Friday, May 9, 2014

Food and Wine Pairing

Last night I taught a food and wine pairing class at Out of Site Wines.  These are my notes; I was pretty happy with the theme of stepping out from time honored rules and looking at molecular gastronomy.

logo long.jpg

Food and Wine Pairing
Thursday May 8, 2014

Presented by:
Nick Stengel

Nick’s tips for food and wine pairing

Drink what you like
Very few of the possible food and wine combinations out there are disastrous (Cabernet Sauvignon and ice cream springs to mind). So if a creamy buttery Chardonnay is going to classically pair with Roasted Chicken, and you don’t like Chardonnay, you're not going to like that match - pick something you like, maybe a Riesling or a Gamay.

Be aware of your Vinotype
Go to and take the brief test that will suggest how sensitive your palate is to things like tannins, sugar, and alcohol. Then refer to the tip above and drink what you like. If alcohol burns your palate and you like wines with a little sweetness, then a bone dry Mencia that I might love with seared tuna isn’t going to be a sucessful match for you. Try it with a Santa Barbara Pinot Noir that has slightly lower alcohol and sweet fruit.

Treat your wine as though it were a sauce or a spice
Chefs don’t consider pairing to be simple like “fish with white wine.” For example, a roasted Halibut served with a ragout of fava beans and morels in a white butter sauce is a completely different dish than porcini dusted Halibut with roasted fingerling potatoes and a horseradish beet sauce. Most of the time, the protein on your plate can go a hundred different ways and it is the dish as a whole that must be considered.

This is supposed to be enjoyable, and what could be more fun than gathering in a kitchen to play with a recipe and several bottles of wine? I played for a long time with a scallop dish I was working on where I wanted to match the sweetness of the shellfish with an off-dry Gewurztraminer. It took several tries before I thought of adding a tart tatin of fennel that had been braised in stock, orange juice, honey, star anise, and sauternes. Play with your food!

Chameleon wines do exist
When I was working as a sommelier, I learned that matching a wine to a dish was pretty easy. Much more difficult was a table of 4 or 6 people who were looking to order a bottle that would go with 4 or 6 different dishes. For those situations, I have learned to lean on some wines that go with almost anything:
  • Riesling
  • Alsatian Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris
  • Chianti
  • Oregon Pinot Noir and village level Burgundy
  • Côtes du Rhône
  • Sancerre
  • Unoaked Chardonnay
  • Grüner Veltliner
  • Blaufrankisch
  • Gamay
As you can see, most of these wines are bright and somewhat acidic and the reds are lighter in weight and alcohol. The heavier and more complex the wine, the fewer options you have for pairing. A 15% abv Saint Emilion Grand Cru only pairs with heavy meat based or mushroom dishes, for example.

Foods that taste cold love Sauvignon Blanc
The chemicals found in mint and other cold foods are also found in Sauvignon Blanc

Chemicals involved:
  • anethole - green anise, star anise, basil, celery, chervil, fennel
  • R Carvone - mint
  • S Carvone - caraway
  • eugenol - Thai basil, basil, cloves
  • apigenin - parsley
  • menthol - basil, coriander, fennel, mint, some root vegetables

Wines with cold flavors:
  • Albariño - Rias Baixas, Spain
  • Chardonnay - Cold Climate like South Africa or Chablis
  • Godello - Valdepeñas, Spain
  • Grüner Veltliner - Austria
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Verdejo - Rueda, Spain
  • Vermentino - Sardinia
  • Syrah - Cold Climate from South Africa or Northern Rhone

Fat does not tame the sensation of tannins. Salt does.

Most people equate steak with big reds because the maillard reactions that are created while toasting the inside of a barrel are the same melanoids that are found in a well seared steak, including caramel, cocoa, toast, and vanillins. of course, with big oak comes big tannins, and that actually does not go with steak in any way. It was common knowledge that fat blunts the experience of tannin, but in reality it’s not true. It’s salt, and only because of molecular gastronomy do we finally know this.  The lie stood for hundreds of years because the French have never served anything without a lot of salt. What did the French Chef say to the American Chef?

Aside - You have to get Taste Buds and Molecules by Francois Chartier if you are a food and wine geek. Every page has brilliant thoughts and ideas that we are only scratching the surface of. For example, he just tosses out the fact that pure caramel fragrance is almost identical chemically to that of walnut. That one sentence is an entire cookbook worth of exploration.  Another tidbit is thymol is a principle flavor component of lamb. Priceless stuff.

Barrel spices pair with baking spices

Cloves are the flower buds of an evergreen tree in the same family as eucalyptus, myrtle, and guava. They are grown in Zanzibar and Pemba. Very fresh, high quality cloves contain up to 20% volatile oils, of which 70-90% is eugenol.  Other things with a high eugenol content include thai basil, malted barley (scotch), pineapples, roast beef, cinnamon, strawberries, vanilla, potatoes, and of course, oak barrels.

Oak barrels also produce the same chemicals that make up nutmeg, cinnamon, mace, anise, and other baking spices. So play around with baking spices in your savory dishes that are meant to serve with oaky reds.  Just be sure to include salt, and go a little easy on the hot peppers.

Aside on spicy foods: Capsaicin, the chemical which is hot, is insoluble in water, but mixes very very well in alcohol, which with heighten the sensation of heat. So if you wanted to make a Jamaican Jerk dish with all of these baking spices, go with something low beer.

Grüner Veltliner is groovy
Good examples of Grüner Veltliner display typical white wine aromas and flavors of lemon and apple, but also some not-so-typical green bean, radish, and white pepper qualities. These are often associated with under-ripe wines and considered a flaw, but in Grüner, they are present at full ripeness. Andrew Myers, the sommelier of CityZen in Washington, DC, gave Grüner Veltliner unqualified praise. “It’s a great wine, and it’s incredibly versatile,” Myers noted. “There isn’t a vegetable that doesn’t love Grüner Veltliner. The really peppery Grüners can hold their own with meat dishes, and the big, loamy ones can handle seafood dishes with great aplomb.” There are currently 13 Grüner Veltliners on his CityZen wine list. Notoriously difficult to match foods like asparagus, artichokes, and bitter greens all bow down to Grüner.

Does wine taste funny with artichokes? According to Science Magazine, artichokes make everything taste funny, even water. cynarin and cholorogenic acid are the culprits, and Grüner doesn’t neutralize them, but it does taste just fine with that hint of sweet bitterness that they produce.

Interesting aside: Cynarin is chemically similar to another chemical called miraculin, produced by the Miracle Berry native to Latin America. Taking a Miracle Berry tablet ( is an LSD trip for your tongue - everything will taste sweet for a few hours. Red wine vinegar tastes like grape juice, goat cheese tastes like cheesecake, lemons taste like candy. I highly recommend gathering a table full of bitter things like coffee, popping a tab, and trying it once.

All cheese are not created equal
Fermentation is magic, and just as in fermented wine, cheese produces a dizzying array of chemicals with wildly different smell and taste sensations. To name just a few:
  • peptides and fatty acids that give goat cheese its sharp peppery flavor
  • methyl ketones that give blue cheese its distinctive tang
  • amino acids that provide umami savor including putrescine that tastes of gamey meat and trimethylamine (not the kind from Breaking Bad) that smells slightly fishy.
  • diacetyl that smells like buttered popcorn and a little floral and is found in barrel fermented Chardonnay
  • cyclotene and maltol which smell like toast and are also found in wine barrels
  • carotenoids that are found in all sorts of yellow, orange, and red foods but are also found in Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and many Rosés.
And lots of others. I recommend playing around with pairings, but also consider Max McCalman’s books, especially Mastering Cheese.  He’s a genius.

In very general terms, here is a guide:
  • Semi-firm and hard cheese pair well with Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Manzanilla Sherry, and Muscat
  • Cheese with bloomy rinds pairs well with Oaked Chardonnay, warm climate whites like Assyrtiko, and beer
  • Blue cheese goes well with fino sherry, dessert wines of all kinds, and Oaked Chardonnay

Monday, February 10, 2014

THC for wine tasters?

I am writing this when I should be working on one of my assignments from the Institute of Masters of Wine.  They send occasional tasting assignments that require us to write essays on a wine we are not actually tasting, but should be so intimately familiar with, we don't need to taste it again.  I lost my nerve at the high and the low end of the spectrum, having only rarely tasted $100 Premier Cru Puligny-Montrachet from 2010 and inexpensive mass production Aussie Chardonnay.  So I went and bought some and now am waiting for it to chill before tackling the assignment.

Sooo...I'm just cruising the internet and the news and I came upon this article from the Smithsonian that puts forth some theories on the munchies.  I don't smoke pot or anything else because it's bad for tasting and my health (and I know the studies on pot say its not bad but smoke in lungs causes cancer!).  BUT, this article posits that the munchies are caused by THC (the active ingredient in pot) via a binding process in the Olfactory Bulb in the brain that intensifies the ability of the nose to smell AND reduces the effect of olfactory habituation, a phenomena whereby you get used to smells and stop smelling them.


If there was a way to get this smelling advantage without reducing analytic abilities because I was high, I would try this.  I'll let the people with the lab rats work a while on thresholds and whatnot, but an MW student looks for every advantage!  Stay tuned and wish me luck on my assignment.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Catching Up

Happy New year to my eight dedicated readers of this blog!  This is a quick post to catch everyone up on my journey and a promise to post at least semi-frequently from this point forward.

I changed jobs and am now the manager of Out of Site Wines in Vienna, VA.  So I am no longer a chef and I am really enjoying both the challenges of learning the business and the increased work-life balance brough by no longer heading a kitchen.  I did apply, and have been accepted to study at the Institute of Masters of Wine.  The first seminar is in a week in Austria, and I am excited.  Meanwhile, I study and taste.  More to come!

Monday, July 23, 2012

A Penis Image Too Far?

Now folks, I am a fan of Moet Champagne and of Scarlett Johansson.  But I think that these adds might be edging too much from subconscious aspirational nudging to full on porn.  Your thoughts?

Friday, July 6, 2012

Biodynamic Book Report

I just finished an interesting read, Voodoo Vintners: Oregon's Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers, by Katherine Cole.  Biodynamic winemaking, sorry, grape growing,  is very trendy nowadays and quite controversial as many of its practices seem wierd and silly.  Cole's treatment is admirably open minded and I recommend it to anyone interested in just what the fuss is all about.

The practice, in my opinion, breaks down into two parts.  The first half is all about refusing chemical and biological fertilizers and insecticides while embracing older and more traditional methods of vineyard management.  An example of this is using natural compost as fertilizer.  Another really cool one is to keep an area near the vineyard as an "insectary" where one can see what is being attracted to the area and what they are eating.  Then one can plant cover crops they will like more than grapes, or encourage predators like bats and owls to control population growth.  Creating and working with an ecosystem rather than trying to destroy everything that isn't your crop is a solid idea that many have latched onto without embracing the more idiosyncratic ideas of biodynamics.

Healthy soils are the key here, and that makes sense.  However, the idea goes against lost of conventional wisdom that vines need poor soils to produce really great grapes.  If the vines struggle to survive, the saying goes, they will put more energy into grapes and less into producing wood and leaves.  This is where a focus on Oregon and Pinot Noir is perhaps a failing of Cole's book.  Pinot vines are naturally low in vigor, that is they tend not to produce much wood.  If one were to look at Angelo Gaja's vines in Barolo, by contrast, the case for biodynamics looks pretty thin.  The Nebbiolo vines that make up his $300 wines grow like weeds and he has to keep the soil in a constant state of nitrogen deficit just to control them!  Also, Oregon Pinot vineyards tend to be grown on thin soil hillsides that were once pine forest or hazelnut orchard, rather than say, the rich benchlands of the Napa Valley floor.  Where the soil is already good, composting and fertilizing is just silly.  Some great estates of Bordeaux, for example, spread manure once only every 14 years.

The second part of the book is a fun look at the crazy parts of biodynamics.  It's father, Rudy Steiner, was a mystic who believed in gnomes and spirits, among other things.  One important part of his teachings was based on homeopathy, where 
The low concentrations of homeopathic remedies, often lacking even a single molecule of the diluted substance, lead to an objection that has dogged homeopathy since the 19th century: how, then, can the substance have any effect? Modern advocates of homeopathy have suggested that "water has a memory"—that during mixing and succussion, the substance leaves an enduring effect on the water, perhaps a "vibration", and this produces an effect on the patient.  source: wiki.
So this is where Biodynamics takes a decidedly crystal-humming tone.  They mix homeopathic preps in tubs that are shaped like a pregnant woman's belly and erect sculpture-looking things to channel energy and who know, attract gnomes?  Drive gnomes away?

Does it produce a great grape?  Sometimes these wines are better than others in their class.  I've sure tasted some awesome biodynamic wines, and in my personal opinion that can be attributed to close management of ecosystems rather than mystics.  It's sauce for the recipe, that's for sure, and a fun read.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Lumos Wine Company

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to talk with Dai Crisp, owner of Lumos Wine Company.  Lumos is a relative newcomer to the winemaking scene in Oregon's Willamette Valley, but is making some excellent Pinot Gris, Gewurtz, and Pinot Noir.  Mr. Crisp formerly worked at Temperance Hill and Croft.  They have a small estate vineyard (Wren), but continue to source a lot of their fruit from Temperance Hill.

It was kind of a random meeting, I just happened to be in the restaurant when he and the wholesaler stopped by to chat up our sommelier.  But he was a very engaging guy, a real geek of the kind I get along with very well.  We talked pinot mutations, valve and propeller pumps that won't oxidize grape must, what happens to vineyards if the winter is too mild - serious geek.

The wines were pretty good too.  His base level 2008 pinot was rich and elegant at the same time, and I didn't hate either of his Pinot Gris selections, one done all in tank and another with some neutral oak treatment.  I mention the Pinot Gris thing...I don't hate it, but I haven't had much that was noteworthy.  Ever.  If I had the choice, I would just as soon pick another Alsace variety in most cases.  Stay tuned, however, I am planning a big tasting to retrain my palate on the issue.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sucking up to my teacher

About a month ago, I was privileged to be a judge at the Virginia Governor's Cup wine competition.  Now that the winners have been announced, I wanted to take a post to describe the tasting sheet we used.  It was designed by Jay Youmans, MW, my teacher for the WSET Diploma process.  At the risk of being a suckup, I liked it.

Tasting wine in a competition process is unique and very different from tasting in your living room, or even blind tasting under test conditions.  You have six wines in front of you that are probably the same grape, same region, and same vintage.  The basic taste is the same, for example, all merlot.  The tasting sheet doesn't ask to spend time going back and forth between a black raspberry and a blackberry descriptor.  It says, "yes, it's black fruit, let's move on."  The sheet is not about recognizing a wine, but evaluating it.  Are the flavors ripe?  What are the qualities of the tannins?  How much color got extracted?  We are expected to judge each wine individually, but when you are done, you get a really excellent look at what was possible with that bunch of fruit, and how close each individual winemaker got to that Platonic ideal.

So I encourage everyone to try this technique as a way to really jump forward in your trasting.  Get a bunch of wines, at least 6, from the same place and vintage.  Try to vary your purchases by price point, if you can. Have somebody else bag them and be critical!