Pairing Wines: A Vintage Primer

She leans towards her partner, her black nightgown shimmering in the firelight. Expensive perfume fills their senses; music plays lightly in the background. Contented, the couple relaxes against the large pillows as they enjoy a romantic evening together. She fills a large wineglass with a smoky-red Cabernet and presents it. Offering an imported chocolate truffle, she suggests, “Try this with it.” They sip; they nibble…the wine and chocolate together are luxurious and seductive. This woman knows the way to someone’s heart!

Wine is meant to enhance our lives. It welcomes us to enjoy the moment, to relax, to take life a little easier. Wine allows us to…exhale. An ordinary afternoon tea becomes an event when a small glass of sherry is added. A romantic dinner at a fine restaurant turns extraordinary with a well-aged Merlot. What would a fondue party be without white wine for the pot and for the chef? And what would a celebration be without a Champagne toast?

Both the casual tippler and the wannabe connoisseur can benefit from wine education – not the snobby kind used to intimidate others, but the basics – how to order, buy and enjoy wine with confidence. The first lesson is to have fun and don’t fret – there is no absolute right or wrong when it comes to selecting wine! Your enjoyment of a wine is ultimately based on your own personal taste – even experts don’t agree on the “perfect” wine.

There are, of course, two basic wines – red and white. White wines are light, floral and fragrant. They tend to go best with chicken, fish, veal and vegetable pastas. The most well known white wines are Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer and, of course, Champagne. Natural acids that form in a wine counteract its sweetness, adding a pleasant “tartness.” Words like “crisp,” “lively” or “tart” give a hint as to the acidity in a wine. A good basic guide for purchasing white wine is to ignore age or complexity and don’t necessarily seek out the most expensive bottle.

Reds are deeper and heavier than white wines, with wonderful flavors of berries and spice. Reds team well with beef, lamb, meaty pastas and pork…dishes with strong assertive flavors. The most well known reds are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chianti, Merlot, Beaujolais, Pinot Noir and Syrah. Price and age can be critically important in choosing a red wine because they tend to be puckery dry without enough aging to mellow their tannins (the natural compounds found in the grape skins). The expense in red wine comes from barrel aging, which mellows and smoothes a wine – a process that can take years.

Happily, most Merlots on the market are ready for immediate consumption, says Joe Lozano, owner of Elite Wine Sellers in Southern California. “People like the softness and the approachability of the wine, making the Merlot a very attractive red wine,” he says. “Surveys have shown that 97% of consumers who buy wine, buy it for consumption within a three-day period.”

When shopping for wine, be aware that wine varieties, like everything else, fluctuate in trendiness – some becoming hip and others becoming bore-ing (yawn). Right now, Merlot is hip and sexy, probably due to its flexibility. Gaining popularity are the Australian Rieslings with their distinctive tropical-lime flavors. “Blush” wines and any wines sold in a carton with a pour spout are definitely yesterday’s news!

With their wonderful honeyed flavors of apricots, oranges, roses and raisins, dessert wines pair well with cakes, puddings, and fruit desserts. While some wine drinkers find dessert wines too sweet, if paired appropriately, the opulent and perfumed Ports, Muscats and Sauternes can highlight the final course.

Pairing wine with food is simple if you remember that wines have individual flavors. Match the wine flavors to the food flavors, and voila! You have a match made in heaven. In addition to its flavor, you also want to take into account the body (or weight) of the wine, in order to be sure that neither the wine nor food overpower each other. For example, the mild spiciness of Gewürztraminer goes well with spicy food such as sausage. German Rieslings pair well with many foods because of their high acidity, low alcohol, and fragrant flavors. Remember to pair lower acidity wines with highly acidic dishes so that the flavors don’t clash on the palate.

Imagine you’ve planned a wonderful fall picnic for your friends. The leaves are turning color; the air is crisp, yet the sun is still warm. You’re serving smoked chicken pasta with caramelized onions and walnuts, and a homemade basil focaccia. For dessert you brought raspberry Amaretto custard tarts. What wine would best complement this feast?

“A barrel-aged Chardonnay would probably be best,” says Lozano. “The Chardonnay is rich and buttery and could stand up to the richness of the smoked chicken and caramelized onions. If the dish was richer, say, topped with butter and cheese, then you would want a wine with higher acidity to cut through the richness – like a Pinot Grigio or a Sauvignon Blanc.” To match the custard tarts, you might want to try an Italian sparkling wine, Asti Spumante. The effervescent sweetness of the Muscat grapes in the Asti pairs well with creamy desserts.

Like matching the right shoes and handbag to the outfit, accessorizing wine with its proper vessel is critical. There are at least 20 different shapes and sizes of glasses expertly designed to enhance the flavor of a fine wine. Choosing the correct glass will show off the wine’s color and bouquet. In general, red wine needs to be in a larger glass to allow plenty of room for oxygen to aerate the wine and bring out its full flavor. The edges of the glass should taper inward to catch the wine’s wonderful aromas. By contrast, champagne flutes are kept long and slender in an effort to preserve the tiny bubbles. White wines, where aeration is not as critical, are served in smaller versions of red wineglasses. Dessert wines, with their intense flavors and honeyed texture, are charming when served in small liqueur glasses.

Serving wine at the proper temperature is equally important. Warm white wines can taste like mouthwash and a too-cold red wine will taste boring and one-dimensional. Many experts recommend that wine should be served at “room temperature,” but what if your “room” is an igloo or an equatorial thatched hut? Generally, full-bodied red wines should be serve at 64 degrees, while Pinot Noirs and Burgundies should be served a bit cooler, at 61 degrees. Whites should be served between 43-52 degrees, with Bordeaux, Rieslings, and Champagne served at the lowest range.

Now, for the grand finale – dinner out at a fine restaurant! Let’s say you are taking your favorite niece out for her birthday and the wine-choosing and tasting duties fall to you. Don’t be afraid to let the sommelier (wine waiter) assist you, since his purpose is to help you enjoy your dining experience. Once you consult and choose a bottle in your price range, say a nice Merlot, the sommelier will uncork the bottle in front of you. You will be offered a small taste of the wine. Hold it up to the light and gently swirl it, checking the color and clarity. Do you see any sediment? If so, the wine might need to be decanted into a separate bottle before serving. Next, hold the glass close to your nose and inhale the bouquet. It should smell wonderful, like a wine cellar. Now, taste a small sip. It might be dry, but it shouldn’t taste like salad vinegar. If it makes your mouth pucker too much, it might just need to breathe awhile. Once you nod final approval, the sommelier will begin pouring wine for everyone at the table. Congratulations! You have now passed the time-honored restaurant tradition of selecting a wine.

Now you have concluded your lessons in “The Wine Basics” – how chic you are! If you continue to keep your eyes (and your mouth) open, you will become quite a wine connoisseur – or at least you’ll be so relaxed, you won’t really care! And remember that in the world of wine, like in the world of BBW, “Big” and “Full-bodied” are compliments!

Delve Deeper

Wine at a Glance

Over 500 natural compounds have been identified in wine. Many of these compounds are the same as those found in fruits, flowers and vegetables with flavors like pineapple, pear, coconut, peach, vanilla and green pepper. The combinations of compounds give varieties distinctive flavors and characteristics. This information will help you wend your way through the maze of wines.

White Wines:

Chardonnay: Full and buttery with a fruity taste. Flavor notes are vanilla, oak, butterscotch, melon, pineapple and peach.

Sauvignon Blanc: Fairly dry, higher in acids, and crisp. Flavor notes are grass and gooseberry.

Riesling: Lower alcohol level and fruity. Flavor notes are green apple, orange, lime and honey.

Gweurztraminer: Medium body with a spicy taste. Flavor notes are spice with nutmeg.

Chenin Blanc: A picnic wine, crisp with high acidity. Flavor notes are peach, apple, honey, and marzipan.

Sauterne: A rich dessert wine – a taste of honey with a luscious crème brulee texture. Flavor notes are apricot, peach, and pineapple.

Red Wines:

Merlot: Dark red and full-bodied, but soft and less tannic. Flavor notes are plum, rose, and spice, with some lighter grassy undertones.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Dark red, big, and full-bodied. Flavor notes are black currant, chocolate, tobacco, and olive.

Pinot Noir: Relatively low tannins and acid. Flavor notes are raspberry, cherry, violet, and rose.

Sangiovese: Medium body Chianti-like wine. Flavor notes are cherry, spice, tobacco, and herbs.

Syrah: Lighter, more peppery wine. Flavor notes are ripe berry, mixed spice, and black currant.

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