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A Guide to Food and Wine Pairing

January 30th, 2010 1 comment

Wine lovers are often foodies too, and for them, there is nothing more satisfying than a wine perfectly matched to a dish, complementing and enriching the flavors of the food.  Such a meal is truly one of life’s great pleasures, feeding both the stomach and the soul.  But with so many wines and so many dishes to choose from, forming the perfect pairing can be an overwhelming challenge. (Stuck on choosing the perfect wine? Here are our tips on how to navigate a wine list.)

“Serve white wine with white meat, and red wine with red meat,” is the old adage.  But not only does this not account for meats like veal and Ahi tuna, which are really neither white nor red, it’s very limiting and leaves out considerations like sauces, spices, and how the food is prepared.  Food and wine pairings vary with each combination, and rather than memorizing a rule, wine lovers should consider several difference aspects of the way the food and wine will work together.

A good pairing is balanced, with neither the wine nor the food becoming overwhelming. The flavors of the food and wine should enhance each other, bringing out the best flavors of each.  Here are some tips to consider when pairing food and wine:  

Match flavors. A wine with earthy notes such as a Pinot Noir will bring out the earthy flavors in mushrooms.  Just as a squeeze of lemon enhances grilled fish, the citrusy acidity of a Sauvingnon Blanc will brighten a seafood dish.

Consider how food is cooked. Steamed or poached fish and vegetables need a delicate wine.  Braised or roasted dishes are heavier and can stand up to deeper and more intense flavors.

Match the flavor intensity of the food and wine. Light foods such as chicken breasts, for example, would be overwhelmed by a rich Cabernet Sauvignon: you want to taste both the food and the wine.

Match the wine to the sauce. A creamy sauce should never be paired with an acidic wine (think about how acid curdles milk.)  A rich tomato sauce, which is high in tannins, wouldn’t match well with an acidic wine such as a Zinfandel, which is also high in tannins.  The two together would create an overwhelming bitter, astringent taste.

Consider matching opposites. The flavors in rich and spicy ethnic foods can work well with a sweeter wine like a Gewürztraminer.

Match by geographic region. The foods and wines from the great culinary regions of the world, like Spain, Provence, and Tuscany, have developed together for hundreds of years and often have a natural affinity for each other.

Consider how the flavors interact. Wine and food are both made of chemical compounds.  When imbibed together, these chemicals react with each other, forming new tastes.  Sweet notes in a dish will magnify bitterness and astringency in wine, making it seem drier and stronger.  Highly acidic foods decrease the sour notes in wine and make it seem richer and more mellow.  Bitter flavors in food increase the perception of bitter flavors in wine, while sourness and salt in food decrease it.

Consider using wine as a palate cleanser. Acidic wines remove the lingering fat compounds the foods leave behind.   A sparkling wine before the meal or during the appetizer course prepares the taste buds for new flavors.  A wine with acidic qualities served with a rich, heavy dish can make it taste fresher and brighter.

The Great Cork Debate: Natural vs. Synthetic vs. Screw Cap

January 27th, 2010 6 comments

For the wine consumer, the Great Cork Debate is nothing if not confusing.  “Experts” sound off about the pros of one and cons of the other, often in complete contradiction with other “experts”.   It’s easy to find yourself bewildered to immobility in the middle of a wine shop, a natural corked wine in your left hand, a synthetic corked bottle in your right, and a screw cap in front of you.  Headaches like these can drive the most devoted wine enthusiast to consider collecting something else instead…perhaps hard liquor.

As it turns out, the loudest voices in support of synthetic corks and screw caps often belong to those who make their living bottling wine.  And this really isn’t surprising, considering that the wine stopper industry rakes in $4 billion a year, and that synthetic corks and screw caps are considerably cheaper to produce than traditional corks.

And they do have a strong argument for getting rid of traditional corks: cork taint.  Every wine collector has experienced that deep disappointment that comes when a bottle that’s been carefully aging for years opens up smelling like wet cardboard, due to a chemical compound called trichloroanisole (TCA), which occurs naturally in some corks.  Depending on which study you look at, cork taint affects between 3 and 15 percent of bottles.  Those aren’t numbers to be taken lightly, especially when we’re talking about the often-expensive wines meant for aging.

But what these proponents of man-made corks or screw caps usually fail to mention is that there are also significant problems with these cork substitutes.  Here are a few:

  • Synthetic corks don’t change with their surroundings. The glass that all wine bottles are made of expands and contracts with small temperature shifts in the environment around it.  Natural cork expands and contracts with the bottle, keeping the seal between wine and air consistently snug.  And environmental consistency is the number one rule of wine aging.  A too-loose synthetic cork can let in too much oxygen, ruining the wine by letting the alcohol turn into acetic acid, or vinegar.  A too-tight cork can be tough to remove from the bottle.  The latter is a common problem with synthetic corks: after about 18 months, they can be too tight to extract without a fight.
  • A small amount of oxygen is necessary for aging wine. Without oxygen, most of the natural reactions that occur between the hundreds of chemical compounds in a bottle of wine can’t happen, and the wine can’t develop so-called “aging flavors,” notes that can make a Chardonnay “buttery” or a Cab taste of truffles.  Screwcaps and synthetic corks prevent oxygen from getting to the wine.  Sure, this prevents over-oxidation, but so does drinking wine the day it’s bought.  In short, a synthetic-corked bottle doesn’t really “age”–it’s just taking up space in the cellar.
  • Screw caps can trap unsavory gases inside the bottle, ruining the wine’s aroma. Some of the reactions that occur within an aging wine result in sulfury gases.  These are allowed to dissapate through a natural cork and leave the wine, but are trapped by screw caps, resulting in a rotten-egg smell in the final product.
  • Synthetic corks and screw caps could leech chemicals into the wine. We don’t yet know how the compounds that make up plastics interact with the compounds in wine, but there are many studies that indicate the harmful effects the ingestion of plastics can have on the human body.
  • For once, it turns out that the old way of doing things was more environmentally friendly. Cork is taken from

    Recently harvested cork oaks

    cork trees in sheets once every ten years.  This process doesn’t harm the tree, and in fact, the cork grows back, making it a renewable resource.  A typical cork oak can continue producing for 200 years.  Cork orchards, with cover huge swaths of land in Span, Algeria, Morocco, Italy, Tunisia, France, and Portugal, provide an environment for flora and fauna, including endangered species like the Iberian lynx, Barbary deer, and the Imperial Iberian eagle.  Farming the cork provides jobs for over 100,000 people.  The cork trees also trap vast amounts of carbon dioxide, lessening pollution.  Almost 70% of the product from these cork farms goes directly to the wine stopper industry.  Without it, the orchards and the protection they provide for people, animals, and the environment, would disappear.

  • Steps are being taken to lessen the occurence of cork taint in natural-corked bottles. Major manufacturers have invested millions in recent years to screening their cork more carefully and upgrading their production processes.  As a result, cork taint rates have been dropping.

Besides all these practical reasons to refuse to move to synthetic corks, there’s a very deep psychological one.  The satisfying “pop” signals that a tradition almost as old as civilization itself is about to begin.  Wine is an organic, breathing substance.  It is its nature to change over time, and to change not in a formulaic way, but in a way influenced by its environment and the skill of those in charge of it.  To lock it behind machine-produced plastic is to lessen the artistry of wine aging.

How to Decant Wine

January 20th, 2010 No comments

So you’ve got an old bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon that’s been aging in the cellar for years.  You think that dinner party Friday night might be the perfect time to show it off to your guests.  But let’s do it right, shall we?  There’s no sense in carefully aging a bottle for years if you’re just going to plop it in the middle of the table.  Decanters are a practical and beautiful tool for serving certain wines properly.  Aged wines and young red wines are both good candidates for decanting.

Aged Wines: As wine ages, the chemical reactions it undergoes produce what Americans call sediment and the French call lees: small solid particles that collect in the bottom of an old bottle.  These particles are harmless to the drinker and may even provide valuable antioxidants, but they are aesthetically unpleasant, and can have a bitter taste that ruins the fine wine experience.  Decanting an old wine removes any sediment that has collected, and makes for a beautiful serving experience worthy of the time you’re spent waiting for that wine to age to perfection.

To decant an old bottle of wine, first make sure to allow several hours to let the bottle stand in an upright position.  This allows the sediment to settle at the bottom.  Though much of the sediment will fall quickly, the fine particles may take up to 24 hours to make their way to the bottom.  When you’re ready to decant the wine, remember that they key is to pour slowly.  Tilting the bottle as little as you can, slowly pour the wine into the decanter.  When you get to the last third of the bottle, start watching carefully for sediment to appear in the neck.  As soon as it does, stop pouring.  As too much exposure to oxygen can diminish the flavor of old wines, serve the decanted wine right away.

Young Red Wines: You don’t need to be as careful when decanting young red wines as you do with old wines, since young red wines have not had time to develop sediment.  So why decant them at all?  Red wines tend to be very high in tannins, compounds which can impart a bitter, astringent taste to the wine.  If exposed to oxygen, or allowed to aerate, these tannins will mellow out and make the wine taste much smoother.  Therefore, in decanting young wines, the goal is to give them as much oxygen as you can.  So go ahead and splash that bottle of wine into the decanter: the more it splashes, the more oxygen it gets.  Let the wine rest for a short while, and then go ahead and enjoy.

Serving wine in a decanter is a great way to make drinking it a little more special.  A beautiful decanter can make an attractive–and useful!–centerpiece for the table.  Vintage Cellars offers some great decanters from that renowned maker of fine glassware: Riedel.  Check out some of Vintage Cellars’ amazing Riedel decanters here.

Red Wine Sangria

January 18th, 2010 No comments

When you’re deep into winter, when temperatures dip low and frost covers the ground…ok, we’re in San Diego, but give us a break: it’s only been in the 60s this week!  Regardless of just how cold it is where you are, this is the time of year when you start to crave the fresh and wonderful flavors of summer:  juicy red strawberries, succulent kiwis, and sweet melons.  Luckily, there’s still a way to satisfy those fresh fruit cravings: by adding them to wine to make sangria.  So call up your friends, pick up some fresh fruit, and enjoy a cup of summer right here in January!

Sangria, a traditional Spanish drink often served at parties, has many variations.  The recipe we give below isn’t particularly traditional, but it is delicious.  Note that approximations are given rather than specific amounts: this is so you can vary the drink to your tastes.  It’s a very forgiving beverage, and a little extra splash of this or that won’t hurt; in fact, these variations are what make Sangria special: each batch is unique.  The best part is that you can change the fruits with the season.  The original recipe uses apples, oranges, and strawberries, but for winter, try this version with pears, apples, and tangerines.  Be creative: use whatever looks good at the market and you’re sure to be happy with the result.  This is also a budget-friendly recipe; since you’re sweetening the wine, quality isn’t all that important.

Wintertime Red Wine Sangria

(This recipe makes enough for a small gathering.)

Combine:

  • 2 bottles of red wine (dry, young, acidic, fruit-forward wines work best.)
  • Orange juice to taste (the sweeter you like it, the more juice you add.  Honey can be added to sweeten it up even more.)
  • Pears, Granny Smith apples, and tangerines, all cut into bite-sized pieces.  (A rough estimate: about 2-3 pears, 2-3 apples, and 4-6 tangerines, depending on their size and how much fruit you like.)
  • 1 bottle champagne (wait to add this until right before you’re going to drink it to prevent it from going flat.)
  • Rum, to taste (optional)

It’s best to make this ahead of time so the flavors can marry and the fruit can become infused with the wine.  It looks great in a large wine or margarita glass.  Be sure to serve this with a spoon so your guests can scoop up all of that delicious fruit!

San Diego Wine Shops

January 12th, 2010 No comments

Grocery stores are definitely the easiest places to get wine.  After all, you’re already shopping–why not take a quick trip down the wine aisle?  But once you’re there, it can be bewildering.  With no descriptions and no expert advice, you can end up never straying outside of your comfort zone of those bottles you know you like.  Even worse, you can end up choosing a bottle based on the label, and as we all know, you can never judge a book–or a wine–by its cover.

If you want to expand your wine knowledge, a wine shop can be the perfect place to start.  Wine shops are well-stocked with a far bigger variety that you see at the supermarket, and what’s more, their sales associates usually know what they’re talking about.  They can help you find the perfect wine to accompany that Sunday dinner, or clue you in to inexpensive bottles with expensive taste.  Their expertise can help you develop your wine knowledge, and help make picking out a bottle of wine a more enjoyable experience.  If you’re in the San Diego area like Vintage Cellars, click here for a list of San Diego wine shops.  Here’s some of our favorite San Diego wineries as well. An expert opinion might be closer than you think.  Happy learning!

Take Your Flavonoids!

January 5th, 2010 No comments

You’ve probably heard before that red wine can have an impact on heart health.  But what exactly is it about this beloved beverage that can keep you living better, longer?

Studies on red wine began to emerge when scientists realized that the French, despite indulging in rich, buttery, and fatty foods, experience less obesity and live longer than people in many other countries, including the U.S.  The French also drink a lot of red wine–280 glasses per year, as compared with the average American consumption of 68 glasses per year.  Could there be a connection?

The answer is: probably.  Although many studies have produced conflicting results, most seem to show that a moderate consumption of wine has health benefits.  Certain components of red wine appear to keep the heart healthy.  They are:

  • Alcohol: Alcohol raises HDL cholesterol, or high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, often called the “good” cholesterol on the evening news.  It helps keep blood clots from forming, and prevents artery damage.  Alcohol may also improve heart health by helping you relax, lowering deadly stress.
  • Flavonoids: Flavonoids are antioxidants found in many foods, including tea, onions, cocoa, and oranges.  White wine and beer have them too, but the levels are much higher in red wine.  These types of antioxidant, called polyphenols, help protect the lining of the blood vessels in your heart.
  • Nonflavonoids: Another type of polyphenol, nonflavonoids have become the focus of recent studies.  In mice, they have been shown to help prevent arteries from becoming clogged with fatty deposits–perhaps the reason the French way of accompanying frites (french fries) with red wine has worked out so well for them.  The nonflavonoid that has received the most attention of late is resveratrol.
  • Resveratrol: Resveratrol, found in the skins of wine grapes, might be a key ingredient in red wine’s apparent ability to reduce damage to blood vessels, prevent blood clots, and reduce “bad” cholesterol.  Red wine has about 10 times more resveratrol than white wine.  Research in mice indicates that resveratrol protects from diabetes and obesity, and may reduce inflammation and blood clotting.  All of these things are associated with heart disease.

Of course, all these studies also show that drinking too much wine is much worse for you than not drinking any at all.  Most health professionals suggest one to two glasses a day, with meals.  So be sure to drink in moderation. But the next time you’re filling your glass, you might want to choose red wine.  And make a toast to your heart.