4.11.2011

Wine column no. 3: The revolution begins

Meet Joe. Pleasant and quick with a joke, he doesn't look like a revolutionary. He works, he pays his taxes, and when he comes home at night, he likes to share a bottle of wine with his wife. The trouble is, they prefer white wines, and some wine purveyors can't seem to understand that.


Now meet Jane. She's married, loves to travel, and when she cooks, she wants a wine that'll enhance the experience. The problem? She's confronted some so-called "rules" that she just can't accept, and because of that, she's been made to feel like an anarchist.

Welcome to the real world of wine appreciation, where outlaws exist. We know, because we've butted heads with strict traditionalists who've rolled their eyes at the thought of pairing a Pinot noir with grilled salmon, or who've ignored us when we've told them we don't like buttery Chardonnay.

Call us uncouth, but we happen to think that drinking and eating what you like isn't a crime. In fact, we'll throw our own lassos out far enough to say: Outlaws like Joe and Jane may be onto something.

This is because it turns out rules aren't so bad -- when they're the right ones. Ever heard someone drone on and on about "red wine with meat, white wine with fish, sweet wines with dessert"? What's wrong here is that those rules are too general to be accurate every single time. Aside from the fact that not every wine is the same, the food itself changes, too. Like, what happens if you barbecue that chicken instead of baking it in a cream sauce? And what if that pork loin was tasty, but it was the sauerkraut sitting right next to it that really stole the show?

What we've found is that there are some rules to wine and food pairings, but the pairings are best based on the texture, body and flavor of the wines and foods themselves. In other words, it's not just simply a matter of whether it's a fish, a red meat or a dessert. A good pairing means the dish and the wine play off of each other, so that the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts.

This is how creativity can be rewarding, because it's the only way you can really learn. It's also why you need an outlaw or two -- or just a lucky mistake -- to get you thinking about what your own rules can or should be.

Here are some examples of our own efforts to explore the unique marriage of wine and food:

You have before you Exhibit A, a 2006 Honig Cabernet Sauvignon. We paired this $30-$39.99 Napa Valley, Californian, from Winetree with a balsamic vinegar-shallot reduction that we poured over lamb chops seasoned with fresh rosemary, fresh thyme, fresh basil, salt and pepper. Now ordinarily, lamb would go fairly well with Cabernet, which we have found to be generally earthy, robust, substantial and smooth. But also competing for attention at the table was the balsamic vinegar reduction, which was a personality with a capital "P." This bad boy of the kitchen was sweet and a bit tangy, and paired with the lamb itself, it definitely left an impression. Yet the Honig didn't hold its own. The nose was fruity, and it had an earthy, serious tone that set it apart as one of your more stoic wines. But against the charismatic balsamic reduction, it was, quite simply, a clod.

Thankfully, there were lamb leftovers, and the next night we opened up a 2008 Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages. Now this wine by itself isn't a star. This light Frenchman was around $10 at Schnucks, slightly acidic, easy to drink, and it trended toward strawberries. But against this lamb, it was fantastic! Somehow, it managed to make the lamb even more delectable, pulling at its fibers in a sort of dance on your tongue. It was also an agile-enough partner for the lamb that it wasn't overshadowed. In other words, you noticed the lamb, and you noticed the wine, and while the two were clearly different from each other in textures and flavors, together, they shined.

So there's several things Greg and I learned here: One, that a bad wine and food match isn't the end of the world, since we're learning, and that's the whole point of this. Two, that when judging a wine and food pairing, the pairing itself doesn't necessarily make a wine (or a food) bad -- as evidenced by the tasty Honig that would have faired better, possibly, against a steak. Three, we learned that lamb and balsamic vinegar are hefty dinner companions, and that sometimes it's best to just let them do their own thing while a lighter, nimbler wine adapts to their strengths. And four, if we were to go a bit further in this, we'd say we learned that an assertive vinegar reduction, when paired with a lightly acidic red wine, seems to cancel out the acidity on both sides, so that overall, both improve.

Another example of this fourth lesson would be why so many Italian restaurants pair younger Chianti with spaghetti and meatballs, or pizza. The acidity in the wine is able to meet those two dishes on their own terms.

But these are just our own musings, and we've got a lot more to learn. In the meantime, we'll remain -- just like Joe and Jane -- wine's anarchists, its revolutionaries. Because while we may be aware of the so-called "rules", we're confident enough to know that we can break them. We also know that there are others out there who agree with us, and that one day, we'll rise up and exclaim: Let us drink what we want. We're the ones you need to please anyway.

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