Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Pairing Conundrum, part 1 (of many?)

Wine blogs address the concept of pairing wine with food as ESPN approaches Yankees vs. Red Sox, or as James Suckling discusses his home in Tuscany: on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on (for accuracy's sake, I need to type it some more) and on and on and on and on (okay, point made sophomorically).

-on and on and on-

The debate arguing wine and food goes back to Roman times, leading to the creation of the phrase, ad nauseam. But surely there's an explanation for all the tiresome discussion. Is it because drinking alcohol leads to diarrhea of the mouth (that is to say, lively discussion), and eventually to hunger, which leads to late-night junk food, that leads to... [awkward pause]?

In my opinion, which you're gonna get whether you like it or not, the reason for all the discussion is because it's a subject that's hotly debated, and that generates opinions, interest, and talk. Wine pairing is rooted in a practice that can either elevate both the food and the wine to new, ethereal heights, or it can decisively ruin both.

The balancing act is like concocting a hit early-80's sitcom. Combine the gruff, cantankerous comedic stylings of a Ted Knight with the lovable buffoonery of a hapless, effeminate Jim J. Bullock, and the pairing soars on the wings of Too Close for Comfort into the hallowed halls of television lore.

Conversely, if the pairing creates tension and disharmony, things go totally awry, and you end up with the doomed Homeboys in Outer Space (thanks TV Crunch for the inspirato on that one).

Here's the rub: everyone has different tastes. Just like what might resonate with television audiences, some pairings are going to work on paper (Homeboys in Outer Space is clearly a hilarious concept), but they just don't cut the mustard at the dinner table, or when the Nielson ratings are published. Ultimately, we're all individuals, and we all like what we like, so hitting a home run every time is like James Suckling not mentioning that he lives in Tuscany... probably ain't gonna happen.

I'm wrestling with this neurosis now, as I'll be hosting a wine pairing dinner for a large group on Saturday. I keep changing things up, overanalyzing, and researching the best matches. I know what I like, but will the crowd follow suit?

Fortunately, wine pairing doesn't have to be pure voodoo. There are some basic, food-science concepts that can be employed to hedge your pairings, increasing the odds of success. I'm gonna cover a couple here, then do a couple more in another post, because I both need more blog fodder, and this is a topic that causes bluster and filibustering (as I alluded to earlier):

1. Acid is good: wines with higher acidity stimulate one of the primary senses of the tongue, giving the sensation of the palate being cleansed. Furthermore, like squeezing lemon onto a bland piece of fish, some acidity can enhance the flavors of many foods. Acidic wines can usually stand up to tough-to-pair acidic foods (like a vinaigrette, for example), and they're great with fatty dishes, as fat can coat the palate, and the wine seems to clean things up for the next bite.

There are a few tricks to picking out a high acid wine. Knowing which grapes have naturally high acidity (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, etc.) is one way. Understanding cooler climate growing regions can also help. Grapes don't ripen as much in these cooler climates, leaving more acidity in the fruit. Another good tip is to check the alcohol level on the bottle. Lower alcohol (roughly, below 13%) is a pretty good indicator that the wine still has some dialed-down pH. This has to do with the fact that- as grapes ripen- acids decrease and sugars increase in the fruit. Sugar is converted into alcohol during fermentation, ergo, more sugar, more alcohol, less acid (provided there's no manipulation, which is another post).

2. When things get spicy, sugar and fruit are good, but alcohol is not: a little sweetness can temper the heat of spicy foods, and even dry wines that are very fruit-forward can fight the good fight, as fruitiness can be perceived by the palate as sweetness. However, the latter can be tricky, as dry, fruity wines often are the product of very ripe grapes, which means there was a lot of sugar during fermentation, (generally) equating to higher alcohol. High alcohol turns spice into straight-up HOT, burning the throat and killing all flavors. If you need proof, make yourself a Prairie Fire shot and see what happens.

For all these reasons, most German Sp├Ątlese and Auslese Rieslings do wonders with buffalo wings and Popeye's chicken. They are usually around 8% alcohol, with some residual sugar in the final wine. Furthermore, Riesling is naturally very high in acidity, so that jives with the tasty fats in fried poultry bits (see reason #1).

I'll have a list of what I'm pairing with what for Saturday's tasting on the Suburban Wino Facebook page. Please stop by and let me know you opinions. I'm open to suggestions, but I already have all the wines, so wiggle-room is limited.

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