Learning to Love Wine- A Valentine to Pairings

My partner Ken has a lifelong love of learning. He’s a teacher too (among other things), having taught both at Art Center and currently UCLA. The thing about great teachers is they are always learning new things. Ken is taking a wine appreciation course at UCLA. Not that Ken and I don’t know or enjoy wine. But a course in wine tasting could give Ken the tools he needs to take his enjoyment of wine to a whole new level.

Ken is going to write a report for us after each of his weekly classes. This is the sixth report in this series. GREG

Do opposites attract? Or do birds of a feather flock together? When it comes to food and wine pairings the answer is: it depends. It depends on what you’re looking for, much like romantic pairings. Are you looking for someone who is sympatico, or a bad boy to bring out the beast in you? (See Beyoncé and Jay Z vs. Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett).

A good wine pairing can either contrast or mirror the qualities of your food, enhancing your gustatory experience. A bad one can kill perfectly good wine.

Our cup-runneth-over-with-wine-knowledge instructor introduced us to a handy food and wine pairing tool– the Pairing Pyramid. Proceed from bottom to top, starting with the green section. First, match the quality of the bottle to the food you’re serving (i.e., no Two Buck Chuck with ribeye, no Brunello with lunch meat) and consider the flavor intensity of both. After you’ve made your selection, open the bottle of wine (or 2) so you can adjust your dish to what you find in the wine. Then enjoy your journey up the pyramid.

Food and Wine Pairing PyramidStructure refers to the relationship of the different elements in the wine: the acid, tannin, alcohol and glycerol. If there seems to be too much acid in the wine, make something with tomatoes to balance it out. There is one cardinal rule that you should be aware of: never serve a wine that is lower in acid than your food. If you do, the fruit in the wine will flatten out. Or as Sue Ann Nivens famously remarked about overcooked Veal Prince Orloff “he dies.”

Matching the core flavor intensifies it (i.e, pepper steak with a Syrah or Zinfandel). This is not carte blanche to have chocolate with Cabernet– especially if the chocolate is sweet (high-quality bittersweet or cocoa powder works). The high notes on the palate can be enhanced with food. For example, an off-dry Riesling can be contrasted by the salty, umami richness of Parmesan cheese.

Texture is found at the top of the pyramid. In general, the more flavorful the food, the more full-bodied the wine. You don’t want a big wine to overwhelm say, whitefish, nor do you want a delicate aromatic to get lost in an earthy stew. Think back to Beyoncé and Jay Z: they work because they’re both bold, complex and rich.

Warwick Estate PinotageIn this week’s class we tasted New World wines with a variety of bites (green bell pepper, green apple, popcorn, marinade, BBQ sauce, cocoa powder and chocolate chips). We sampled a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand (fresh and youthful as expected, with lime and grapefruit aromatics and a bit of bell pepper on the palate), a Chardonnay from Eden Valley in Australia (most notable for its lees aging, light in color but a creamy, buttery sensation at the back of the palate), a Carmenere from Chile (leafy, pepper and clay nose, black cherry, cassis and chocolate palate) and a Malbec Reserva from Argentina (a youthful purply-blue with a plum and blueberry pie aroma, the sweetest wine of the evening with hints of raspberry on the finish).

The standout for me was a 2008 Warwick Estate Pinotage “Old Bush Vines” from Stellenbosch, South Africa, $18. Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut (called Hermitage at the time it was bred, 1925). Some people think this varietal has an acetone, or paint, smell. Yes, there’s high alcohol. I found ripe aromas of red cherry with hints of spice (cardamom?) and a touch of cocoa and coffee. Luscious bright cherry sweetness was delivered by a smooth body. A perfect valentine. KEN

heartWEEK 1: Learning to Love Wine- An Introduction

WEEK 2: Learning to Love Wine- Decanting American Varietals

WEEK 3: Learning to Love Wine- Now Smell This

WEEK 4: Learning to Love Wine- Vive la France

WEEK 5: Learning to Love Wine- Italy and Spain