Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Food and Wine Pairing 101

Here at the Flying Otter Vineyard and Winery we are all about food and wine pairing. Our mantra is "Wine is sunshine in a bottle, meant to be enjoyed with family and friends, food and music". So let's talk a little about enjoying wine with food.

The vast majority of people who drink wine in the US are new wine drinkers, who prefer sweet, fruity wines. That's OK. I'll admit that boxed white zinfandel in the fridge is how I first started drinking wine with meals. It's a style that's more approachable than the dry, acidic, or tannic wines. However, it's the dry, acidic, and tannic wines that make the best food wines, and this is a style that I would like to see more people learn to appreciate. Just as many people grow-out of drinking Light Beer and Kool-Aid, many wine drinkers start to move toward drier and more bitter-tasting (tannic) wines over time. So, many of those "new" wine drinkers who prefer sweet wines now, may prefer a drier style down the road.

The majority of Americans don't sit down to dinner with a glass of wine (although, I do). Whether it's sitting down to delivery pizza or a meal prepared with some love and effort, for most of us, eating is a time to relax. It's the one time of day where we can be alone with our thoughts, or be joined by friends and family. When we have a good dining experience it tends to be a memorable experience - even if it's simply pizza with friends. For many people, wine is associated with fancy dinners or special occasions (anniversaries, weddings, holidays...). Shouldn't wine be a part of everyday occasions?

For many people, the idea of pairing food with wine is daunting. They think they need special training, or that they aren't that sophisticated. The fact is, most people already have had experience with good food and beverage pairings their whole lives. It doesn't take a sophisticated palate to experience the pleasure of warm cookies with a glass of cold milk, or perhaps the satisfaction of warm, salty pretzels and a cold beer. We all know that something tart and acidic like lemonade tastes awful with cookies, or that something syrupy sweet isn't right alongside a grilled steak. If wine is thought of as more a condiment or seasoning, then it makes wine and food pairing less daunting. Imagine squeezing a lemon, or pouring vinegar over fried fish. Now think of drinking a nice dry, acidic white wine with that same piece of fish. See, easy!

That's not to say that sweet wines don't pair well with food. It's just that it can be more difficult to find a wine with the right kind of sweetness to balance-out the meal. For example, if you're serving something savory (like pork), apple sauce or a baked apple is a traditional accompaniment, i.e. a food pairing. A wine that has the same level of sweetness as the apples could be a good compliment (say, an off-dry St. Pepin, or why not an off-dry apple wine). If, however, you pair something that is much sweeter, the balance is thrown off. You have the wine competing with the food rather than complimenting it. Slightly sweet wines can also help tame the heat in spicy foods (like Thai or Indian dishes), but go too sweet and the wine will overpower the food. However, when serving a sweet wine with dessert, you want the wine to be as sweet or even sweeter than the dessert. For example, dark chocolate with a very sweet raspberry dessert wine, or cheese cake using a cherry dessert wine as the topping.

One of my very favorite food and wine pairings is a creamy Gorgonzola cheese with a nice dry red wine. Spread a little creamy Gorgonzola and a crisp, fresh baguette and try it combined with a French Cote Du Rhone or a Michigan Marquette. They taste great together, better than each tastes separately.

The best way to learn what works with a particular wine is to try a food and wine together, experiment. Remember that a great food and wine pairing makes the the whole greater than the sum of the parts. In other words, cheese cake tastes good, raspberry dessert wine tastes good, but together they taste great!. And another thing, your mother may have taught you to swallow your food before you take a drink. Unfortunately, this is not the optimum way to enjoy a wine and food pairing. Don't be afraid to try a little of both at the same time. Let the food and wine mingle in your mouth. Are they better together than each alone? If so, you have a great wine and food pairing.