Feb 25 2011

Perfect Pairings

Published by at 6:00 am under Cooking Classes,Entertaining

I love wine. And I especially love drinking wine accompanied by a multi-course dinner prepared with love. I know what I like and what I don’t — but my understanding of the objective aspect of pairings is admittedly limited. And I never drink white wine with fish, choosing instead to believe that a dry Pinot works just as well (just let me have this one).

Enter Burke Owens, a Master Sommelier who came into class to educate us on the art of food and wine pairing. First, we were given a plate of a variety of food flavors.

Starting at the top and moving right: lemon, fennel, asiago cheese, soft Brie-like cheese, salt, chocolate, tarragon, mint, deli turkey and salami. On the inside, carrot slices and a little pile of ketchup (which was met with disdain by my classmates, but I still love it).

On the wine side, we sipped Prosecco, Riesling, Chardonnay, Beaujolais, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a white dessert wine.

Although our instructor emphasized along the way how subjective tasting and pairing really is, I found that the majority of us agreed on what worked and what didn’t. We tried each wine with a taste of each food flavor, focusing on how they interacted with one another. Sometimes the food enhanced the wine but the wine completely overpowered the food, and sometimes they brought out the best qualities in each other. It’s amazing what you can pick up on when you’re really paying attention; I had a few “wow” moments after some of the most effective pairings that I’ve never experienced before.

The Chardonnay brought out the beautifully herbal quality of the tarragon. The salami benefited from the sweetness of the Riesling. The turkey was a perfect match with the Beaujolais, and — no surprises here — Cabernet tastes really good with all cheeses. And chocolate.

The best pairing came at the very end, when we brought out some foie gras to taste with the dessert wine. The sweetness of the wine cuts the oiliness of the meat, and I had a true “aha!” moment that may have even caused me to close my eyes. Please try this heavenly combination at your earliest convenience.

Some interesting takeaways:

  • Sometimes it’s better to skip the wine pairings you see added to prix fixe menus. According to Owens, restaurants generally stick with mid-level wines that don’t challenge the courses much, because they really want the food to stand out.
  • On that note, pairings can be complementary or contrasting, meaning the wines can either be similar in flavor/texture/complexity to the foods, or they can be opposites that attract. In general, we found that highly processed food like salami or aged cheese generally tasted better with a highly processed wine, or one that was aged in oak.
  • Alcohol has no aroma or flavor, but it does enhance or suffuse other flavors. That’s why the presence of the alcohol in wine can change the effect of the grapes and the food you’re pairing it with.

These foods we tasted are so common that there’s no reason you couldn’t try a similar experiment in your own home with whatever wines you have lying around. However, things can get a little rowdy after two-and-a-half hours of said investigations. Consider yourself warned.

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