When beginning to plan a meal – why not start with the wine first? I find that picking the wine first wholly simplifies the process of picking the food you want to eat. Certainly, the task of picking a wine off of a shelf of 300 other bottles that look nearly the same can be daunting… but the possibilities with food are nearly infinite. Let’s say there are 100 ingredients at the grocery store that you’re likely to use. If you use 5 of these ingredients in each dish, you have over 75 million ways to put them together… Amazing huh?
While choosing a wine can be complex and confusing, the decisions that we make at the grocery store every day seem to be way more complex! Wine will only have a couple of flavors listed on every bottle – and that provides the framework to match things up to it. Walking through the vegetable aisle at the store probably offers about 100 different products right there – if not significantly more.
That’s why it can be such a help to choose wine first for an important meal – be it a romantic evening with your better half, a dinner party for friends, or heck – whenever you want to be serious about cooking.
Let’s do a little brainstorm off of a sample bottle, to get the wheels turning.
The flavor terms listed on the bottle are:
So – the first thing to notice here is that these are all relatively “dark” flavors – often an indicator of a wine that is darker in color, and heavier in body. This type of wine will work amazingly in winter, when we’re looking for that extra bit of “stick to our ribs” flavor. It requires fairly intense flavors to live up to it. With a wine this powerful, your favorite white fish isn’t going to cut it.
Let’s delve into the nuts and bolts of these flavor notes
Any mention of a darker colored fruit (dark cherry) is pretty much the “go ahead” to use any meat that isn’t chicken or fish. Right off the bat, Pork seems like a great choice – it takes fruit flavors so well. And really, it is. However, it’s not going to match up as well with the tobacco and tannin flavors as well as beef or lamb will be able to. Unless you’re not going to be barbequing or smoking pork, beef or lamb will tend to work better with bitter and smokier flavors.
Basically, you’re probably going with lamb or beef – or whatever other darker meat you may have. Venison/hare will work well, but I’d probably prefer beef/lamb for being a bit more substantial in general.
Licorice is always an interesting flavor in terms of paring to it. Most conventional kitchen spices will work great – Allspice, cinnamon, cardamom. You do want to be careful not to overdo it. It’s very easy to overpower your dish matching to this type of flavor, so just a hint of whatever spice you choose. Tobacco can be a tough one as well – it has a very sweet flavor, but in a particularly complex way. Darker fruits match well, so the dark cherry described in the wine is already a point in you direction. All smoked foods will work well – but that’s often a pain or an expense we’re not quite prepared to take. Basically, it can function somewhat the same way licorice does – works well with spices, but use them sparingly
Tannin almost sounds ugly to begin with – typically bitter and astringent tastes, without much else to add. However, tannins provide the balance that your delicious wine rests on – fruit flavors often taste sweet to us, regardless of how sweet our wine may be. Without something to balance these flavors, our pairing dishes would nearly always require some sort of sweetness, just so they’d link up in some way. A slightly more tannic wine begs for a side dish that incorporates some bitterness. Dark greens are always a great choice – kale, chard.
Given all of these elements – here are some dish ideas to work off of:
Ribeye Steak – Steamed Swiss Chard, Sweet polenta
Use lemon to accentuate the chard – it’ll cut the fat of the steak and make the wine more refreshing. Polenta offers a nice compliment – the sweetness/relatively neutral flavor will temper the bitterness of the chard, while the smooth texture will match well with the chewiness of steak.
Lamb – Blackberry/Allspice Pan sauce
After cooking the lamb, toss a pat of butter, some wine into the pan to deglaze. Add the allspice/blackberries (blueberries would also work well) into the pan, and simmer for 8 minutes, or until you can easily smash the berries into the sauce. Use the back of a spoon to crush the berries into the sauce. This would work great with a sweet potato mash, or possibly a squash puree – sweeter elements to link up to the blackberry is the key.
Lamb – Oregano/Lemon Juice
A very classic combination – it does the double duty of linking to the wine by spicing the lamb, and also cutting through the fat of the meat with the acid from the lemon. I might pair this with an artichoke that’s been squirted with a bit of lemon/olive oil, just for fun.
Braised Short Ribs – Carrot, Onion, Celery, Allspice, Bread
You can’t go wrong with a classic French mire poix for a beef stew. The allspice really makes this combination amazing, and links everything perfectly to the wine. I like to toast the allspice and put it into some cheesecloth and then into the stew for easy removal. That way, you’re not fishing it out later, but still deriving all of the flavor from the spices. A bit of simple bread and some salad is all you need with this dish. The basic method is sear the beef, add wine/stock, and simmer for an hour(depending on the cut, this timing can vary greatly). Add your vegetables, and simmer for another hour. You can easily thicken the stew at the end of the cooking time by making a slurry of arrowroot or cornstarch in very cold water, and then stirring it into the boiling stew
Next time you’re in the wine aisle – try and find a flavor you relate to that you can use somewhere in the meal! Even slightly linking your cooking to your wine will open you to a whole new world of flavor and fun.