Perfect Pairings: A first look at choosing wines

This is new territory for me…you know, leaving my house (only half joking).

New is pretty normal for my blog. I’m all for learning as I go and trying to decode what already-hip-to-the-subject-at-hand, expert-people are talking about.

Last weekend I participated in the 2011 WineRide here in Austin, Texas, hosted by the Keeper Collection. There were 4 stops along a cool, North-Central ATX food circuit: Central Market Cooking School, Foreign & Domestic, Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, and Fino.

Each of the five teams traveled to these locations with a Sommelier (wine expert), blogger, photographer, and tweeter in search of the perfect pairing. The Somm only had 10 minutes to taste and pair the wines offered at each location with the specially prepared fare. It was quite a whirlwind!

For those of you with wine knowledge, this will seem pretty simplistic, but as a beginning wine chooser, these were all things I learned from an afternoon watching the pros pair wines with different dishes. I was stationed at Central Market, and duly geeking out over the fact that David Lebovitz was in that very same room just the night before teaching a desserts class.

Wine Pairing 101

Special thanks to my J for filling in the gaps in my post, answering my questions with her own exceptional grasp of wine. She shoots and she knows her bevs.

1. Trust your color palette. Darker colored foods are generally better with reds. Lighter, cream-colored foods are generally best with whites.

2. You want the wine to make the food better and the food to make the wine better, a mutually beneficial scenario. A heavier wine might wash out a subtle dish.

3. Tannins are found in the seed, skin and stems of grapes and develop the wine (usually reds since they age longer) to give structure to the wine. Tannins hit your tongue with bitterness and slight pucker, usually toward the tip or sides. A wine with strong tannins will pair well with fattier, richer dishes because the tannins can tackle the fat.

4. I like vegetal wines.

I love new vocabulary words, especially when they’ll help me get the glass of wine I have in mind. Vegetal means more veg than fruit when describing tasting notes. (Tasting notes are what winemakers and wine savvy people tell you what to taste when you sip the wine. This has to do with how the grapes were grown, processed, aged, etc.) This vegetal wine genre includes Gruner Veltliners, Vino Verdes, Albarinos, Txakolins. Crisp whites that compliment lots of different components of a dish.

Though we didn’t have one of those on hand at for the pairings at Central Market, we did have these:

  • 2008 Simon Bize Bourgogne Blanc Les Champlains (a Chardonnay)
  • 2008 Dominique Mugneret Bourgogne Rouge (a Burgundy)

5 different dishes, 2 wines, which wine goes best with which dish?I didn’t expect to be thrilled by Chardonnay. It didn’t hurt that one of the Somms described the Chardonnay’s tasting notes as fresh Meyer lemons (my ongoing food obsession) and lemon curd. Three Somms paired it with all three different white-required dishes, and I understood their reasonings and tasted the things they brought out. With the exception of the pot pie (I’m gluten-free), their pairings made total sense to me as I tasted along with them.

4. Asparagus and Brussels sprouts are difficult to pair with wines because of their distinct flavors. Vegetal wines can save the day if these items are on your plate.

5. I love how Somm June mentioned and exhibited in her pairing selection that time of day, weather, season, and the eater’s/drinker’s mood matters. It was a cold, rainy winter afternoon so she gravitated to the chicken pot pie.Somm June RodilOne of my fellow Central Market-stationed tasters, a Somm-in-training herself, Paula Rester mentioned “what a subjective experience pairing food and wine is. Each of the Somms had different ideal pairings for different reasons, and I think they were all truly successful pairings. It was enlightening to see the combination of science, theory, and gut instinct it takes to be a successful sommelier!”

6. Acidity is not just for canning and not killing people.

This dish, cod in a chive buerre blanc, is highly acid, so an acidic white will go well with it. Acid and acid complement each other.


7. Pinot Noir goes well with salmon. Not a light-colored fish, so it shouldn’t have been a big surprise there, but I had ingrained in my head that you should drink white wines with fish.

8. When trying to figure out what kind of wine to pair with food, think of where that food/dish/cuisine is local. Wines from that region/climate will likely complement that dish.

No wonder Txakolin and oysters, shellfish and saltwater fish are so divine! The grapes are grown on cliffs or trellises along the northern sea coast of Spain, the Basque region, and wines made with these grapes contain a natural effervescence and salinity (from the sea salt hurling itself at the grapes as they grow).

The Central Market tasting carnage9. This has nothing to do with wine, but Chef Christina at Central Market (who made all the delish dishes with her team) told me matter-of-factly that anise and lemon are perfect cooking companions. Of course they are. I feel another marmalade coming on…

Last stop: party. We celebrated successful wine pairings and a fun afternoon all-around at Uchiko, just voted #1 Best New Restaurant in Texas by Texas Monthly. What a fun happy hour preview until we can afford to eat there for as many courses as we can fit into our bellies.A very gluten-free-friendly place, thanks Uchiko!

Have a look at the Keeper Collection blog to see each team’s blog post and vote for the winning team. (My J took the photos for Team Scott, so be sure to check out her fancy lens work.) Voting opens today, January 20.

See each Sommelier’s perfect pairing presentation and vote for the top Somm here beginning today, too.