What's a good a meal without a fine wine to go with it?
As most of you know, we love wine and we also love food, so I thought we'd devote a blog or two to food and wine pairings. With fall in the air, we felt like starting with red wine this week, but be sure to tune in next week to learn about white wine pairings.
Okay, so let's get started. Wine by itself is an enormous topic. Therefore, successfully pairing wine with food requires a basic education of wine. The major varietals from lightest to heaviest are as follows:
- Pinot Noir
- Cabernet Sauvignon
Before we dive into specifics, there are a few helpful tips worth mentioning. The rule of "opposites and similars" is an easy concept for most to grasp. Pair spicier foods with lighter and higher sugar wines to counter balance the flavors (opposing flavors). Solid, well-rounded meals go best with a well-balanced wine (similar flavors).
In relation to the "dry wine" concept, it is a common misperception that "mouth-puckering" means dry. That reaction to wine is actually the tannins talking. Dry wine, by definition, is a lack of sugar. Most big, bold, red wines have a fair amount of residual sugar. Bigger reds generally have stronger tannins. A balanced wine has both tannins and sugar.
Light Reds - Pinot Noir, Grenache & Gamay
At the easy-drinking end of the red wine spectrum are your lighter reds. The benchmark light red is Pinot Noir, with high acidity and low alcohol, makes for great long-term aging. Another versatile varietal in the light red family is Grenache. Light reds make good "bridging" wines when serving a variety of foods at once. A classic pairing is Pinot Noir with salmon or other fatty fish like tuna and arctic char. These lighter reds also go well with wild game like rabbit, venison, duck, as well as chicken or pork. The light varietals are the few red wines that can go well with spicy food.
French Gamay from Beaujolais is the classic continental light red. It pairs well with cheeses, fall fruits and charcuterie. Be on the lookout for the annual autumn release of Beaujolais Nouveau - a fresh, young wine that I think can be perfect with fall favorites like spicy chili and cornbread or smoked sausages. Released every year on the third thursday in November, its a fun milestone of the fall harvest season to look forward to.
Chianti is a very common Italian red wine, generally blended with Sangiovese grapes. A nice, easy drinking wine that pairs well with any sort of pasta and tomato sauce, cheeses and meats. Slightly stronger tannins with a heartier, rustic feel.
Merlot is the second-most widely planted grape varietal in the world - after Cabernet Sauvignon. It is popular as both a blending grape and as a varietal wine. Broadly speaking, new-world Merlots are often full bodied, but with soft tannins and high alcohol content. Old-world merlots are more often blends (French Bordeaux and Italian "Super Tuscans" come to mind) that tend to have a lighter body, brighter acidity and more fruit flavors. So Merlot can be a versatile wine with food, depending upon the style. New world varietals (California) often pair well with red meats and grilled foods - similar to Cabernet Sauvignon. Old World blends pair well with salmon, shellfish and lamb. Spicy foods do not tend to pair well with Merlots.
Syrah and Shiraz
Syrah and Shiraz range from lighter and earthier French versions to bolder and juicer Australia types, but all have a distinct black pepper aroma. Generally more moderate tannins allow for broader pairing options, making it a great food wine. It goes very well with lamb, pork, beef, fowl, even pizza. There is something about the bold peppery flavor of Shiraz that I find delicious with pepperoni, sausage and black olives.
Malbec is an old-world blending grape that is now considered a new-world varietal wine. This is a deep, inky colored wine with ripe juicy fruits and earthy qualities, like leather and tobacco. It delivers a fruit-forward, full-bodied mouth feel with medium tannins and bold flavors making it fairly versatile and pairs well with any sort of grilled meat, such as flank steak or pork chops.
Zinfandel and Petit Syrah
Zinfandel and Petit Syrah are bigger and bolder, also known as "fruit bombs," with higher alcohol content. The black-skinned grape produces strong tannins with spicy, jammy flavors. Think of opposing pairings and stay away from spicier foods or overly mild foods. Both are great with meat and cheese plates or a good burger.
At the far end of the red wine spectrum is Cabernet Sauvignon. The small, thick-skinned grape produces the worlds most tannic, powerful, and age-worthy red wines. This wine pairs well with beef and pork, the fattier the better. Think of a nice ribeye steak to balance out the tannins from the wine. For dessert, Cabs also pair well with chocolate, particularly bittersweet and dark varieties.
And a few last tips
Consider the source of the wine and the cuisine - I have found that Spanish wines pair well with Spanish foods, Italian wines with Italian food, and so on. Regional cuisines and wines were developed together over millennia - so when in doubt, trust geography to help with pairings.
When looking at blended reds, pay attention to the percentage of each varietal to help determine where on the spectrum it might fall. If tasting the wine is not an option, look for any helpful description on the bottle about flavors or pairings.
It is not always a safe bet to assume all varietals taste the same. When shopping for wine, go to a shop that offers knowledge, help or tastings. The more you explore the better your pairings will become.