July 1, 2022 | Julius Orth
Pretty much everyone is familiar with one of the most generic generalizations about wine & food pairing.... "red wines go with meat, white wines go with fish". In the very broadest of brush strokes there is a little validity to this concept, but there is so much more to consider here. So let's delve a little deeper here, and hopefully offer some insight into this equation.
First and foremost, let me step out and state that there are no wrong decisions here. There are however better ones. When it comes to food & wine pairings there are basically three specific objectives.
1. Drinking your preferred wine and eating your preferred food side by side without seeking either to enhance the other.
2. Pairing wines with foods where there is a palate cleansing effect that heightens the individual component appreciation.
3. Pairing specific wines & foods to create a complementary harmony that transcends the sum of its parts.
Let us address each of these in turn, and offer some "opinion" on each approach. The first is the easiest and perhaps the most straightforward to accomplish, yet it creates a level of hesitancy where there really should be none. On any given day, we may develop a craving for a specific wine, or a specific food or both. When presented with a magnificent bottle of 2017 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon it can be hard to resist. Yet on the menu that night is Cumin Crusted Grouper served over a roasted vegetable medley topped with a Picante Mango Salsa and finished with a drizzle of Annato Oil.
On the face of it, there is nothing complementary about these wine and food selections. The flavor profiles do not offer any harmonies that will provide enhancement of one another. So what? If this is what is on the table, there is still immense pleasure on the menu. This is the occasion where we compartmentalize our pleasures, to immerse ourselves in the enjoyment of the individual components separately. So take a couple of bites of the grouper, and let the bright, tropical elements invigorate your palate with brisk clean flavors, savor them for a minute or two as the carnival slowly subsides.
Now, take a moment to enoy the rich, riparian brambly berry aromas of the wine. Swirl the wine in the glass and breathe in the esthers again and delight in the richness of the wine. Now take your first mouthwatering sip. The colorful mosaic of flavors will dance across your palate, and a caleidoscope of flavor sparks will emanate across every corner of your palate, blackberry, raspberry, cassis, wild strawberry all embraced in a luxurious blanket of cocoa tannin that grips your taste buds and keeps the opulent flavors lingering on and on. Enjoy the moment as the brazen textures slowly dissipate leaving you with a satisfied smile.
Now go back for another bite of the tropical grouper....... and here we go again. Now you are experiencing two quite disparate sensations, each yielding immense pleasure yet quite unrelated. Embrace each as its own, unique, pleasurable expreience. Enjoying two very different things at the same time, side by side.
OK..... we have overcome the hesitancy with non pairing enjoyment of food and wine. Now let us move to level 2 where we are pairing wine & food with the specific goal of refreshing the palate to enhance enjoyment. In some ways this is a version of the side by side experience, but with the important difference of having a food and wine that would not clash as they cross paths.
For our exaple here we will use a pairing that is often overlooked yet is immenseley pleasurable. Let us take a trip to the exotic with a savory Indian Madras Chicken Curry served with a fragrant pilau rice and tandoori naan bread. As a partner for this adventure, let us pair a bone dry Russian River Gewurtztraminer, well chilled and ready to serve.
Indian food is a vibrant, colorful combination of flavors and spices that invigorates the senses. The complex array of ingredients in the sauces and seasonings is a technicolor experience that is unique and intoxicating. The Madras curry is a medium spicy version will bring a blush to your cheek, a gentle glow will emanate from the spicy melange. The aromas will explode and take over your airways upon arrival. The first bite is a starburst of flavor concentration that grips every part of your palate and brings it to light. As you savor the moment a pulsating glow will ebb and flow gripping your tastebuds and refusing to let go, lingering on and on.
Now raise the glass of Gewurtztraminer and marvel at the perfumed fragrance of stone fruits, apricot, mango, mandarin orange and rose petal. The soothing effect is immediate, and all of a sudden the senses are transported to another realm. Now take your first refreshing sip. The chilled nectar instantly soothes the palate, tames the tantrum it just replaced, and the endorphin rush of the spices just dispelled by the cool mouthwatering acidity and brightness of mandarin apricot highlights each of the stone fruit flavors and paints a colorful canvas that is awash with a perception of sweetness that is really not there. Your palate is refreshed.
The juxtaposition is so pronounced that it is hard to decide which way to sway next. As you alternate between the savory spices and the crisp fruit essences the vigorous ballet that ensues keeps the senses engaged from the first bite to the last sip. Two palate pleasing sensations, a pendulum of pleasure where it seems like each would be lessened with the others absence. Flavor displacement at its most sublime.
And now.... the holy grail of food pairing, the tastebud tango, the palate paso doble, the sensory swing. This is where the the science of ingredients and complex chemistry of flavor interactions is married with the artistry of the culinary expreience to create sentations that emerge greater than the sum of their parts. Where harmonies and crescendo's are woven into a complex tapestry of sensory pleasure that is a consumable nirvana.
This is a multi faceted creation that is as much about directing as it is about performance. There is an art to experiencing flavor that is a learned experience more than it is a natural ability. Being able to create the perfect pairing is one thing, being able to convey that vision is a curated experience beyond just the food and the wine. With the right guide, this is an unparalleled culinary adventure that memories are made of.
Creating this exerience is best embarked upon by first selecting the wine, as this is already a completed portion of the equation. Our 2019 Estate "Mount Eden Clone" Pinot Noir is a more robust take on Pinot Noir, lithe and luscious yet with elegant heft and substance, focused and precise. Deeper in color, richer in aroma and more concentrated on the palate, Crimson Passion Cherry, pomegranate and Thundercloud Plum flecked with sparks of Red Delicious apple and Crimson Queen cranberry in a Spanish Cedar chest, with supple tannins as smooth as satin sheets. On its own, a veritable Mosaic of flavors that cascades across the palate, each sip revealing a kaleidoscope of flavor.
Now for your culinary pleasure I present an Herb Crusted Rack of Lamb, topped with a blue cheese compound butter and served with a forest mushroom medley and buttermilk mashed potatoes. There is a complexity to this dish with an array of herbal elements, gaminess, earthiness, buttery richness, tanginess, and yet a harmony among the elements. Each element of the dish pleases the palate with focused flavors, construct two elements into one bite and they interact beautifully, each additional element paints a new picture of sensory accomplishment. The meal on its own is a feast for the senses that touches every tastebud and makes it sing, each food element evoking a seasoned memory from the past.
Now invite the wine to interact with the dish. The base aromatics cross boundaries as the earth tones of the mushrooms are accentuated by the forest florals of the wine, the gaminess of the lamb slathered with rich berry notes, the charred elements brushed with cedar, the melange of herbs hinting at herbal undertones in the wine, even the cracked pepper becomes amplified by the alcohol of the wine. If you focus, and seek out the various elements and allow them to interact, there is a multitude of sensations as the lamb alone with the wine creates one flavor, the lamb with the compound butter on the surface with the wine a different sensation, the mushrooms and the wine, a new flavor. Seek out and sample every combination, and as you do immerse yourself in the sensations created. Truly a feast for the senses.
Magnificent food and wine pairing need not be exceedingly complex. Picture yourself with a friend on the banks of the Seine river in Paris, Notre Dame Cathedral a majestic backdrop. In your picnic basket a bottle of 2018 Ektimo Russian River Chardonnay, a crunchy freshly baked french baguette, Échiré Doux Butter, and Maldon Sea salt. Pour a glass of the Chardonnay and raise a glass to the good life. Clink. The Crisp apples & pears burst forth first, a tiny hint of vanilla on the mid palate, a flinty minerality engages in swordplay with a touch of richness with dry winning the battle but richness lingering on the finish and beckoning another sip. Split the baguette lengthwise, slather the butter generously across the length, and just a light sprinkling of the salt for flavor sparks. The Chardonnay/Baguette experience is profoundly engaging, yet unassuming enough to allow your surroundings to complete the experience. C'est magnifique !
So.... the bottom line is, the food & wine experience is as simple or as complex as you choose to make it, and the enjoyment is only limited by your imagination.