Wine Pairing 101 (aka: Wines from the ‘Hood)
I’m honored to have the opportunity to fill in for Jason with a blog post while he’s off running around Spain and Portugal, tasting a plethora off food & wine. He’d just better remember to bring us all back some great tasting notes, so we can live vicariously.
For the last nine years, I’ve spent at least part of my week recommending and answering wine queries for a large California-based “specialty beverage” retailer. As such, some of the most common questions I get are on the topic of food and wine pairing. The “golden rule” of food and wine pairing – serve white wines with chicken and fish; reds for beef or pork – has been perpetuated for so long that most people are afraid to explore outside its limiting boundaries.
Now I confess that pairing food and wine pairing is one of my favorite pastimes. I used to get a little thrill when a friend would text me with a desperate plea for help as they stood bewildered in some wine aisle. Then it escalated. First it was debating the optimum wine for a dish with friends, but soon we were planning entire menus around the wines. Currently, we enjoy challenging on another with highly nuanced dishes, which usually results in some super-specific or esoteric wine match. But is this spiral into wine-geekdom isn’t for everyone and certainly isn’t practical for the nightly meal. There had to be some rule of thumb to make food and wine pairing easier for every day enjoyment.
And then it struck me. In most countries, people have been enjoying wine with their meals for hundreds of years. Would it not then stand to reason that the foods and wines indigenous to a region might be a natural match? In the ultimate illustration of eating only that which is locally grown, it only makes sense that early vintners would cultivate varietals that both thrived and complimented the area’s cuisine. And conversely, that its culinary specialties reflect the ingredients readily available and the region’s wines.
To put this theory to the test, one only need look at the wines of Southern Rhone. Imagine the region’s reds – blends of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Carignan and Cinsault from Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Cotes du Rhone – paired with a comforting Coq au vin. Consider Southern Rhone’s white varietals – Marsanne, Roussanne and Picpoul, or stunning dry Rose’ from Taval, paired with the distinctive Provencal seafood faire.
For further illustration, we could look at traditional Tuscan wines: the acidic and firm Sangiovese of Chianti paired with tomato bruschetta, bean soup, cured meats, rustic bread and olive oil; the softer, smaller berried Sangiovese of Brunello di Montalcino married with Bistecca alla Florentina; or a crisp and refreshing Malvasia Bianca or Trebbiano with deep fried artichokes, squash, zucchini flowers and sage.
The examples are numerous: the paella of Valencia paired with Alicante (Grenache) or an aromatic Albarino; a vibrant, full-bodied Tempranillo paired with Gazpacho or Chorizo; Beef Empanadas – or any grilled beef for that matter – paired with a plum-y, sweet-earth Malbec; Salmon Grutense or mussel stew paired with a fresh Torrontes.
But does this local pairing practice work even if you aren’t globetrotting? Oregon is known for their signature salmon dishes. Just try pairing one with a terrior-filled Oregon Pinot Noir, a complex mineral-y Pinot Gris or aromatic Pinot Blanc. The light berry-fullness and cotton-candy nose of Minnesota’s indigenous Frontenac grape compliments entrees of regional game such as venison or pheasant. Regional cuisine distinctions may not be quite as well defined here in the US, given our accessibility to ingredients from all over the world, but the basic guidelines still apply.
I could go on, but I’m making myself hungry. The point is there IS a general rule that makes wine pairing more accessible. Simply consider the origin of the food being served and seek out wines native to or in the style of that same region. Certainly spice or side-dish nuances come into play if you wish to get detailed but, in general, foods like wines from their own “neighborhood” so to speak. So the next time you’re wondering which wine to pair with tonight’s dinner, consider the source.
Elizabeth Olson is a wine specialist for Beverages & More. When not pouring and recommending wines, or throwing down pairing challenges to her friends, she spends her time as a marketing & PR consultant. She can be found on Twitter @EbethO.