when wine meets food
Ok, I know there are a million topics to cover on our blog, in connection to the use of thewinearray, that I should be getting to first, but I am super excited to delve into a very daunting topic. I promise I will get back to the more general issues immediately. Right this instant though, I am simply too excited not to at least share a recent experience. I am talking about the impossible to conceptualize pairing of food and wine.
It is tricky thing, bringing together the good glass and a tasty plate of food (both individually delicious) in a way that elevates the two into a singular, amazing tastebud-beguiling moment. It can be something to remark on, a conversation starter and certainly a memory that can cause addiction. When it is done well, that is. I will be the first to admit, even as a wine pro, this is not an easy exercise. Many Somms are not as skilled as they are hopeful. Generally they are juggling the simultaneous offering of many dishes, so they cannot nail a perfect combo so frequently as easily as finding a pleasant wine to suit several dishes at once. And sadly, as the consumer, there is little in the way of learning directly off the shelves. The old, white wine with fish adage doesn’t move us past the mundane and flowery back labels are even more vague. The only recourse is asking the clerk, who may not have tasted every wine in the shop, let alone have the same mental picture of the dish you are eagerly preparing for dinner. So, with the scarcity of the occurrence and the lack of how-to examples, how do we learn how to pair well? How do we conquer the impossible? Ta-da! I think thewinearray system has it. It can help reign in the abstract, focus some thoughts while keeping the options open for your specific sensitivities. I say this based on an amazing dinner I was part of a few nights ago.
I was invited to play guest sommelier at the Plukemin Inn (in NJ), for a meal presented by chef Andrew Lattazino and Sommelier Brian Hider, to highlight the wines from Darioush winery. I know the wines well. They are fantastic examples of bundled Californian sunshine in refined forms of elegant intensity. Big, bold and dynamic. The menu sounded equally deep and luxurious. I had nothing to do with the pairings myself however, yet I was blown away by the smart partnership. Had the chef tasted the wines before divining the menu, or had he and Brian communed in some otherworldly sensory communication, I did not confirm, but they nailed, not just one paring, but the entire dinner.
As I was delighted to explain to the attendees of the meal, it could have all gone unnoticed since the cuisine and the wines had equal comforting, sultry appeal. It was easy enough to relax into some good dinner conversation and simply nod to how delicious it all was. With a small perspective change however, a bit of intentional focus sparked a new light on the subject and the dinner became something entirely stimulating. I could see the realization in the smiles widening around the room as everyone recognized the way the pairing was a match in texture and in spirit, not so simply about color and flavor. The trick was identifying the unique balance of the dish and seeing its reflection in the wine (ultimately a vice-versa scenario!). Once everyone understood the intent of the dish, its construction, and the harmony that made it successful, they could immediately see the mirrored reflection in the wine’s makeup. This fusion, or equal balance lets call it, removed what could have been distracting or even agitating notes that would block a full experience of taste. With no interference, in fact with harmonic resonance, the mingling on the palate lasted noticeably long minutes, making each bite an exploration, not simply mastication. It was as if we could have made an array for each dish, we could have seen that the wine was set on some of the same dials.
So if this is the trick, then lets do it. Allow me to run through this amazing dinner and create the example of array matching as the effective means of analyzing the pairing construct. We can use the same dimensions here although I am not endorsing the limiting of the entire palate to these when it comes to cooking. That would be a sin of nature and an insult to every chef alive or dead. But since we hone the wine experience down to 5 true elements with thewinearray (remember all wines have these 5 components), lets see how they align. Please note: the wines from Darioush are not yet arrayed for the website cellar, so these are preliminary assessments of any array yet to come. But the time spent with these wines for my initial judgement could certainly be adequate to prove the connections.
The first course: Sweet corn bisque with ravioli loaded with Maine crab and fine herbs. It was paired kindly with the Carneros Chardonnay. The most obvious match was the BODY of both the wine and the dish. There was richness aplenty in the butter laden sauce. No worries there. In fact, the summer sweet flavor of the corn matched the FRUIT in the wine too. But what made the highlight reel was the dry and crisp finish of the chard that brought out the clear, unadulterated minerals of sea in the crab! Clean, clear, precise…Outstanding! The finale being so dry and fine allowed the fat to fall away and the divine undertone to have the last say. I would give the wine and dish then a read of: 2 fruit- 3 body – 1 sugar with only the acidity (easily a 3) of the wine striking a high note to clear the finish. What I could then explain was how the Carmeros region hovers on the edge of the Pacific, with sea-like brine and marine mineral influence ringing in the wines, an echo clearly picked up when the palate has room the taste it. The balance in the build of the plate made it so obvious and the flavor unavoidable. What a great moment of realization?
Course two: Crispy Pork Belly with peach marmalade and almonds. It was paired with a succulent Viognier, soft spoken and fruity. Again the textures made the case and the flavors then came along, hand-in-hand. The viognier had an alluring summer fruit feel, like mashing a full sticky peach into your mouth, with a high, brilliant acidity like a great tree-peach should. It was rich and coating, while exotic, floral, deep and bright. This dynamic tension, say with a 3 fruit- 3 body and 3 acidity, void of any tannin and a lingering 2 sugar was exactly the dish. The soft mash of the marmalade (despite tasting exactly like the wine) was the perfect sweet glaze to the crunch of skin and crackling bite of the almonds, perfect with the salt of it all. There was a similar play of hard and soft, brittle and swathe, cushion and crunch, that made this fun and delicious. Again, a perfect texture paring and a stunning co-mingling of flavors.
The third pairing: A braised veal cheek set atop a cushion of Tomato Risotto with walnuts with a glass of the Darioush Merlot. This was the same experience in liquid and solid states. There was a melt away texture that had someone remark that this was a Barry White type of dish, a low-sung “Ohhhh-Yeaaahhh…” expression from the kitchen. That should help describe the soft, easy nature of the two. They were super mellow and invitingly rich and flavorful (so assigning the 3 fruit- 3 body would make sense) but the amazing foresight of walnuts and almonds in the recipe, matched the mild (2) tannins and lurking (2) acidity. What was overshadowed by the fullness of the wine, became elemental and physically obvious on the plate. Walnuts are tannic, Tomatoes are acidic, but in a well balanced creation, it all melds into one seamless, expression. It was as if the components felt in the wine took the physical form on the plate, confirming them with each bite individually. To make the wine and the food that similar is my exciting revelation here!
I will keep the last course simple, as it was a dense, concentrated beef short rib accompanied by woodsy mushrooms in sauce. The Cabernet poured with it had the same strength, firm muscle and stance and core of flavor. Cabernet can be easily described as fruity until an earthen flavor like mushroom brings out its connection to the vine. Something more vinous comes forth adding dimension and giving sense to the tannins. So again, the flavors become harmonious because the feel of the food and the wine are so inline, there is a focused intensity delivered straight across the palate. This one was more straight forward, with less gracious pleasure (a bit more serious) but it worked well as a final note. The components of 3 fruit – 3/4 body and 3 tannin all register easily here.
Overall, food comes to life with wine. Wine is often said to be made with food in mind. In all honesty though, they are made separately, with different genius displaying the art of their crafts. The chef and wine maker try to work with their ingredients to create balance. The take away is understanding the complete balance of both. When the shape, feel and intensity of the two match, then it can seem like they were made for each other. It is when the flavors truly light up. When the two clash, when the cacophony rattles the palate, then just thirst quenching occurs. No magic comes from the mix. One might say the goal of a good pairing is to cleanse the palate. I think it should paint it with new vision of the layers and complexity beyond the obvious. Otherwise, it is just drinking good wine down and its own sophistication suffers.
The obtainable pleasure is plain sight if we give it a moment of attention. This dinner sparked a new reflection on this for me. A chef intentionally constructs a dish to balance, so there is an array there somehow. When you next plot food and wine, maybe seeing an array in the recipe can work. Looking at the highs and lows and their symmetries will work wondrously. If you feel confident in the recipe of your dish, the wine will follow your lead! It confirms my intent of what we go through to make wine more accessible. Know thy parts and then enjoy the entire wine…and this time the food too.
Thanks and hats off to both Chef Andrew and WIne man Brian. Thanks to Darioush for an eye-opening combo.
Please, let me know if this helps anyone out there! Bon apetit!