Combining Food and Wine: Basic Guidelines

wine & food guidelinesBy Lily McCann

Food and drink articles and programs often stress the importance of combining food with the right type of wines. There can sometimes be an element of snobbery attached to this subject.  At the end of the day, enjoying food and wine is a subjective experience and people can try and enjoy any combination that suits them.  That said, understanding the basic principles of matching food and wine may help you find some combinations you really enjoy.

Staying local
Traditional advice is to combine regional wines with authentic local dishes and this is a wisdom that rarely fails. Claret or Rioja with roasted lamb, or Muscadet with fresh shell-fish are classic combinations and their success outlines some of the principles that can guide the best pairings of food and wine.

Balancing food and wine
Ensuring that food and wine have a similar weight or presence is often advised. Delicate dishes go better with lighter wines while rich foods fare better with something bigger. This is where the age-old ideas of matching fish with white wine and red meats with red wines come from. Chicken and pork will usually work with both, depending on the sauce they are cooked in. Of course these rules are there to be broken – fish can be enjoyed with red wine but ideally a wine low in tannin and high in acid such as Pinot Noir, Sangiovese or Bardolino, and even then, the pairing is best when the fish is rich in oil and flavor.  Cooking the fish with tomato and olive also strengthens the flavor bridge to these red wines.

Acidity 
Crisp, unoaked white wines are generally seen as a good accompaniment to shellfish and fish dishes. This is even truer with fish served with a wedge of lemon because the citric acid in the lemon increases the acidity in the dish. And a good rule of thumb with wine and food parings is to match acidic dishes with acidic wines.  Wines with marked acidity include dry Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc or other white wines from oceanic growing regions.  Oh, and preferably unoaked wines – oak flavors fight with the briny flavors of these fish and seafoods.

One other thing to keep in mind, two of the most overlooked and food-friendly wines on the market are dry Rosès and Sparkling wines.  Both contain enough acidity to refresh your palate between bites, and enough body to complement your food.

Red wine and meat
Many red wines are loaded with tannins that leave the palate dry and almost gritty.  They also overpower the flavor of many foods. Choosing foods that provide a protein or cream barrier are ways to compliment this trait. Tannin wants to latch onto the nearest available protein and if nothing else is available, gums and teeth will do! Occupying the tannin with the fat molecules from a good steak or rare cooked lamb will mop up the tannin in a young Claret or Cabernet, giving a softer and sweeter edge to the wine.

Soft, creamy cheeses can perform a similar task, providing a coat of fat and protein on the palate. Conversely, hard cheeses are less efficient at doing this, and tend not to pair as well with tannic red wines. A diet of red meat, red wine and soft cheese may not be the healthiest way to eat every day, but there are plenty of healthy living blogs such as those highlighted by KwikMed that will provide a range of lower fat recipes using these foods that can be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet.

For other meats such as chicken and pork which are well cooked in roasts or casseroles, try rich white wines or livelier, fruitier red wines with softer tannins.

Fusion foods
Fusion foods are arguably responsible for the breakdown in the traditional food and wine partnerships. The inventive combinations of flavors and ingredients from different parts of the world can leave wine drinkers wondering where to start. The only way to work out the best wine for a fusion dish is to look at what it contains in the way of acidity, sweetness, protein and heat and go from there. Spicier dishes are best combined with off-dry and unoaked white wines and sometimes pair well with softer red wines. If a dish has a lot of sweetness to it, try and find a wine with even greater sweetness. It’s a difficult task and even the best food and wine experts can struggle to match complex fusion dishes with a suitable wine.

Enjoy it!
As stated above, the most important thing is always to enjoy your food and wine however you choose to combine them. Even if you make a particular effort to match food and wine you will still probably get it wrong on occasions. Try and keep a note of combinations that have worked well for you and understand why the worked. If you can build up a good repertoire of food and drink combinations that you enjoy, you can return to them whenever you like.  Or you can choose to branch out and be a bit more adventurous.  Who knows? as Dave the Wine Merchant says in his tagline, you might just “Discover your next favorite!”

Highlights from Taste of the Bay 2013

2013 Taste of the Bay

Sending congratulations to the student organizers of last night’s ‘Taste of the Bay’ event in the Julia Morgan ballroom.  There are many charity fund-raising events you can attend in San Francisco.  I’ve been to many.  But this is the only one I know of where the organizers are full-time students in SFSU’s Hospitality Management track.  Many of them also hold part-time jobs in addition – oh to have that resilience and energy once again.

Dessert Table - 2013 Taste of the BayThe food options were more than ample, and most of the samples offered fell somewhere between ‘excellent’ and ‘outstanding’.  To compliment the food offerings the student organizers recruited a handful of breweries (of course, the community-oriented Lagunitas Brewery was pouring!) and about a dozen Wineries, pouring 2-5 wines each.  

It took some work and much jostling but I managed to taste all the wines.  My favorites were the Chardonnays and/or Pinots from Thomas George (formerly the Davis Bynum property), Hook & Ladder, and Moshin, as well as the ’08 Cabernet from Xurus (pronounced Hoo Roos) from Lake County.

Special kudos to the entrepreneurs behind “Spicy Vines” – wines infused with spices without using heat to steep the spices (which makes so many mulled wines bitter, hence the need for sweeteners).  I laud their risky venture inspired by the traditional winter wines found in many Old World wine regions – it’s the traditional drink that greets vineyard workers after a cold morning of pruning vines.  Spicy Vines offers fun, unique wines you can serve warmed or at room temperature.  I encourage you to try them here.

Winemaker Bryan Harrington, Dr. Kathy O'Donnell, SFSU
Winemaker Bryan Harrington, Dr. Kathy O’Donnell, SFSU

Though not pouring at the event, I enjoyed learning about the no-sulfite techniques being employed by Bryan Harrington for his “Terrane” line of wines.  He uses chilled CO2 to extract the natural oxygen-inhibiting properties of grape seeds in place of the more commonly applied SO2.  I’ll be stopping by his facility on Custer Ave soon, and will report on the highlights.  Bryan’s eponymous ‘Harrington Wines’, one of San Francisco’s urban wineries, features a couple dozen obscure Cal-Ital wines, each crafted in very limited quantities.

Dr. Colin Johnson, Chair of SFSU Hospitality & Travel Mgmt Program
Dr. Colin Johnson, Chair of SFSU Hospitality & Travel Mgmt Program

I encourage you to attend next year’s event, or to sponsor a table if you’re in the hospitality industry, to help support this most worthy cause.

Cheers!

Dave “The Wine Merchant”

Disclaimer.  For the past six years, I have been a regular guest lecturer for SFSU on the “History of California Wines” and “Deductive Tasting Techniques”.

Trend Spotting – Food & Wine News

Click for wine club info
Click for wine club info

Lots of interesting things popping up in the headlines this last week…

Alice Waters of Chez Panisse
Alice Waters of Chez Panisse

 

Alice Waters Pioneers New Compensation System– Alice Waters, a powerful food advocate and founder of the iconic restaurant Chez Panisse, was interviewed on 60 Minutes a week ago Sunday. Her comments were picked up by US News & World Report. Seems she’s abolished tipping, at least in its traditional form, at her stalwart restaurant Chez Panisse. A guest’s voluntary tip has been replaced with a flat 17% service charge (more can be left if desired) which is split amongst the front and back of house (FOH/BOH) to create better parity. Alice indicated the discrepancy between FOH and BOH pay scales was affecting the quality of her custoemrs dining experience. This story became #5 on Google searches for the past week…

California Teaches French Students About Wine – Wine marketing, that is.  The Napa Valley Register reports a group of Masters students from the famed French University of Burgundy in Dijon studied Napan’s marketing techniques for a week. They are taking home the word that Napa Winery’s are “la Bomba!” when it comes to wooing customers.  I envision a group of Galoise chain smokers learning how to Twitter, create Facebook groups, and send email invitations for exclusive subscriber events…

Ultra Violet Man to the Rescue! – No, it’s not a character from Bay to Breakers, San Francisco’s costume/alcohol extravaganza and foot race. It’s this week’s S.F. Chronicle (long may it live) report that wineries are turning to ultra violet light waves to destroy the microbes once killed by the Winemaker’s addition of sulfites. Why do we care? Because sulfites are what cause some of our bodies to create histamines, and histamines create headaches in those with allergies. Another solution? Age your wine until the free SO2 is absorbed. But for the 98% of wine drinkers who prefer more immediate gratification…

Robot Pruner at work
Robot Pruner at work

 Robots To Save The Wine Industry? – Wine growers rely on immigrant labor to harvest grapes and prune vines. American workers are no longer adept at such tasks, or able to live here on the wages winegrowers can pay. Now tightening labor laws have created a short supply of this important imported labor force. Not wanting to be caught with ripe grapes and no pickers, winegrowers have been testing the waters of automated harvesters for some time. I expect more will make the jump each year. And this week Wines and Vines reports that a robotic vine pruner may replace human laborers for that most tedious of carpal tunnel tasks. Introduced in 2007, the only hurdle remaining for the innovator of this robotic system is about $2.5 million for development and testing. Want a piece of the action? The company is looking for partners to ante up $125K each…

Good times about to happen...
Good times about to happen...

Cheers!
Dave the Wine Merchant
Dave@SidewaysWineClub.com