"98 percent of pairing food and wine is protecting the food and the wine from each other.” -Craig Shelton
What to order…
No single part of a dining experience has the potential to be as frustrating, intimidating and discouraging as navigating a wine list. Various labels, producers and vintages can be difficult to sort through. Add wine magazines, scores, and restaurant mark-ups to the picture and it can become downright maddening…but it need not be. A few simple guidelines can help.
Having worked in the restaurant biz for a number of years now, Wife and I have observed a strange phenomenon. A table will be seated and one gentleman, let’s call him John Attorney (he could just as easily be John Physician, John Accountant or John Salesman - and even, yes, Jane or Johnny Steakhouse Waiter), will grab the wine list right away. Without even looking at the food menu, he’ll order a bottle of Cabernet. This is akin to ordering a bottle of orange juice for the table when your friend may have a tube of toothpaste for dinner. I realize it’s Oenologically Correct to say “drink what you like with what you like” and if that works for you, great! Continue to blissfully enjoy your 2001 Chateau Overoak Cabernet with Ceviche. Cheers!
If you have an interest in food and wine, how they play together, and how to bring out the best in both, remember…
Avoid wines with a lot of anything…except acidity. Wine is first and foremost a beverage. Its primary purpose is to cleanse and refresh the palate; to clear the way for the next bite of food. This refreshment is provided by the wines acidity. When deciding between two wines, err on the side of caution and choose the lighter, crisper of the two. The addition of a little salt or lemon to the dish will help to tame the acidity if it’s a little high.
With the exception of acidity, the other components of the wine should play as modest a part as possible. A little sugar or tannin in a wine gives mouthfeel and texture, in an excess they coat the palate and dumb down the flavors of all but richest food. Subtle use of oak can add creamy texture and spice to a wine. Heavy oak will persist on the palate and overshadow all but the richest of foods. In addition, the bitter and astringent character of oak and tannin can be exacerbated by a bad balance of salt/savory.
Over the years, alcohol levels in wine have continued to rise and rise. This is a consequence of improved viticultural practices and a response to changing tastes. Alcohol is a necessary part of wine. It provides texture, body and weight and acts to balance the wine's bitter and acidic components. At high levels it tends to numb and tire the palate. It’s also a nightmare when it comes to the heat of chili peppers…a match born in the pits of Hades.
All of these components (alcohol, tannin, oak) contribute to a balanced wine, but any one of them in excess can present problems when faced with a wide range of foods.
Certain grapes generally play better with food than others. Like friends or dinnermates, certain grapes tend to dominate the conversation and steal the show. Your big, boisterous uncle Don might be right at home with his pals in a cigar-smoke filled steak house, gulping Scotch and telling dirty jokes, but everywhere else his lack of subtlety overpowers others and seems out of place.
Big, boisterous wines are no different. Napa Cab and Barossa (Australian) Shiraz are right at home with a grilled Porterhouse. With a delicate roasted pheasant, the Cab and Shiraz would slaughter the bird anew. However, even a humble red Burgundy would allow the bird to shine through while accenting its earthy flavors. That same red Burgundy would also be at home with a simple roast chicken, a plate of charcuterie or a fuller flavored fish…can’t say the same for the Cab and Shiraz.
In general, food-friendly white grapes include: Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Albarino, Gruner Veltliner, Pinot Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc.
In general, food-friendly red grapes include: Gamay, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Dolcetto, Barbera, Sangiovese.
Certain styles of wine generally play better with food than others. Global influences are continuing their steady inundation of the American dining consciousness. Even carnivore palaces like Morton’s have chutneys and sashimis dotting their menus. These international influences often bring intense sweetness, spiciness and saltiness to the plate. These intense flavors and seasonings can have nasty interactions with today’s oaky, tannic, and high alcohol wines. A few styles of wine consistently play well with a wide range of foods. They include:
Sparkling wines: Crisp acidity provides refreshment, low alcohol allows for pairing with spicy food
Rosé: Bright berry flavors and crisp acidity and low alcoholmake for a good match with summer veggies and lighter Asian dishes
Off-dry Whites: Slightly sweet Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Blanc tame the fire of chilies, act as a perfect foil to fried foods and pair wonderfully with a wide range of cheeses
Light, Spicy Reds: Cotes-du-Rhone, simple Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Beaujolais and Tempranillo can bridge the gap between rich seafoods and lighter meats.
Certain countries and regions wines play better with food than others. When “wine people” speak of new world wines, they are referring to those of North and South America, Australia, New Zealand and, for the most part, Spain. For the best odds in food and wine…avoid these wines of these countries. This generalization is sure to get more than a few knickers in a bunch, but allow me to explain: These countries are grouped together as “New World” for a reason. Their climates tend to be warmer and their oak use more flagrant. The warmer climate translates to more palate-coating alcohol and less palate-refreshing acidity in the finished wines. The flagrant use of oak leads to, well, oakier wines. Again, nothing wrong with these wines. But they tend to dominate the conversation and keep others from speaking as clearly.
Countries and regions that generally produce food-friendly wines include:
Austria: most whites and reds
Germany: For whites stick to those labeled Halbtrocken, Kabinett and Spatlese
Whites by region - Alsace: Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer - Avoid expensive bottles; they usually have more alcohol and sugar
Loire Valley: Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre, Quincy and Menetou-Salon)
Chenin Blanc from Vouvray and Savennieres
Burgundy: Stick to the less-famous areas like Chablis and Macon. Wines labeled as Bourgogne Blanc can be a good value.
Savoie: Less-common. Dry minerally whites made from Jacquere
Reds by region - Loire Valley: Cabernet Franc from Chinon or Bourgeuil
Burgundy: Stick to less-famous areas like Givry, Mercurey or Marsannay
Wines labeled as Bourgogne Rouge can be a good value
Rhone Valley: Specifically Cotes du Rhone
Beaujolais: Stick to wine labeled either Beaujolais-Village
Top wines labeled by their Cru name (ie. Morgon, Fleuire)
Rosé by region - Rhone Valley: Cotes-du-Rhone and Costieres de Nimes can be great values
Provence roses are amongst the best. Avoid expensive rosés from Bandol or Tavel
Loire Valley: Sancerre Rose from Pinot Noir can be superb (and pricey).
Whites by region: Friuli/Alto Adige: Crisp whites, Pinot Grigios generally innocuous
Umbria: Orvieto and other Grechetto-based blends
Campania: Zesty whites from Greco, Fiano and Falanghina
Reds by region: Abruzzo: reds based on Montepulciano
Piedmont: Barbera, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo - Avoid expensive Barbera, they’re often heavily oaked
Le Marches (Rosso Cornero and Piceno)
Campania (Aglianico, Piedirosso and Negroamaro)
Sparkling: Piedmont (Moscato d’Asti)
Next installment: You’ve ordered a bottle…now what
Note: if you would like to print this in a card-shaped format which you can fold and carry with you, click here: Download restaurant_widow_wine_ordering.doc