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Food and Wine

by Terri Geiser

[See chart and recipes for White Grapes/Wine | Red Grapes/Wine]

Food and Wine go together like steak and potatoes, butter and honey, or biscuits and gravy. In other words, the two are meant for each other, they both taste better when paired together. But you don't have to know much about wine to enjoy it—just open the bottle and pour. To understand why some food and wine combinations work and why some don't you need some basic information. Most importantly is to learn for yourself what combinations of tastes YOU enjoy the most.

Begin by thinking of food and wine by comparing things that are familiar to you. For example, what happens to fish when you squeeze lemon on it or why is the flavor of a sauce improved with a particular herb? Wine enhances food in the same way. The flavors in the food should bridge the flavors in the wine and the body and weight of the food and wine should balance each other.

In the beginning you may be hesitant to purchase wine without some knowledge. To improve your comfort level we will begin our exploration of wine tasting with some important basic terms. Then we'll look at the characteristics of the more common grape varieties. As we go along I will provide some suggestions for food pairings that I enjoy.

Tasting Terms

Body—in simplest terms, the body is the way the wine feels in the mouth, much of which is determined by the level of alcohol. The wine will either be thin, medium, rich or heavy, expressed as having a light (7 to 10 percent alcohol), medium (10.5-12 percent alcohol), or full body (over 12.5 percent alcohol).

Breathe— this is the process of exposing the wine to air for a period of time before serving. It allows the wine to oxidize and can help soften the flavors and decrease the harshness that some bolder reds may have. It is especially wise to allow older reds to breathe. A decanter is a glass or crystal vessel that is often used for decanting the wine, allowing it to breathe.

Color—The color of the wine is the first indication of the age of the wine, and often it can give you an idea of the varietal, if the wine was aged, and what the wine will taste like.

Terri's Tip: Hold a white cloth behind the wine to evaluate the true color.

  • White wines: will range in color beginning with the youngest wine being pale yellow to straw yellow. The aged white wines range from yellow-gold, gold, to light brown.

  • Red wines: will range in color, beginning with the youngest being purple, ruby, or red. The older aged red wines range from brick red, red-brown, to brown.

Finish—This is the evaluation of your overall impression of the wine. Is there good balance between the acid, alcohol, tannins, and sugars? How long did the balance and flavor continue in the mouth? Did the flavor linger up to 60 seconds? If the wine was full of pleasing flavor, well balanced and continued in the mouth at least 60 seconds, you could consider this a good wine.

Smell—The smell is a very important part of wine tasting. You can smell over 2,000 different scents but you can only perceive four tastes- bitter, salt, sour and sweet. Certain varietals will have distinctive characteristics. The best way to recognize wine by its smell is to practice.

Terri's Tip: Begin smelling things that are familiar to you like pears, vanilla, blackberries, raspberries, chocolate, or cedar. Then start comparing those to the appropriate wines. The following chart will provide you with a good overview of the bouquet for the more common grapes/wines.

  • Aroma- the smell of the grapes
  • Bouquet- the smell of the wine
  • Nose- both the aroma and the bouquet
Swirl—After pouring the wine into the glass you will see people swirling it. This puts oxygen into the wine, releasing the esters, ethers, and aldehydes all yielding the smell. You will also notice that the droplets that form around the top of the glass will run down the glass back into the wine. These are called legs. The more prominent legs indicate a higher alcohol or sugar content.

Tannin—This is more of a sensation than a taste. If you have ever taken a bite of a pecan with a bit of the shell you will know exactly the sensation you get from tannins. The tannins in wine come from the skin, stems, and pit of the grape. They act as preservatives, allowing the wine to age in the bottle. If the tannins are too high, they can make the wine taste bitter. Red grapes are usually higher in tannins because the grapes are left with the skins during fermentation.

  • Taste—As mentioned before, the tasting begins with the smell. After you note the color, swirl, and smell the wine you are finally ready to taste it.

  • Acid—sometimes confused with sour, it is actually what gives wine crispness and freshness

  • Sugar—may be perceived as fruit. When a wine is dry, the sugars have been converted to alcohol. Some white varietals and all dessert wines will taste sweet. Most reds will be dry.

  • Alcohol—a wine with high alcohol content will cause a burning sensation on the back of the tongue and throat. Too much alcohol will cause the wine to taste harsh.

    Oak—Flavors that a wine may elicit when aged in oak barrels include caramel, ginger, spice, vanilla, smoke, coffee...

For additional wine and food pairing tips see the sidebar on the right.

Selecting and Storing

Once you decide what varietal you want to buy, you're half way there. Having an understanding of where the grape is grown is an important factor in determining the quality of the wine. Some grapes produce better wine when grown in cooler climate. Other grapes prefer a warmer climate. The soil is important too. A specific grape should be grown in the soil where it will thrive. Some grapes prefer soil with more gravel; some grapes prefer sand or clay. Sunshine, rainfall, temperatures and soil composition all influence the growth of the grape vine. These natural factors are collectively referred to as terroir.

It is equally important to know the vintage of the wine, the year that the grapes were grown, especially as it relates to weather. Reports and wine guides are developed every year that provide that information.

How a vineyard manages the growing of grapes and how they process the grapes into wine will also influence the final product. For example lowering the crop yield and harvesting at the right time will maximize the flavor of the wine. The fermentation and aging process will also affect the complexity, flavor and overall quality of the wine. When you find a wine that you enjoy, learn a little about the producer to enhance your ability to select a good wine.

Wine should be stored at a constant temperature around 55-60 degrees F. Temperatures that are too hot or too cold will cause a wine to lose its flavor. Extreme temperature fluctuations will shorten the lifespan. After opening a bottle of wine it is best to drink it. White wines will save a few days refrigerated and red wines should be stored only a day or two at temperatures between 55-60 degrees. Otherwise, freeze the wine in ice cube trays and use it later for cooking.

Optimal Serving Temperatures (°F)

Dessert Wines 52° to 60° Fahrenheit (11° to 16° Celsius)
Sherries and Ports 62° to 65° Fahrenheit (17° to 18° Celsius)
Champagne and Sparkling 40° to 45° Fahrenheit (4° to 7° Celsius)
White Wines 50° to 55° Fahrenheit (10° to 13° Celsius)
Red Wines 60° to 65° Fahrenheit (16° to 18° Celsius)

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missing image Food and Wine Pairing Tips
  • Dry sparkling wines and those with moderate alcohol and lower levels of oak and tannins are best with salty foods

  • Zippy white wines like Rieslings and Gewürztraminers go with tart dressings and sauces

  • When a dish has lots of fresh herbs, drink a wine that has citrus and herb scents like Sauvignon Blanc

  • Light seafood dishes take on more flavor when paired with delicate white wines; try Pinot Grigio or Albarino

  • Try buttery, silky whites such as Chardonnays with a rich fish or fish in a rich sauce

  • Pair spicy dishes with off-dry whites like sweet Rieslings and Conundrum or a Rose.

  • The fruit in desserts are enhanced by a slightly sweet sparkling wines

  • When in doubt a Rose will often work since they have such depth of flavor, being very food friendly

  • Remember that the wine should be sweeter than the desserts they are paired with

  • For rich, cheesy dishes, try a dry rosé

  • Foods with earthy flavors like mushrooms are great with light bodied reds full of savory depth- my favorites are Pinot Noirs.

  • Old World wines and Old World dishes are usually good together

  • Big bold reds are bold enough to drink with foods that are brushed with heavy barbeque sauces like Zinfandels and Syrah