Certified sommelier Kathleen Erickson, who will be opening Savour Wine and Cheese at 24 Washington St. in Gloucester, is ready to teach how brilliant wine and food marriages can make even a weekday dinner of white wine and salad far more than the sum of its parts.
Many Americans pour the first glass of wine standing at the kitchen counter just before they're about to chop the onions or wash the lettuce for dinner. In Europe wine is a non-negotiable part of the meal, as important a player in dinner as a protein, vegetable and starch. This simple cultural difference has big implications for wine drinkers: If you're enjoying a wine by itself, without food, you're more apt to want big flavor right at the front door of your first sip, calling, "Hello, I'm chardonnay!"
Because they often don't begin drinking wine with food, American taste leans towards bigger fruit and less acidity. Acidity in wine grabs on to the food; it helps a cabernet franc and a salad of toasted walnuts, pear and blue cheese magically unite; it's why a European chardonnay like Chablis can activate scallops and butter to be ethereal while its oaky American cousin has a hard time finding any mate in food at all. Heavy oak traditionally dislikes food. Oaky wines, wines aged in new oak barrels, are described as "seeming hard" or "falling flat" with food. Aged oak barrels impart less oak. Wines aged in the old oak barrels therefore have better balance; they're more artfully designed to marry with dinner. Wines that are particularly well-matched with food may even taste unimpressive alone, a little empty and loaded with acid until the Brunswick Stew or Paella becomes its better half.
All the experts advise that wine pairing is mostly personal, but there are classic guides with which to begin: Pair wines to contrast with food, like the richness of lamb to the tannins in a Bordeaux, or sharp stilton cheese to a sweet, fruity port. Or try the other way around: pair wine and food with similar profiles, as in the twin riches of sauterne and foie gras, or a Sancerre mirroring the brininess of oysters.
Another way to think about wine and food pairing is to simply look at what grows together in a region: Washington State Pinot Noir and salmon, or spicy Provencal Rose and pissaladiere.
At Savour, Erickson will focus on small production, well-made, hard to fine wines, stressing the quality to price ratio: She is a great advocate of $18 - $24 dollar wines, believing it's easy to get great value in that price range. She's looking for wines that deliver more than their price point, and small houses that aren't represented at large liquor stores, like 2006 Domaine des Baumard Savennieres Clos du Papillon Chenin Blanc, 92 points on Wine Spectator.
Erickson herself drinks more white wine than red, but she likes well-balanced wines with good acidity, and will do her best to educate fans of oaky chardonnay that there are many other interesting choices, and to educate red wine drinkers that white wine can be dynamic, well-balanced and even bold. Savour will actually be the first wine store in the region to have wine tasting machines that preserve wines for up to 60 days, allowing customers to taste from a selection of 20 wines before purchasing, taking the nerves our of spending $24 on a bottle of wine you're just not sure you're going to like.
A good wine and food partnership is worth doing a little homework to achieve. Here is a salad recipe from Erickson, a traditionally difficult dish to match with wine, followed by some pairing notes, a short example of the deep wine education Erickson looks forward to sharing. Pear - Arugula Salad
1 7 oz. pkg. baby arugula (preferably organic) 2 T.Olive Oil 1 T. Balsamic Vinegar 2 Bosc Pears (ripe, but still firm), cored and sliced thin 1 small Red Onion, sliced and marinated.
(To marinate: slice onion very thin, place in glass bowl, cover with cold water, add ¬º c. white vinegar and ¬ t. sugar, stir. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 5 - 24 hours).
2 oz. Hard Goat Cheese (such as Drunken Goat), shaved (May substitute crumbled goat cheese, feta cheese, blue cheese) 1/3 c. Roasted Pecans (To roast pecans; pour ¬ c. water and ¬ c. brown sugar into large frying pan, stir over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Add 1 lb. pecan halves. Keep stirring, as liquid thickens and coats pecans, until all the liquid is absorbed. Spread pecans on cooking sheet, sprayed with cooking oil. Place in pre-heated 250 -degree oven. Roast for 45 - 60 minutes).
Whisk together olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Toss arugula with olive oil dressing. Spread on platter and sprinkle generously with fresh ground pepper. Remove onions from marinade, pat dry, and scatter over arugula. Spread pear slices over top, then layer with goat cheese shavings. Finish with roasted pecans.
Salads are a difficult pairing with wine, particularly because the wine tends to clash with the acidic taste of the vinegar in the dressing. This salad works because it features a "soft vinegar," Balsamic. It's slightly sweet mellow nuttiness, accompanied by the fruity pears, provides a pleasing contrast to the wines, which all have great acid structure.
My first choice is: La Moncesca Verdicchio di Matelica, a flinty, organic, dry white wine, made from grapes grown only in the town of Matelica in Marches, Italy, near the Adriatic Sea.
Don't confuse this with the much more common, light-weight Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi. Matelica and La Monacesca ("The Monastic Estate") in particular is a powerful, full-bodied, mineral-driven wine, so flavorful, it even stands up to red meat. It is almost magical in that it pairs seemingly with everything from tomatoes to shellfish to salami. As such, it is almost a cult wine (although as little known as it is, I may be the only member). ($20.99)
Because of the goat cheese, I would also recommend Hunter's Sauvignon Blanc, from Marlborough New Zealand. Not quite as acidic as some New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, Hunter's shows the rounded flavors of passion fruit and ripe pineapple, wrapped around crisp Granny Smith apple, an excellent contrast to the earthy goat cheese and peppery arugula. (13.99)
Should you choose to substitute a blue cheese for the goat cheese, an off-dry, pleasant to drink Riesling, such as Flying Fish, from Washington's Columbia Valley is a great choice. Not too sweet, but bursting with ripe apple and Bartlett pear, Riesling, which is the most food-friendly of all varietals, proves to be a great foil for the salty cheese and earthly onion and arugula, while perfectly mirroring the sweet Bosc pear and candied pecans. ($10.99)
If you prefer red, Cabernet Franc, the most important, but sadly neglected, red wine for food, works wonders. Known for its herbaceous notes of bell pepper and chives, built on a solid acid structure, Cabernet Franc gives depth to the herbal notes of arugula and onion, while contrasting beautifully with the creamy goat cheese. I suggest the elegant, almost Pinot Noir-like Chinon from Mark Bré©dif. ($19.99).
Finally, a true classic from E. Guigal, the Crozes Hermitage, with its mineral notes supporting red currant and dark cherry-cola is a great choice for someone who wants a powerful, lingering red wine to pair with this salad, and perhaps an entree, featuring game, red meat, or mushrooms. Known for its clove and pepper spiciness, and distinct olive tapenade flavors, the wine is well-suited to the arugula, onion, and goat cheese, without overpowering the sweetness of the pear and pecans. ($23.99).