping list. While I’m a fan of the Gamay grape, I’m not a fan of Nouveau Beaujolais. I consider this the closest thing to a slapdash wine. It is 90% marketing and airmailing the stuff, and 10% putting it together. On the other hand, well-made Beaujolais, not the commercial junk that gets exported, can be a perfect match. These wines are carefully crafted to emphasize the best elements of the Gamay grape, and marry with the bird as few wines can. If you never tired a Cru Beaujolais, but do like Nouveau, you are in for a revelation.

If white wine is your preference, then we need to leap in another direction. Sparkling wines are made for the holidays. If you don’t think so, start counting all the advertisements and commercials around this time of year. I think most domestic sparkling wines work best as a contrast to the meal, but ones that mirror the classic French Champagne flavors of caramel, cream, and yeasty notes can complement as well. Or just buy French Champagne.

Chardonnay is often selected to go with the meal, because, well – it’s our most popular white wine. Nope, that’s not a good enough reason. Look for something other than an oaky, buttery Chardonnay, unless you’re doing a Butterball turkey with corn-on-the-cob side dishes. Yuch, that was almost painful to write. Remember the characteristics I mentioned above for choosing a wine, light on the oak for one thing. Splinters in your Chardonnay suggest a really aggressive use of oak. Acidity is one of the things going for a white wine that acts as an integrating force. Using 100% malolactic fermentation to alter the chardonnay’s acidic edge to add the buttery notes makes it a flabby choice for a meal.

Much better choices are Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Chenin Blanc. Some New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc wines may be a bit too acidic to pair, look for good balance and a medium-bodied mouth feel. A French Sancerre is a good choice, particularly if you are a doing a rich herbal or Provencal version of the bird. Riesling is probably the most versatile of white food-friendly wines, with the kinds of flavors to work with anything from sweet potatoes to herbed stuffing. A good dry Chenin Blanc will also work, but they are harder to find.

Viognier is a good alternative for those that want a bigger wine, and are trying to combat their Chardonnay addiction. Some Oregon Pinot Gris wines are also a wonderful complement to Thanksgiving. I’ve paired a Willamette Vineyards Pinot Gris quite successfully with many foods in the wine dinners I create.

And then there is my current favorite turkey wine: Ahlgren Vineyards 2004 Livermore Semillon, a rich wine with flavors of baked fig that had all the partakers of last year’s Thanksgiving meal all agog. If you only experience this marriage of turkey and wine once in your life, you will never forget it. I have not tried the current 2005 vintage, but if it is anything like the 04 you should buy up a case while this small producer of quality wines in the Santa Cruz Mountains still has it in stock. Check them out at http://www.ahlgrenvineyard.com/ and while you’re at it, sample their red wines as well.

While I presented you with perhaps too many choices, consider which of the wines I suggested is your favorite, then plan the sides and the style of turkey that will best complement your choice. Don’t try to make it too difficult, this should be fun after all. Or you could just say the heck with it and go with the roast beef. Salut!