HOW TO PAIR WINE & FOOD

Which wine will pair best with a meal? Or, which meal will pair best with a wine? It’s the number one type of question I get. But it’s really not that complicated, I promise.

Think about how you would go about decorating a room. If you’ve watched Sarah’s House, featuring the lovely Sarah Richardson, you’ll know she always chooses her key fabric first, the one that has all the colors she’ll be working with. Then she chooses the paint and accessories to pop from that key fabric. I think you know where I’m going with this…

The ‘fabric’ in our case is the meal. When pairing wine, we always want to start with the food that will be served. That dish will give us all the key flavors and textures to pair with. Then we start thinking about, is the dish light, or rich? Is one flavor dominant, like lemon, or is there a blend of flavors like roast onion, herbs, and pepper? Is it rustic or elegant?

Next, choose your color. What color wine do you think will go best?

Body – do you need a heavier bodied wine or lighter one? This will lead you to cool or hot wine regions.

Flavor intensity is important. The wine should bring out the best in the food and vice versa, never dominate and overpower. This is where the grape you choose will play a big role.

Most important though, is to have the courage of your convictions…

If you’re ordering for the table, or have chosen the wine for a dinner party, don’t let them see your fear! I’m convinced 99% of their reaction will be based on how confident you appear. So remember: be confident, be creative, and as Julia Child said, “Never apologize”!

Here’s a fun Pinterest graphic that my talented friend Susannah of Feast + West created based on my top pairing tips {I recently wrote a series of Wine 101 articles featured on her site, be sure to check them out}!

 

CHIANTI CLASSICO IN THE LIMELIGHT

ONCE upon a time, the powerful Republics of Florence and Siena were great enemies. Being medieval times™, it was decided a battle between two noble knights would settle the score over just who owned the territory between their beautiful cities, in the area we know today as Chianti.

At dawn, the rooster’s crow would be the signal for each knight to leave their city and where they met, they would fight to create a border between the territories. The Sienese had a lovely white rooster, who they groomed and fed. The Florentines had a black rooster, who they caged and treated (at least according to the Sienese) quite poorly. The little guy was underfed, and really, really hungry.

On the day of the duel, the black rooster was so eager for the day to begin, and for breakfast, that he started crowing and crowing, nevermind that dawn was hours away. Since, technically, Mr. Florence can now start to ride, he gains a massive head start on his journey south. Dawn arrives, and the white rooster crows. Mr. Siena starts on his way. But the black rooster has given Florence such a head start, that the two meet only a few miles north of Siena! The Florentine knight wins the duel, and coincidentally, most of the territory of Chianti comes under Florence’s power.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how the black rooster comes to be on bottles of Chianti Classico… or so they say!

When you think of Chianti, does it bring to mind the straw-wrapped candle holder from Lady and The Tramp? Well, if so, it’s time to reconsider, and give Chianti a fresh chance. A good Chianti is a delicious prospect.

Chianti Classico is a region in Tuscany that lies between the cities of Florence and Siena. Look for ‘Classico DOCG’ and that trademark symbol of a black rooster on the label, this means you’re getting wine from this specific region. There are about 10,000 hectares of rolling-hill vineyards in Chianti Classico, and most of them are the grape variety Sangiovese. Sangio must make up at least 80% of what’s in your bottle, and the other 20% can be a local grape like Canaiolo or the more familiar Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon.

About that Sangiovese: when it’s a younger wine, expect red fruit flavors like strawberry and some good tannins. Then, as it matures, it can develop an earthy, baking spice note that is quite appealing, and as those tannins soften they become almost magical. I love this grape when I catch the scent of violets. I think of it in some ways as a more powerful cousin to Pinot Noir, so if you like those aromatic PN qualities, I think you’ll enjoy Sangio.

Sometimes, it’s a little confusing – what’s the difference between regular Chianti and Chianti Classico? For that, we have to go back to 1716, when the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III, gave official borders to the wine region. Then, flash forward to the early 1900’s, when Chianti, growing ever more popular, has greatly expanded production. In response to the higher demand, wine starts being grown in lesser areas, outside the official zone but still called Chianti.

Of course, quality and reputation start to suffer. So, in 1932 specific rules were set out, that only Cosimo’s original historic area can call itself ‘Chianti Classico’ (there are 9 communes within Classico such as Greve in Chianti and Radda in Chianti). The outer areas that don’t fall within Classico can call themselves plain old ‘Chianti’ plus a place name (for example Chianti Rufina, Chianti Colli Senesi).

Italians love quality, just think of Italian suits or Italian sheets. So of course, they have a quality ranking system within Classico:

~There’s the basic ‘Chianti Classico’, which has to have at least 12% alcohol and mature for 12+ months. These can be quite good, and will be the most cost-effective option.

~Then there’s Riserva, which has a little more alcohol, 12.5%, implying that maybe the fruit was a little better, and it gets double the aging at 24+ months, which can also help those tannins get a little smoother and bring out the spice and earth notes. Very good value to be found here.

~Now, as of 2013, there’s a new top tier blockbuster, called Gran Selezione, boom! It needs to have at least 13% alcohol and age for 30+ months, plus it must be made from the winery’s best grapes of a single vineyard – and yes, the price is much higher to match. If you like Brunello, you’ll love the Grand Sel’s.

If you’re open to giving Chianti Classico a try (and you really should), these are all wines that I loved and would give my ‘buy’ rating to:

Classico

Chianti Classico DOCG Cennatoio Avorio 2012

Chianti Classico DOCG Casina di Cornia 2012

Chianti Classico DOCG Rodano 2010

Chianti Classico DOCG Castello di Cacchiano 2009

Chianti Classico DOCG Felsina Berardenga 2012

Riserva

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Castello di Gabbiano 2011

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Villa Antinori 2011

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Cortevecchia 2011

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Carobbio 2011

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva O’Leandro 2011

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Casa Sola 2009

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Montornello 2012

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Poggio a’ Frati 2011

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Vigna Misciano 2011

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Campoalto 2009

Gran Selezione

Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione Don Tommaso 2010

Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione Castello Fonterutoli 2011

 

Cin Cin, Rachel

HOW TO BUY SPARKLING WINE AS A GIFT

 A flower? How thoughtful... but I was really hoping for some Champagne

A flower? How thoughtful... but I was really hoping for some Champagne

One of the top questions I get from wine lovers is, “What wine should I buy for X occasion”? Or, they need a gift for the boss, or a wine to bring to a dinner party.This is my answer: SPARKLING WINE!

Let me enumerate my reasons:

#1 It goes with everything. From oysters to pizza, you can’t go wrong with sparkling.

#2 It’s fun! Everyone loves the bubb.

#3 There’s a wide range of pricing. From entry level, to spendy Vintage Champagne, whatever your budget, there’s a sparkling for it.

Now we’re going to talk options. We all know Champagne (which on a label denotes it’s made in the Champagne region of France). But there are some other less well known bubbles I want you to know about too. They’re not all made in the same way as “Champagne Method” (called “Traditional Method” when used outside Champagne) which greatly affects their price. For a primer on the Champagne Method, check out #Instawineschool Day 6.

Prosecco:

Made in the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions of Italy (the North-East corner). Often cheap, cheerful, perfect for making cocktails (Bellini anyone?), or enjoying on it’s own, Prosecco is the go-to wine to bring to a house party or as a small thank you to the neighbors for picking up your mail. Most Prosecco is made using the tank method, in which the bubbles are added to a wine while it’s in a tank (as opposed to created in the bottle via secondary fermentation) which makes it cost effective. Prosecco is made from the grape Glera, and is usually crisp, fruity and fairly dry, although sweeter versions do exist. If you’re looking for a top quality ‘Secco keep an eye out for the letters DOCG on the label.

Cava:

Made in Spain. Cavas are actually made in the same method as Champagne, so you’ll see ‘Traditional Method’ on the label. It’s often produced from a blend of local grapes that you don’t hear too much about: Macabeu, Parellada and Xarello, mainly in the Catalonia region in the North-East of Spain, although we're starting to see more made from Chardonnay too. This is a smart buy, as you'll find flavours comparable to Champagne (shhh, don’t tell them I said so) but at under half the cost. Cava is perfect for bringing to a dinner party or fancy brunch, and I love to make my favourite cocktail, the Kir Royale, with it (top your Cava with a lashing of sweet ruby Cassis liqueur).

Non-Vintage Champagne (NV):

Made in Champagne, France, this is for when quality counts. NV Champagne is usually made from a blend of three grapes: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. The grapes can come from all over the Champagne region, and the final wine will be a blend of wine made in different years, hence the term “non-vintage”. Master blenders are responsible for recreating the house style year after year. My favourite NV Champagne is Veuve Clicquot, as I love the truly toasty brioche note it has, and I'm also partial to Taittinger and Ruinart. Expect bubbles that are fine and creamy; some people say they look like a string of pearls running from the bottom of the glass. This would be a delightful birthday present, Mother’s Day gift, or something to thank your hostess for a weekend stay. PS: if you see Blanc de Blancs on the label, it's made from Chardonnay, and Blanc de Noirs is Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier.

Vintage Champagne:

OK, take your best grapes, from your best vineyards, in a great year, and you have the beginnings of a Vintage Champagne. This Champers is from a specific year: while the grapes may come from various vineyards, they were all grown in the year declared on the label. Vintage Champagne lays on its lees for even longer than the NV stuff. That’s where the bottles are resting in the caves with the yeasts (lees) still in the wine, and gives us those sought-after bready notes. Vintage Champagne can be had for sometimes just a slight premium over the NV, although you can always spend more, and it's perfect for a special celebration. I’d buy Vintage for a wedding anniversary, romantic Valentine’s Day dinner, or to celebrate a big business win!

Thanks for reading! I’d love to know what’s your go-to sparkling? Send me a shout out in the comments below.

WINE TERMS YOU SHOULD KNOW

Let’s talk about some winemaking terms that you’ve surely seen on the back of the wine bottle or heard people chatting about, but may not be entirely clear on what it is they mean. Below we’re covering five of the most used technical or 'jargony' wine words and what they mean about the flavour of a wine:

Natural Fermentation

Fermentation is the process whereby happy little yeasts eat the sugars in the grape juice (must), and in turn produce alcohol, carbon dioxide and heat. The yeasts are naturally present in the winery and on the skins of the grapes, and find their way into the wine all by themselves; you will hear this called a “natural fermentation”. Natural Fermentation is popular in the low intervention winemaking crowd and in traditional old world wineries, and many believe it can impart more complex flavours to their wines.

The other school of winemaking will inoculate their juice with a batch of commercially made yeasts, which is more commonly seen, as it allows more control over the winemaking process including the flavours produced. Sometimes, a bit of both happens, a natural ferment topped up with some help from commercial yeasts.

The fermentation process itself can be done in stainless steel tanks, which are efficient and easy to clean, barrels (called a “barrel fermentation”), or even concrete eggs, which mimic ancient clay vessels and are thought to increase circulation of the fermenting must.

Malolactic Fermentation (Malo)

Have you seen a reference to “malo” on your wine label or heard the word at a winery? Malo is a process that happens towards the end of or just after the alcoholic fermentation is done. It is caused by a bacteria which transforms the sharp tasting malic acid present in the wine, into the softer, creamier tasting lactic acid (think of a tart green apple versus a creamy dairy flavour). Most red wines undergo this process, and it won’t necessarily be mentioned in the winemaking notes. Where you will see it is on softer whites such as Chardonnay, where a creamy, buttery flavour can be desirable. Crisp, aromatic whites, such as Riesling, are not likely to go through malolactic fermentation.

Methode Champenoise/Traditional Method

The “Champagne Method” (called the “Traditional Method” when used on non-Champagne sparkling wines), is how makers get the bubbles inside the bottle. This process is a labour of love responsible for the fine creamy bubbles we’ve come to expect from Champagne. Other wines that use this method are French Cremants, Cava from Spain, Franciacorta from Italy, and many new world sparklings.

My favourite new world sparkling wines are Blue Mountain’s Reserve Brut and Summerhill’s Cipes Brut, both from British Columbia. But don't get me started!

After the initial fermentation, winemakers fill the Champagne bottles with the wine, and a mixture of extra yeast and sugar. This allows a smaller second fermentation to happen inside the bottle. As the yeasts eat the sugar within the bottle, they produce carbon dioxide that is trapped and creates pressure that will cause bubbles to form.

The yeasts eventually die, undergoing autolysis (which is where they break down within the wine and give a delicious bread dough aroma and flavour). The bottles are allowed to rest in racks for quite a while, as they are turned a fraction at a time until they are nearly fully inverted, in a process called riddling. The yeast remnants collect into the neck of the bottle, until they are dipped in a freezing solution, and the frozen plug in the bottle neck is disgorged. Extra wine and sometimes sugar, a mixture called dosage, is added to top up the bottle before the cork is applied. With all this to get the bubbles, I bet you can understand why some sparkling wines are more expensive than others!

Brett (Brettanomyces)

This is one term you won’t likely see on the label, as some wine folk think it’s a bad thing, but you will definitely come across it in your glass and hear about it from your local wine nerd. Brett is a bacteria that is commonly known by the euphemism “barnyard”. I personally love a touch of the barnyard when I smell a wine, but for some it is off-putting, especially if it's a strong presence in the bottle. I've noticed a wide range of tolerances, for some, even a tiny amount of this smell and it's 'game over' while other people live for it. The Brett bacteria can be present all through the winery, and in small amounts add complexity, but in overwhelming doses is definitely considered a wine fault.

New Oak

You’ll probably have seen the phrase “new oak”, especially if you are a fan of new world wines. New oak refers to the oak barrels that wine rests in to mellow out before it is bottled and sold. When oak barrels are brand new, they impart a significant amount of flavour to a wine, with aromas like vanilla, toast, and spice. The time in new oak can also smooth out and soften harsh tannins.

Barrels are reused, but most of their flavour is given up in the first two years that they’re filled with wine. After the third year, they can still be used, but they would be called “inert” or “neutral”, meaning they are not imparting much oak flavour anymore. They do however, still have an important purpose for aging the wine: the wood allows a small amount of oxygen to interact with the wine, which will round out the edges on tannins.

You might also see a reference on the wine label to the type of oak used. The two major types of barrels are American and French (although barrels are made elsewhere too). American oak can give vanilla and coconut flavour, and French has a reputation for a finer grained wood which can lend a more elegant finish to the wine.

Barrels are a big expense for a winery, so they are often proud of their new oak. In more commercial grade wines, you can taste the use of cheaper oak chips or oak essence to attempt to replicate the flavours of a new oak barrel.

Hope this helps! Let me know of any other wine label words that you’ve come across below.

SCOTCH WHISKY 101

Calling all Sassenachs with a thirst… Starz has just launched their big budget Outlander TV series based on the engrossingly bodice-ripping Diana Gabaldon books: a WWII era nurse is sent back to the Scottish Highlands of 1743.

Let’s raise a dram to the casting agents and location scouts!                        

Setting the stage for this very Scottish spirit, and let’s cover some Scotch 101:

Did you know Glen is Gaelic for “valley”? When you see Glenfarclas, Glenfiddich and Glenlivet, now you know it means Valley of …

To be called Scotch, it must be distilled and aged for a minimum of three years in oak within Scotland. Distillers are permitted to add caramel coloring (not all do), and can water down the cask strength to a minimum of 40% alcohol before bottling.

Single Malt vs Blended Scotch: Single malts are made solely from malted barley and are the product of a single distillery, though they can contain a blend of whiskies from that same distillery. A Blended Scotch whisky combines both malted barley and grains such as wheat and rye, that can come from several distilleries (famous blends: Chivas Regal, Johnnie Walker).

If you see a number on a bottle of Scottish, such as “20 Year Old”, that means the youngest whisky included in the blend is 20 (although a 20 year old can have some 25, 30, or even 50+ year old in the mix).

There are several main regions for Scotch: Highlands, Speyside, Lowlands, Islay, and Campbeltown. The largest number of distilleries are found in Speyside. Islay are famous for their smoky peat character.

Scots, Canadians and Aussies drink “whisk-y”, Irish drink “whisk-ey”, and Americans spell it both ways.

Scotch can be aged in old sherry, bourbon and port barrels, for extra deliciousness, which is called “finishing”.

If you see “Cask Strength” on the label, it means the whisky has been bottled without adding water. It can be a bit strong, so don’t be afraid to add some water to your glass to protect your precious tastebuds.

Thanks for reading, I'd love to know: what's your favorite single malt or blend?