The cornerstones of food & wine pairing

Image from Corkbuzz

Wednesday found me back at Corkbuzz, this time learning about food and wine pairing from Shannon Latting.  She’s the new beverage manager at Corkbuzz in Charlotte after moving here from Napa Valley in CA, and an aspiring MS (master somm). She was incredibly down to earth and she was a blast to chat with in the small group of seven we ate and drank with while learning the science behind what makes a food and wine pairing force you to exclaim “wow” out loud at the table.  Among our group was the co-founder and COO of Corkbuzz, Frank Vafier.

Ground Rules

When it comes to flavor, match your wine with the flavor of the food.  This means  a funky cheese needs a funky wine, and a vegetal dish needs something equally grassy, a la Sauvignon Blanc.  And a sweet dessert needs a hella sweet wine.

Looking at texture, you can start to get into layering complexity and complement texture with a contrasting wine.   Something fried and fatty can benefit from a sharp and crisp sparkling wine with high acidity to cut through that richness.  Hot and spicy can cool it with a lighter-bodied wine (Gewurztraminer is a top choice for spicy pairings) so you aren’t attacking your tongue with heat, tannin, and astringency by coupling your Thai-hot curry with a full-bodied and complex red.

The golden rule of wine pairing, however, is to eat what you like and drink what you like.  Something that Frank, the co-owner, brought up was that tannin can bring out the fishiness of sushi, and as such many people in Japan love a Cabernet with their sushi, whereas in the US we have “white wine with fish” pummeled into our brains.  It all comes down to preference, but the sensations are pure science.

The wines

1. Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand

2. Califronia Chardonnay with French Oak

3. Bordeaux blend, majority Cabernet Sauvignon

4. A sweet Muscat from Australia

The food
Lemon & lime, salt, fines herbes (a mix of tarragon, chives, parsley and chervil), soy sauce, olive oil, creme fraiche, fried shallots, tomato, balsamic reduction, a little manchego cheese, candied pecans, and cayenne pepper powder.

Now let’s get into the cornerstones that will get you through picking a bottle for your next meal…

The dualities of pairing:

Acid & Salt
(Sauvignon Blanc with salt, lemon & lime, fines herbes)

A high acid wine can tame both a highly acidic food, like citrus, as well as an overly salty food.  Salt and acid chill each other out.

A specific example of this would be wine 1, the Sauvignon Blanc, which is going to have high acid, citrus and tart green apple notes, and a bit of grassiness.  This wine, especially from Australia or New Zealand, is a cut & dry example of a sharp, acidic wine.  Paired with the lemon & lime, salt, and the fines herbes, it can be transformed as well as transform the food.

To replicate these sensations, try a Sauvignon Blanc with a salad that has a citrus fruit (perhaps orange or grapefruit) to get the grassy and citrus notes while calming the high acidity of both items.

Full & Buttery 

(Chardonnay with olive oil, creme fraiche, fried shallots)

 A full-bodied Chardonnay, aged in French Oak, that has undergone malolactic fermentation (creates the smooth, buttery mouthfeel) is complex.  Definitely match it with something equally full and creamy like olive oil and creme fraiche, but adding in the texture of something like fried shallots adds another layer of complexity that an already intriguing wine can handle.

 No lie, the combo of the creme fraiche and fried shallots reminded me of french onion dip and I’m dead set on having Chardonnay with that processed garbage at the next available opportunity.  The effect the Chardonnay and the food combo had on each other would be any ABC drinker (Anything But Chardonnay) convert.

Tannin & Umami

(Cabernet Sauvignon and shiitake mushrooms, soy sauce)

Cabernet is typically known for pairing with steak – but if you’re reading this post on this blog, we aren’t about that.  Shiitake mushrooms?  We are, indeed, about THAT.  This Cabernet blend from Bordeaux has a rip-your-face-off level of tannin.  On its own, the feeling is gripping, your gums are dry, and you wonder where your saliva went.

Now, add in some shiitake mushrooms – lightly pan fried or roasted, maybe in some soy sauce.  Suddenly the umami from the mushroom and its meaty flavor explode through the tannin of the wine, and everything feels more balanced and more delicious.  You’ll have to try this combination for yourself to see how transformative a wine and food combination can be.

Fair warning: Stay away from spice when drinking tannic wines.  A little cayenne pepper can be made to feel like A LOT of cayenne pepper if it’s followed by a swig of French Cabernet.  Worth exploring this sensation though, I must admit.

Sweet & Heat

(Sweet Muscat with candied pecans, cayenne)

Of course, the rule still applies here: pair sweet with more sweet.  I personally can barely stomach a sweet wine, fortified or not, but when combining this Australian Muscat with candied pecans – it was DIVINE.  At the table we discussed the conversion of ABCers to Chardonnay lovers, but this time it was me being converted to sweet wines.

Additionally, sweet wines temper spicy foods quite unlike a tannic Cab.  While it’s known that fat (traditionally dairy) can calm a bite of particularly spicy food, a sweet wine can do just the same.

Whether it’s a dessert of Thai curry, sweet wines – believe it or not – have their place.

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Sydney Isaacs
Sydney Isaacs

Sydney is a 29-year old American living between France and Italy. She has a WSET Level 2 certification in wine, along with a degree in environmental engineering and an MBA. She loves exploring local farmer’s markets, haunting her favorite wine bar, and discovering new restaurants.

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