PALATE CLEANSER: A brut rosè Champagne matches well with a wide variety of foods.
In my ongoing quest to get you all to drink more wine, I’ve been encouraging active, thoughtful tasting. This month we complete the final leg of the proverbial three-legged stool of wine components with acidity, the most important element for matching wine with food. If you missed the others over the last two months, check CL’s handy web archive.
The secret to great wine, as with great food, is in the quest for balance. The fruit (leg 1) should be full-bodied but not overpoweringly jammy; tannin (leg 2) creates structure but must stop short of an astringency level that tastes bitter; and acidity (leg 3) on the palate should be lively and fresh rather than sharp. Winemakers work very hard to balance these elements, and great wines juggle that equilibrium much like the Flying Karamazov Brothers toss around weird objects with aplomb.
Acidity turbocharges flavor in wine the same way a squeeze of lemon makes seafood pop, or tomato sauce gives dimension to pizza or pasta. Chefs often add a touch of vinegar to enhance and lengthen flavors as they’re tweaking food to balance dishes. In wine, the presence of acidity refreshes your palate.
Luckily for those of us working to find great pairings, winemakers are becoming more food-conscious and using all the tools at their disposal in the vineyard and the winery to lower alcohol levels and increase mouthwatering acidity so their wines will go better with food.
So you may ask: short of using litmus paper or a pH dip strip from my pool, how do I determine acidity? Well, generally, the lighter the color of the wine, the greater the perception of acidity. But more importantly, just ask yourself how much your mouth waters after a sip. You sense acid under your tongue, just behind your lower lip. More acidity, more saliva. If you taste a high-acid wine, such as Champagne or Albariño, next to a low-acid style like Gewürztraminer, the difference will be crystal clear.
Acidity cleanses your palate and prepares you for the next bite. That’s why Champagne or sparkling wine is a good choice if you’re having a hard-to-match menu of diverse foods. When I was lucky enough to return with a friend to Alinea, one of the world’s great restaurants in Chicago, I skipped the wine pairings, which I found disappointing (and expensive) on my first visit. Instead, we shared a brut rosè Champagne, which served us well through a quirky, wide-ranging menu of 24 mini “modernist cuisine” courses. Acidity was the key. Our palates were ready for anything the kitchen could throw at us from their amazingly complicated bag of tricks.
Most Old World winemakers understand acidity and get the balance right, especially with Riesling, which is a great food wine — and it’s not all sweet. Although, like Gewürztraminer, those versions that are off-dry (winespeak for having residual sugar) are wonderful matches for spicy food like Indian, Thai or Moroccan cuisines.
Food and wine matching is more art than science. You can “compare” by matching a high-acid wine with an acidic dish featuring vinaigrette or tomato sauce. Or “contrast” and counterbalance the acidity with fatty, oily foods (pâté, smoked salmon) or salty dishes (caviar, oysters). Comparing is a safer strategy, but contrast offers the chance of breathless discovery.
Next month, we’ll take the tools that I trust you’ve mastered by tasting obsessively over the past year and look more closely at strategies for ferreting out mind-blowing pairings. In the interim, taste expansively. Try something new. And, most importantly, use as many senses as possible with your brain in gear. Joy will surely follow.