Choosing and Pairing Wines
By: Chef Cristian Feher
Wine choosing and pairing can be a tedious and overwhelming task. It can also be intimidating if you don’t know a lot about them.
At some point, our society entered into a tacit agreement that knowing your wines elevates you into a higher class of refinement and taste. And if you don’t know your wines, you’re not part of the club. It was also around that same time that people agreed to get really serious about golf.
I’m not knocking golf or wine, I’m simply suggesting that they’re not a social grading system. IQ and aptitude tests would better serve that purpose. However, I do realize what a lame work outing that would make. And so wine and golf do seem to be a more palatable test when looked upon in that regard.
As a professional chef it is expected that I have a fine knowledge of wine. To be honest with you, I struggled with that subject for years - not being a big fan of wine myself - I found it a challenge to know the perfect wine for the perfect occasion. And it was a little disheartening to see the disappointment in my customers faces when mention of their favorite wine pairing elicited little response from me. I simply did not “speak wine”. That is, until I had a wine talk with one of my favorite customers.
Mr. Joyce is one of America’s great CEO’s. He’s traveled the world, sampled the finest wines and even manages to play a little golf in his spare time. Just ask any of the hundreds of people that have had the pleasure of knowing him, and they will tell you part of what makes him a great CEO is his ability to look straight through a complex situation and see the workable facts. And so it was, with a patient and gentle explanation, Mr. Joyce made something that I found complex, simple and workable.
While preparing a lavish dinner party for his birthday, we got on the subject of wine and I admitted to him that I didn’t know quite as much about it as I should - that I didn’t want to make a pairing suggestion seeing as he knew more about wines than I did. But we did agree that part of what makes a good wine, aside from taste, was one that did not give you a headache.
Mr. Joyce simply looked at me and said, “You know Cristian, I’ve had wines from all over the world. I’ve had good ones and bad ones. But picking out the right wine comes down to a few simple rules that I’ve observed.” And he continued to lay out the few simple rules that I now use to choose the right wines for my pairings. I will share these with you below.
Wine Regions. If you ask most people what country makes the best wine, they will undoubtedly say “France!”. However, with the advent of modern technology this is no longer the case. An important part for many people in enjoying a good wine is not having to pay for it with a headache. And while you might think that factor depends more on quantity versus quality, there may likely be a chemical factor.
French wine makers still use 200-year-old wine making techniques. Part of these traditions involve adding sugar to ferment the wine. This gives certain French wines a certain chemical combination that may cause headaches.
Wines made in Australia and California use newer high tech methods of making wine which do not require the addition of sugar to the fermentation process. This yields a cleaner, head-friendly product. They also taste just as good (some better) than French wines.
Score. Nowadays, most wine stores provide you with a scoring system. Most wines are graded and given a score from 1 to 100. Mr. Joyce suggested that anything above 89 is good.
Age. Wine starts out as grape juice, and through the process of fermentation changes into an alcoholic juice we call wine. There is an ever-changing chemical evolution inside each bottle that takes place over the years. When choosing red or white wines you should make sure they are at least five years old. At this stage in the fermentation process you start to get a high quality wine with chemical compounds that have mellowed out.
I have also noticed that I get no headaches from wines that are more than five years old, as compared to younger wines which do cause headaches. This may be due to certain chemicals in the wine that have not yet broken down before this five year mark.
Price. Mr. Joyce suggested that I not bother with anything over $25 per bottle. There are plenty of good quality wines, aged over five years, around the $15-$25 range that are quite good.
Champagne and Sparkling Wines. Bubbles change the game. In choosing a sparkling wine such as Champagne, I prefer fresh, young wines. Sparkling wines may taste sweeter with age, but I find younger sparkling wines cleaner, and I feel better after drinking younger wine, than older ones. Mr. Joyce prefers young sparkling wines as well.
Now that you know how to choose the right wine, let’s move on to pairings.
I used to say this when I didn’t know anything about wines, and I will say it again (this time with a little more authority): “The right wine pairing is the one you enjoy drinking.” Don’t forget this as the senior rule. In fact, it doesn’ t have to be wine. Some meals are much more enjoyable with beer, club soda, Pepsi, or heck - even Kool-Aid! It all depends on you personal tastes and occasion.
But let’s come back to wines. When I look at a food to pair, I only pay attention to three main things: The color, the density (is it heavy or light) and the taste (is it sweeter or more savory) This allows me to match a wine to go with it.
Color. If the main star of the plate is red (as in a steak), I know that I’m going with a red wine to match the color. If it’s a chicken breast or a fillet of white fish I will go with a white. If it’s a pink duck breast I will go with a rose. If it’s a mushroom risotto (brown is part of the yellow spectrum) I will go with a dry white (yellow). You get the idea, right?
Density. If I look at the density - a steak versus a piece of salmon - they are both red, but one is light (salmon) and one is heavy (the steak). So I would choose a lighter rose wine for the salmon and a heavier dark red wine for the steak. Here I’ve matched both color, and density.
How do I judge the density for wine? By how much light can show through the wine.
Taste. Taste is quite easy. Generally speaking, wine is either sweet or dry. It’s not hard to do a simple wine tasting at your local wine store to see which ones are sweeter and which ones drier.
Now, when you taste your dish, you can tell if it’s a savory dish or a sweet dish (and there is a gradual scale between the two, as there is with wine). So you can use this to match your wine. For example, I would match a fruity white or rose wine to BBQ pork ribs (sweet), and a dry white to Dijon pork chops (savory). Here I have matched, both, the taste and the color.
As you can see, with the help of Mr. Joyce, I have managed not only an understanding of how to choose a good wine, but also a simple pattern of pairings which works very well for me. I hope to see you at my next dinner party! And remember, keep it simple.