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.

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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

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