The following is by contributing writer Tricia Renshaw.
Pairing Food and Wine
Pairing food and wine is a very specialized skill, and those who are best at it have a keen understanding of how myriad elements play, or fight, each other. My skills lie in making wine and tasting wines in progress for other winemakers. I love what I do, but when it comes to pairing foods, it gets a little hairy.
The best food and wine matches need to take into account wines from around the world, and my wine knowledge is very local—Finger Lakes wines, and more specifically, Fox Run Vineyards, where I make wine with Peter Bell and Sarah Gummoe.
I’m not sure Amy (VineSleuth blogger) quite believed how different the worlds of wine making and wine pairing are until she visited the Finger Lakes a few weeks ago. After spending the day with winemakers who effortlessly dissected and critiqued hundreds of wines, gleefully selected intriguing wines to try before dinner, and passed glasses back and forth, skillfully calling out characteristics, and noting balances both brilliant and flawed, Amy watched in amazement as an entire group of wine experts fell silent when it came time to choose the wines for dinner. We passed that wine menu like a hot potato, desperately hoping someone would rise to the occasion and pick something before the menu came into our hands again.
After laughing a little about how shy we are when it comes to choosing wine with food, we concocted a plan. I would select a dish, look at the elements in that dish, which according to the pairing experts ought to make a food pair with or clash with a wine, and pick three wines that should match well. Then I would make the food, try the wines, and see how it all works out. We’ll all learn a lot, and have a great time along the way.
Here in upstate New York, we are hip-deep in snow, so this first meal has to be homey and warm. Chicken and dumplings fits the bill perfectly. I’m using a recipe from Cooks Illustrated/America’s Test Kitchen—a great source for never-fail, always delicious recipes.
Chicken – It goes well with just about everything.
These are the elements which should sway the pairing:
Onions – Pair with wines that have earthy aromas and aren’t too tannic. Onion can make tannins taste more pronounced and even metallic, as I found out while cooking (i.e., tasting bits of ingredients while sipping wine).
Bay leaf, Thyme, and Parsley - herbs which can be paired with wines that have herbal notes
Milk – The dish will have a rich and creamy consistency. We want to either match that creaminess, or cut through it. In other words, we want a rich and round wine or an acidic wine. Some food/wine pairing experts caution against using acidic wines with creamy dishes—they say it’s like adding lemon to milk, which will curdle. Clearly, we’ll have to do some experimentation to find what works and why.
Sherry - The characteristic flavors of sherry are made by a special yeast, “surface yeast”, which can form a skin on top of wine in tanks and barrels. This same yeast spoils other wines. Would Sherry make other wines taste spoiled? I’m really worried about that component. We’ll need bold wines which won’t be overpowered by the sherry aroma—I think a wine which is very wispy will take on the Sherry flavor easier than a robust wine will.
I’d like something familiar, and I think lightly oaked Chardonnay will suit our needs perfectly. It will have some nutty notes from the oak to match the nutty aromas of the Sherry, some weight because it is Chardonnay, and some herbal notes. It will not be too fruity, which I think is desirable, because I am afraid that fruity wines would clash with the savory notes in the dish.
I’d like something which is a little more out there. A Chenin blanc, maybe? These wines should have some fruit, some honey notes, be a little more acidic (to cut through the richness of the dish instead of mirroring the richness), and they come originally from France.
One pairing rule I found was to match foods and wines from the same regions. Chicken and dumplings doesn’t come from France, but a lot of French cooking uses onion, carrot, celery, herbs and cream, so we should be reasonably safe choosing a French wine.
A Red Wine
I’d like something red, because, let’s face it, there are lots of people who only drink red, and we should be able to match every dish with some red if we have the reds of the entire world to try out, so everyone can be happy. I’m thinking maybe a Cabernet sauvignon—very herbal, or maybe a Zinfandel—spicy and rich.
The Wine Shop
I took my recipe and my proposed wines to my favorite home town wine shop, Ryan’s Wines and Spirits in Canandaigua, NY, and chatted with a few of the staff members there.
Chardonnay - Grant Hummel suggested Hindsight, a Chardonnay from Napa, which is lightly oaked, and has the weight we’re looking for.
Chenin Blanc - Grant directed me to Robertson Winery, which is located in South Africa. Chenin blanc originates in France, like Chardonnay, and has been planted around the world. So, we’re sticking with our wine and food from the same place rule, although we’re stretching it a bit.
The Red Wine - Matt Vimislik suggested that “whenever you buy French wines outside of Burgundy or Bordeaux, you’ll save a little money,” and he suggested trying a Côtes du Rhône for a bargain-priced, spicy, bold but not-too-tannic red. We picked Famille Perrin, Côtes du Rhône Villages.
After I’d cooked the meal, but before trying the food I made these tasting notes from the wines:
On the nose: apple, lemon, custard, vanilla, caramel, almond, slight olive notes.
In the mouth: Creamy, vanilla sweetness, roasted apple and butterscotch. Heavy texture, deep flavors, but some acidity adds a fresh edge. Some astringency and slight metallic flavors define finish. Rather hot—alcohol shows here.
On the nose: Lemon, smoke, edamame.
In the mouth: creamy, slightly oily texture, waxy, honey, melon, slightly spritzy, fresh. Not as acidic or lean as I’d expected from what I’d read.
Côtes du Rhône
On the nose: so spicy—currant, cranberry, raspberry, plum, clove, eucalyptus, cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla.
In the mouth: Plentiful, soft tannins. Very plush. Bright acid in finish makes this wine fresh and delicious.
With food, it’s okay. Oaky flavors do tie in nicely to flavors in dish, and the Chard mouthfeel echoes the richness of the dish. However, the oaky, caramel flavors overpower the subtle flavors in the stew, so all I can taste is the oak. An adequate match, but not as nice as the Chenin blanc.
With food, creamy, floral, beeswaxy notes are heightened. Really tasty. A little carbonation and acid does cut richness of stew. Edamame notes in the wine with food taste more like bay-leaf—nice tie-in.
Côtes du Rhône
This wine is so spicy and fruity, so flavorful, that the blandness of the chicken stew is starkly highlighted. The Côtes du Rhône doesn’t contribute its spiciness to the dish—the two elements remain disparate. However, the tannins and weight are a nice match to the dish. No unpleasant flavors arise from the pairing—the wine doesn’t seem too sharp, or go metallic, which can happen with a bad match. This is a red wine which can safely be paired with this dish.
Overall, my favorite match to the Chicken and Dumplings was the Chenin blanc, but there were no dogs here. It turns out that at only ¼ cup, I didn’t need to worry about the Sherry in the dish. I could have gone with lighter, leaner wines, and I think that they would not have overpowered the food flavors.
Chicken, thyme, parsley and bay leaf aren’t heavy hitters, so I should have expected the dish to be familiar and a little bland—typical American comfort food. And next time, I won’t worry about finding a blockbuster wine to stand up to the sauce.
See, we’re learning already.
Tricia Renshaw is Assistant Winemaker at Fox Run Vineyards in the Finger Lakes region of New York. She is completing formal studies in wine science and viticulture via the University of California’s Distance Learning program while raising two amazing daughters.