What makes a good wine pairing? Why is it so important to serve an appropriate wine with your dishes or to have the right dish with certain wines? Most of us start with a dish we would like to serve or order in a restaurant and then try to choose the ideal wine to accompany it. But our Wine Council members start with the wine and try to create the perfect dishes to match. (While food is important, “wine is king” at our Wine Council meetings.)
Our Wine Council recently met at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony near the Temecula Valley Wine Country to try some wine and food pairings. Linda, Karsten, Robin, Todd and Sue were each assigned wines from Josh Cellars Wines and then they each prepared a food pairing that they thought would be a good match.
Josh Cellars is a label from the well-known Joseph Carr Winery located in Carneros, California. The brand is described on the winery’s website as “bold, expressive and unassuming” and I would say that the wines discussed in this article aptly reflect this description. Josh wines are reasonably priced and frequently available in retail outlets in California, such as BevMo.
So what is a good wine pairing? My simple explanation is that a good pairing occurs when the wine and food enhance each other or when they are each better when tasted together rather than alone. I will venture to say that while there are often wines that can be completely appreciated without food, it is rare to have food that is not improved by a few sips of a nicely matched wine.
Matching food to a wine you haven’t tasted is a challenge since obviously not every varietal tastes the same and not all palates discern tastes in the same way. One Chardonnay might go well with ceviche while another one might overpower it. But for Wine Council meetings all we can do is create our dishes to match the ideal characteristics of a varietal. Usually this works well, although sometimes it doesn’t.
Wine and food have flavor characteristics that can be compared such as sweetness, fruitiness, acidity, spiciness and bitterness. Good pairings frequently feature wines and foods with similar characteristics, richness and textures. So a bold, spicy red wine might go well with a heavily flavored, spicy sausage dish. But contrasting pairings sometimes also work well. A heavy pasta dish in a carbonara sauce could easily match well with a crispy Sauvignon Blanc with good acidity. This is a simplification of the food/wine pairing process, but it’s a good place to start. The true test is how well the tastes actually work together.
Our Wine Council members felt that three of the Josh Cellars wines we tasted were excellent, especially when we considered their reasonable price points. The Wine Council members all said they would buy these wines (and they probably will).
I was assigned the 2012 Sauvignon Blanc. The tasting notes said to expect aromas of lime and citrus, layers of peach and tropical melon. So I decided to try a contrasting dish—a rich cheese fondue made from Gruyere and Emmentaler. I mixed the cheeses with an oaky Chardonnay, nutmeg, lemon juice and a touch of brandy. Everyone agreed that the Josh Sauvignon Blanc was an excellent wine that more than met our expectations for this varietal and that paired very well with the hunks of cheese-coated crusty bread we speared with our fondue forks. The big peach flavor and acidity of the wine were a good contrast with the cheese. This was a rich wine for the varietal, which is probably why it worked so well with the strong cheeses. The wine also enhanced Linda’s delicious bread pudding and rich chocolate brownies from Sweet Jill’s in Seal Beach. At $13.99 we felt this wine was an excellent buy.
Todd was asked to pair a 2011 Merlot, which was described as having flavors of plum and cherry. He chose to serve tangy kielbasa that had been simmered in red wine with lots of orange zest. We found the Merlot to have a deep berry richness on the palate, a depth not usually found in Merlots. The fruity wine, which also had hints of mocha, brought out the orange zest tastes in the sausage dish. It also went very well with Robin’s delectable meatloaf. At $14.95 a bottle, this wine was another great buy from Josh Cellars.
But the favorite wine of the evening was the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon that was perfectly paired with Robin’s all beef, gluten-free meatloaf made with rice, carrots and other seasonings, all topped with richly caramelized red onions. Not only did this wine have a savory nose and very nice balance, it offered tastes of black currants, dark cherries and plums along with smoke on the palate. The meatloaf mirrored these rich tastes and enriched our sips of the wine, while the wine brought even more abundant flavor to the meatloaf. If this was not a perfect pairing, I’m not sure what a perfect pairing would be. While this Cab's retail price is generally $14.99, one of our members found it on sale for $10.99 at BevMo.
We tasted other wines, but these three were the most outstanding. We also enjoyed Kartsen’s smoked, peppered salmon and his cucumbers stuffed with quinoa. The crunchy and refreshing cucumber dish was enhanced by the Sauvignon Blanc, perhaps because of the acidity in both the food and the wine. The salmon’s spice went well with all the red wines we tasted.
And so it was another successful night of wine tasting and eating. We are always appreciative of the efforts our Wine Council members make to create dishes that will help us really savor and enjoy the wines of the evening. And I think we are getting better at pairing all the time. Would we have enjoyed these wines alone without the food? Yes, for sure. But I believe we enjoyed them even more with the food. And that’s what wine and food pairing is all about.