Monday, December 19, 2011
I'm a self proclaimed wine snob and proud of it. It has aided me not only in developing my skills as a chef but was the only reason I landed a job as a server at the Four Seasons in Newport Beach. Only my second job out ever waiting tables and let's just say my hubby who had waited tables for decades had never gotten an opportuntity like it in a fine dining establishment so he was a little miffed. But I digress. Wine isn't meant to be gulped. It isn't meant to be abused. It is meant to be sipped and enjoyed. Savored alone or as a complement with food. For me it rounds out a meal completely and is one of the true joys of life. I didn't start drinking wine until I was in my mid-20's. I began as most do with sweet wines. White zins, roses, rieslings, gewurtztraminers. Then I moved on to drier whites like chardonnays, sauvignon blancs and pinot grigios. It took me a while to make the leap to reds but once I did, let's just say there was no going back. The bolder and drier, the better. I'm particularly fond of Pinot Noirs, especially those from Oregon and Washington, Malbecs, Red Zinfandels, some Cabernet Sauvignons that aren't overly tannic and a variety of Meritages or blends that tend to be multi-faceted and very drinkable. As far as the rules go in terms of pairing wines with food, the general rule of thumb is whites with poultry and fish, reds with beef, lamb or pork. I don't know about you but I don't like rules so as far as I'm concerned, one should drink whatever one feels like drinking, rules be darned. So, with that in mind, I'll highlight some of my favorites and what I like to drink them with. And keep in mind, wine is very subjective. Everyones palatte is different so try the recommendations but don't be upset if they don't work for you. It is kind of an adventure to discover what particular tastes/flavors work for your individuality. That's all part of the fun. And one final note. Most people don't think of wine in terms of where it comes from. They usually approach wine in terms of the grape varietal they are drinking, i.e. Pinot, Cabernet, Chardonnay, etc. I feel that it is almost more important where the wine came from. In French this is termed "terroir" or the earth/soil that the grapes grew in. Grapes, and thus wine, absorb the flavors of the soil directly which can affect the final flavor tremendously. You can see this in other aspects of food as well. Cheese for example will taste like the milk that came from the animal which ate the grass that grew in a particular soil. That's why cheeses from all over taste so different even though the type of cheese is the same, i.e. cheddar, chevre, swiss, etc. Coffee is the same. It's no surprise that a brew from a bean from say Columbia is vastly different from the brew from a bean that came from say Ethiopia. Although with coffee the roasting technique has a lot to do with it too but we won't go into that here. Anyhow, with this idea of "terroir" in mind, I often will seek out a wine to pair with the region of food I'm consuming. In other words, say I'm having a plate of Ragu Bolognese, a dish from Bologna, Italy, which is located in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. The Bolognese are fiercly fond of their food and wine and the most well known of the wines heralding from this region is perhaps the slighty effervescent Lambrusco. So with that in mind, I would probably choose a nice Lambrusco to go with my meal, not because it is red and pairs well with beef and pork which are a part of a traditional Bolognese, but because that is the wine that belongs to that region. Now, for the wines. I'm a huge fan of sparkling wines and champagnes. They are the perfect celebratory beverage and the bubbles tend to pair incredibly well with delicate foods like pates, caviar, cheese, etc. Keep in mind that true champagnes must come from the Champagne region of France. Anything else is simply a sparkling wine made in the similar fashion to champagne. My favorite is of course the traditional Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin. Founded in 1772, Veuve Cliquot is one of the earliest producers of wines that are made in the methode champenoise. I had the distinct pleasure of visiting their champagne house in Reims, France while in France studying abroad in 1995. It was my first introduction to the world of champagne and I must say, it was all I needed to get hooked. Other sparklings of interest for me include those from the Schramsberg producer in Napa and those from the Roederer Estate in Northern California. Of the whites, I'm no longer a fan of overly sweet whites. They tend to taste too much like grape juice to me so I veer toward drier whites. I am also definitely not a fan of very oaky wines, i.e. chardonnays like Kendall Jackson. I find them almost intolerable to drink. They mask the flavor of most food for me and I feel like I am chewing on wood while drinking the wine. So, I generally lean toward dry whites that are also somewhat acidic. The acid being the operative characteristic with regards to pairing these wines with food. The acid tends to balance out not only foods that are spicy but also those that have a considerable amount of fat to them. Thus, I choose these when I am having say Indian or Moroccan food which tends to be either spicey heat wise or spicey in terms of a multitude of layers as far as spice is concerned. My personal favorites in this category are still Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. Of the Sauvignon Blancs I believe the best to come from New Zealand. Most of the ones I gravitate toward all come from there. They are usually reasonably priced, well balanced and have the perfect level of acidity without being over bearing. Pinot Grigio is a little tougher. Selecting an Italian one is a good start but not a guarantee as I have had several from Italy that I really didn't like too well. Overly acidic or overly sweet. My favorite is still the Santa Margherita. It isn't cheap, but it is great. On to the reds. For my money, when I'm searching for an overall red that will pair well with everything I'm eating, I select a pinot noir. I am particularly fond of those from Oregon and Washington because they are just a little bolder, drier and inkier for lack of a better description. (By inky, I mean it practically stains your lips after drinking). As far as a specific fave, I'm non-discriminatory in this category. Selecting just one would be like asking me to pick my favorite child and that is never a good idea. I pretty much like them all. The other wines that are for me a good bet in terms of all purpose drinking that pair with almost anything are Malbecs from Argentina, Red Zins particularly from Callifornia and many of the Meritages or blends which tend to take the best characteristics from each grape selected and pair them to create a nuanced and interesting combination. The new fad going around lately is the Apothic Red from Solano County, CA. I can understand why it has become kind of a cult favorite and is on practically every restaurant menu. It is easy to like and it is really quite a good buy. And finally, the great big cab. These can be troublesome. A great cab can be life altering but a not so great cab can be so tannic you feel like your jaw is going to pop right out of your face. I'm fiercely loyal to the Jordan Winery and their cabs. Their best to date was the 2003 but they are all fabulous. Not cheap, but also not overly expensive. This is a true special occasion wine that again pairs well with practically anything. Whatever your taste in wine is, remember, everyone is unique. And wine is an acquired taste. While you may still be early on in your journey of discovery, don't be afraid to branch out. Practice makes perfect so to speak and the more you experience different wines, the more refined and sophisticated your palatte will become. Oh and finally, as I once read on a bumper sticker and am fond of repeating, "I like to cook with wine. Sometimes I even put it in the food." Bien Boire.