Monday, September 13, 2010

Top Ten Classic Food & Wine Pairings

I always say, "Fear no food and wine pairing!" While there is no such thing as a wrong pairing, certainly some work better than others. Pairing food and wine has come so far from the old school theory of red wine with red meat and white wine with white meat. With the introduction of fusion cooking and the growing wine market, there are so many options it can be overwhelming. This list of food and wine pairings has stood the test of time and always come out on top. Here are the top ten classic food and wine pairings:

1. Champagne & Caviar
Champagne can pair with almost any dish. It's arguably the most food friendly wine under the sun. The wine's low alcohol content, refreshing acidity, and bubbly texture make it a great match for almost any food. But Champagne, specifically Blanc de Blancs and Caviar is a pairing fit for a king, literally. Blanc de Blancs Champagne comes from the Champagne region of France, and is made from 100% Chardonnay, one of the three principal varieties in the region.

Caviar is just a fancy name for the salted eggs of the Sturgeon, a fish commonly found in Russia. The marriage is said to have been discovered as a result of religious practices. In ancient Russia eating meat was forbidden 200 days a year. They supplemented their diet with various types of fish; insert caviar. It's likely that the Czars of Russia were the first to discover this classic pairing since only the wealthy and prestigious imported and drank Champagne. From the first time light, lively Champagne refreshed and cleansed the palate after each bite of salty caviar, this pairing has been a classic. While many use it to ring in the new year, the match makes a great pairing any time of year.

2. Sancerre & Goat Cheese
Sancerre and goat cheese is as much a regional pairing as it is a classic pairing. There is an expression used when pairing, "If it grows together, it goes together." That applies here. Sancerre is a region in France known for producing flinty, crisp, refreshing white wines from the Sauvignon Blanc grape. While the region also makes reds from Pinot Noir, this pairing is about the whites.

In Sancerre, wherever they don't grow grapes, they raise goats. Hence the reason "grows together, goes together" fits here. The salty, chalky goat cheese is enhanced without being overpowered by the refreshing, medium-bodied Sauvignon Blanc from the region. To say this is a classic may be an understatement. This pairing has encouraged many wine novices to become connoisseurs.

3. Bordeaux & Roast Spring Lamb
Staying in France, this next classic is a carnivore's dream. The origin of the expression, "red wine with red meat" exists if not for one reason: tannins. Tannins are found in red wine. They are that mouth drying sensation that can leave you begging for a glass of water to hydrate the palate. Proteins like red meat and Lamb love a little tannin to help cut through them. This is why a red wine producing region like Bordeaux in France makes such a great pairing for meat. Bordeaux is well known for its full-bodied red wines made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. The reds from the region, when done well, are complex mixes of dark fruit and earth notes.

Beyond world-class red wines, the region also raises lamb, making this another "grows together, goes together" pairing. Bordeaux sweet and tender salt marsh lamb roasted with herbs is a perfect pairing for a red from the Medoc (left bank of Bordeaux), especially from sub-regions like Pauillac and St. Julien. These wines, especially when aged, mellow out creating a symphony of flavors that compliment and enhance the dish. This meal is definitely the time to bring out the blue chip (expensive & high-quality) bottle of Bordeaux you have been saving.

4. Sauternes & Foie Gras
With this classic, rich meets even richer. Sauternes is a region in France that produces stunningly sweet white wines from the Semillion and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Sauternes is sweet because the grapes used to produce it are effected by a mold called Botrytis Cinerea, aka the Noble Rot. Botrytis doesn't occur everywhere in the world. It requires an environment where moisture can meet the sun at the perfect time to create just the right mold. The resulting wine is usually expensive, but more importantly sweet and rich, displaying flavors and aromas of peaches, apricots, and honey.

Foie Gras is a delicacy made from duck or goose liver. The birds are force-fed to fatten the liver to the size of one pound to a pound and a half. The enlarged liver is then cooked in its own fat and oils, butter, and a mix of spices to create a rich, succulent dish. While it may sound unappetizing and cruel, the pairing is remarkable. The rich, sweet Sauternes cuts through the rich Foie Gras creating a perfect balance of flavor and texture.

5. Vintage Port & Stilton
With this classic, sweet meets stinky. Stilton cheese is a traditional English blue, or bleu, cheese made from cow's milk. During production, the cheesemaker pierces the wheel with long stainless steel needles to allow the mold to attack the inside. The result is a rich and creamy, not dry and crumbly, cheese that displays aromas and flavors of old leather, dark chocolate and spice. Blue cheese usually inspires a love or hate relationship with most people. But paired with a rich, sweet dessert wine like Vintage Port, all bets are off.

The term port refers to a fortified wine from Portugal. Fortified is just a fancy name for wines that have had a spirit, usually brandy, added to them. With fortified wines the end result is often, but not always, sweet, and this is the case for port. The name port carries a specific meaning and restrictions. Although the name should not be used for fortified wines outside of the region, it often is.

The term vintage port simply means that all of the grapes are from one year's grape harvest. Vintage is usually declared 3 times a decade. The vintage ports of Portugal are rare, accounting for less than 1% of the country's dessert wine output. They are sweet with high alcohol content (which it should be seeing as they add liquor to the juice) and display flavors and aromas of dried fruit, vanilla, and spice. The full-bodied, sweet vintage ports cut through the stinky blue cheese creating a sweet and savory pairing that will shock even the most extreme blue haters.

6. Chablis & Oysters
With this classic, salty meets refreshing. Chablis is a region in Burgundy, France that produces clean, refreshing whites from the Chardonnay grape. The wines produced aren't the buttered popcorn style you may know Chardonnay to be. Instead the Chards from the region are elegant and refined, displaying a wonderful, racy acidity with flavors and aromas of green apple and spice.

This pairing works so well because the salty oysters are tamed by the refreshing acidity in the crisp, white Chablis. Oysters also have a weightier texture, and full-bodied Chablis has the strength to hold up to it without masking the dish. A match made in heaven.

7. California Chardonnay & Lobster
With this pairing, the same grape is used to make the wine, but the style couldn't be any different than that of Chablis. In Chablis, as I mentioned, the style is crisp and refreshing with tree fruit flavors and aromas. California vintners, on the other hand, tend to produce a style that is big and rich with flavors and aromas of butter and tropical fruit. The lush California style Chards make a perfect pairing for a dish like lobster.

Lobster is usually served with butter, a perfect compliment to the buttery style of Chardonnay produced in California. Lobster is also a weightier seafood. It requires a wine that can stand up to that weight while complimenting the flavors. A California Chardonnay does both beautifully. This match isn't as aged as something like caviar and Champagne, but a classic none the less.

8. Muscadet sur Lie & Mussels
This classic pairing is yeast meets west. Muscadet sur Lie is a sub-region in the western part of the Loire in France. The area is close to the sea making this another great "grows together, goes together" pairing. Muscadet sur Lie is a white wine made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape. The term "sur Lie" signifies that the wine was aged with its sediment, or dead yeast cells. The sediment imparts texture, flavor, and aroma. The end result is a wine that is light-bodied, dry, and acidic, with flavors and aromas of yeast and tree fruit.

Muscadet has the characteristics to pair well with a variety of seafood, specifically shellfish, dishes. The reason this particular pairing works so well is because of Muscadet's racy acidity. I sound like a broken record, but salt needs acidity to ready the palate for the next bite. Couple that with the lightweight characteristics of the Muscadet, and you have yourself a classic French pairing that will allow both elements to shine.

9. Cru Beaujolais & Charcuterie
Before you jump to Beaujolais conclusions, let me explain. Beaujolais is a region in France that produces red wines from a grape named Gamay. The Beaujolais region is inside of the greater Burgundy region. Some years, Beaujolais makes more wine than the rest of Burgundy, with nearly half of the wine being sold as Beaujolas Nouveau. You may have seen Beaujolais Nouveau at your local retailer. Lately it has arrived in plastic bottles, very sexy. In short Beaujolais Nouveau is a mass marketing campaign disguised as a celebration of the new harvest. Each year on the third Thursday in November, Beaujolais Nouveau is shipped around the world to be consumed by the masses in “celebration.” I'd almost rather celebrate with ether and koolaid.

Nouveau is consumed very young. The grapes are picked, fermented and aged all within 6-8 weeks. The result is a purply-pink, very light wine that usually tastes like bubble gum. The wines generally lack structure and need to be consumed before the first of the year.

But Beaujolais is so much more than Nouveau. Even the regular wines from the region or the Village show more depth and character than the Nouveau. The real star from the region is Cru Beaujolais.
Within the greater Beaujolais region, there are 10 sub-regions that have superior conditions for growing grapes. These sub-regions are called Crus, which means "growth" in French. While Cru Beaujolas is made from the same grape as Nouveau, gamay, the styles couldn't be more dissimilar. Cru Beaujolais has more structure, depth, and character, and makes a great partner for food. Enter charcuterie.

Charcuterie is a glamorous name for cured meats. A plate of charcuterie usually consist of a variety of pork products including but not limited to: bacon, ham, sausage, galantines, pâtés and/or confit. The plate is usually salty and weighty, a common theme with classic pairings. Cru Beaujolais, as I mentioned, has a remarkable acidity and a touch of tannin to hold up to the plate. This classic is usually a shocker for people who haven't tried Cru Beaujolais.

10. Fino Sherry & Olives
With this classic pairing, salt meets...well...more salt. When pairing food and wine you basically have two options: compliment or contrast. This last pairing is definitely an example of complimenting. Fino Sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes that grow in the Jerez region of Spain. What separates this fortified wine from the vintage port above is timing. With Port wine the spirit is added in the middle of fermentation to kill the yeast, what is left is sugar which results in a sweet wine. With Fino Sherry the spirit is added at the end of fermentation, once all the sugar has been eaten up. The result is a wine that is dry with a high alcohol content.

Like Muscadet sur Lie, Fino Sherry sits with its yeast. But instead of the yeast floating in the wine, it grows on top like a film, protecting it from air exposure. This film, called flor, imparts a distinct salty, nutty component to the wine. Salty olives just love to be complimented by a salty Fino Sherry. While this isn't a main dish pairing, it makes for a classic hors d'oeuvre.

There you have it, a list of the top ten classic food and wine pairings. I think one of the most important ingredients to success when pairing wine with food is to let the dish be the star and the wine the supporting actor. Wine should act like a condiment for food. Imagine the dish is the hot dog and the wine is the ketchup. While that sounds a little crude, it's true. One needs the other to be complete.

As I mentioned before there is no such thing as a wrong food and wine pairing, some just work better than others. If you like Sauvignon Blanc with your meal and you're eating steak, rest assured, there is a better pairing. But it's ultimately your glass, and you have to fill it with what you like. Try to match weight, acidity and flavors, and you will be set. With sugar you always want the glass to be sweeter than the dish, hence the reason Foie Gras and Sauternes works so well - the Foie Gras is not nearly as sweet as the wine.

Thanks to today's fusion cooking craze and the increasing number of wines present every year, you can pair salmon from Washington state seasoned with Indian curry with a Gewurztraminer from Alsace, France. But still, the classics, well...they're classic.

If you have a chance to try some of these pairings or if there is a classic pairing you like, please let me know by
emailing me, posting a comment here on the blog, or contacting me on Facebook. Make sure to check out Cru Wine Online to learn more about food and wine pairing and how to received daily wine & recipe pairings with video.

Until next week, thanks for reading.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your very people friendly approach: I don't understand wine well yet, though I'm working on it. I especially like it when you say 'fear no wine pairing'! I really dislike being told, in no uncertain terms, that there are right and wrong ways to drink wine (as though we're talking about conjugating verbs). Thanks again!