Have you ever agreed to host a dinner and became frustrated with the task? It’s ok, chill, hosting a dinner for family, friends or someone special should be fun. I recommend, set your menu and work around that. Use fresh ingredients, I recommend eating local and seasonal as long as you are passionate about it. There are classic rules when designing progression of the menu: raw before cooked, cold before hot and savory before sweet. This is a traditional approach that is used because it’s easier for the palate.
Putting together pairings you must understand the key components of wine: Acidity, Sweetness, Saltiness, Tannin, Oak and Alcohol. Acidity is what keeps the wine alive on your palate. I typically suggest pairing acid with acid, like salads with citrus dressing and vinegars. Sweetness refers to the residual sugars after fermentation of the wine, usually this is confused with the fruit. Sweet wines are the ideal pairing for dessert course. However, very spicy dishes in the Asian cuisines are known to pair very nicely with Rieslings, Chenin Blanc or Muscadet. Saltiness is typically not a component of wine itself, but it is a major component of food. Think of the classic combination of Prosciutto, a salty cured pork leg and melon, a sweet fruit. Sweetness can be a great balance to food very salty or even high acid wines. Pairing typically work in the same direction to help compliment or work as opposites to help balance one another. Consider this when making selections of wine.
Tannins are the astringency you feel on your palate after a taste, think of a tea bag steeped too long. This factor comes from grape skins, stems, seeds and the aging vessel if the producer uses oak. Wine with firm tannins are paired with really fatty dishes like a grilled ribeye steak. The fat from the dish cuts and balances the tannins. Oak is a very popular aging vessel that adds to the depth and complexity of the wine extracting wood sugars and air because wood is a porous material. And, last but not least, alcohol which essentially determines the weight or body of the wine. Salty dishes can make wines of high alcohol seem even hotter than they really are so avoid that heartburn.
“Do they complement one another?”. There are so many biased opinions especially from professionals and aficionados that have preconceived philosophies about certain wines based on the grape, region or producer. This dynamic gives humility and opportunity to be true to yourself. This is also a great way for yourself and friends to think and understand wine a little bit more. A wine should honestly make you happy or touch you in some way.
I like to start with Champagne but there are areas outside of this region where you can enjoy some fizz like Cava (Spain), Franciacorta or Trento DOC (Italy), Cramant d’Alsace or Cramant de Bourgogne (France) all made in the preferred method champenoise and a more economical approach. Sparkling wine was invented in Champagne, France and has the history of beginnings and celebration so why not start your evening with it. When guests arrive, you pop the cork and you can serve some light cheese and charcuterie. The best part is that bubbles actually pairs well.
You can start with white wine, from a region in Loire Valley of France called Sancerre classically paired with goat cheese. These whites are made from a grape called Sauvignon Blanc, that are naturally higher acid with low sugar content making these wines very crisp, refreshing and herbaceous. But, be careful because different land (terroir) and climates can evoke different notes of sauvignon like the tropical fruited counter parts of the warmer countries of New Zealand and Australia. If you are preparing dishes on the richer side with butter, cream, milk or cheese, then I would look no further than some okay Chardonnay. You have the obvious Burgundy and Sonoma style. But, don’t be afraid to look outside like the Penfolds 311 from Australia, one of my favorites. The Chardonnays of Burgundy, France are more austere and mineral driven whereas California is warmer expressing more of the orchard fruit character usually with more oak. These wines also pair great with sweet and mild shellfish like lobster, prawns and shrimp. Chardonnays or fuller whites and Pinot Noir, or lighter style red wines are known as swing wines that can you can use for richer fishes like and white meats like chicken or veal.
Other cool interesting swing wines are skin contact wines AKA orange wines. These are white wines made in the style of red wines with contact on the skins to extract color, character and tannin from the skins. I recommend ones like Jasko Gravner’s ‘Ribolla Gialla’ from Friuli Italy, Matassa Blanc from Roussillon region of southern France or Sextant “Skin Bull” Aligoté Pétillant Naturel from Paso Robles, CA. These wines are particular, and it takes an open mind to appreciate its distinct character. Personally, I think it’s the better choice in comparison to socially popular Rosé and it’s definitely a conversation starter.
Your savory dishes can might end with fish, but no need to constrict yourself to only serving white wine. You can easily offer things like Italy’s Etna Rosso or France’s Beaujolais, both lighter style red wines that can easily work with even white meats like veal or chicken. For red meats like lamb or beef, I would go big with California Cabernets, Zinfandel or Rhone Valley Syrah like Hermitage, Cornas or Côte Rôtie. Your thirst for big, hearty reds is over. These wines provide body, tannin and dark fruit. Syrah from France is the same grape as Shiraz of Australia.
For Dessert, you always want a wine that is sweeter than the dish, or else it will taste sour. If you want to go all out and try some of the most respected sweet wines of the world you look into Sauternes (France), Trockenbeerenaulese (Germany) or Tokaji (Hungary). All these wines are made with Botrytized grapes left on the wine until late in the season when they are infected by a mold they call, Noble Rot. This process dehydrates the grapes essentially concentrated the internal sugars while still on the wine. These are just divine by usually come with a price tag. If you’re looking for a deal, a great fruit forward wine in Italy’s Brachetto D’Acqui. The wine has low alcohol and a little effervescence, look into producer Braida.
Follow the simple rules and it should be a learning experience, don’t be afraid to be daring. Wine is love, people and relationships.
In Vino Veritas