To Each Taste Their Own

Week II (November 18, 19, 20, 2010):

To Each Taste His (or Her) Own

We continued with more vinification and viticulture lectures. We also got into the lab. We started one Friday morning with a lecture on maridaje, or wine pairing.  This is something that has always interested and perplexed me.

We entered the lab. Our professor donned a white smock. Who was he fooling? We were tasting wine, not curing cancer. Maybe he did not want to stain his clothes with a fine crianza. He started us with a cruel game: ruining five perfectly good glasses of red wine in five different ways. We had to identify: had the tinto been ruined with alcohol, sugar (to demonstrate sweetness), salt (for saltiness/savory), vinegar (acidity), or caffeine (bitterness)? We identified which wines we thought were adulterated with which modification and compared it to the sixth, unadulterated control wine. He may have burned a hole in my stomach, but we did understand what exaggeratedly unbalanced wines tasted like.

For the wine pairing práctica, we are served six wines. It is 11 a.m. Jokes of drinking before noon abound. The Brazilian is perma-smiling. The Chinese look giddy if I’m not mistaken; although, they are quiet and mostly hard to read. The Spaniards seem to be yawning while thinking, ‘drinking in the morning—tell us something we don’t know…’ The Brazilian spills the joven all over his countertop. Joder! What’s going on? We haven’t even started yet! Where’s my white mad scientist jacket when I need it? This could get messy. (see secret photo image of spillage below)

The purpose of the test was to indicate the order in which the wines should be consumed. Additionally, we are presented with a plate of tasty delights: paté, smoked salmon, mandarin, dark chocolate, milk chocolate, langostine with mayonnaise, sheep’s milk cheese from Zamora, blue cheese (cabrales-sheep), chorizo, curdled milk with honey (common dessert), and berberecho (like little clams).

After determining the order of the consumption of the wines, we must decide which morsel pairs best with which wine. It is an interesting experiment. I do not think the order would surprise some people: 1. white, 2. Rosado 3. tinto joven,  or young red, 4. tinto crianza, or aged red, 5. dulce, or dessert wine 6. espumoso, or sparkling. Our professor noted that if the cava is taken as an aperitif, it must come first, before the white. Also, it may be taken before dessert, but must be drunk before the sweet wine. The general progression of wine tasting is to “prepare” your senses for the increasing flavor complexities, namely the aggressiveness of the anthocyanins that make up the chewy tannins.

Pairing notes:

The white is an Albariño, an aromatic white wine coming from Galicia. It paired with the langostines (the Albariño did not overpower the delicate, sweet shrimp). The white went with the sheep’s milk cheese cutting through the saltiness (our tongue loves the salty-sweet combination the most) and the blue cheese (more salty-sweet goodness).

The rosado went best with the berberechos. Rosado is a very common pairing with shellfish, just peer into the chiringuitos on the Spanish coastline in the summer. I liked the rosado with the smoked salmon but our professor said smoked salmon is “better” with the crianza or the white. I say to each taste his (or her) own.

The aged red pairs well with the paté by bringing out the strong earthy, barnyard flavor of both the wine and the paté.

Our sweet was a jerez, or sherry wine. It went well with the blue cheese and the curdled milk dessert.

The sparkling, a cava, of course, paired with the dark chocolate and surprisingly better with the milk chocolate than the jerez.

It is not very often you get to assault your palate like this. It was nice to savor the obvious pairings, but we had a laugh pairing the unpairables. Try the dessert wine with the smoked salmon, someone said. It was like sucking on a penny. How about the rosado with the chorizo? I tasted more penny and metal. Try the aged red with the langostine. It tastes like acidic red wine and a chewy mystery, as a bigger red will always overpower a delicate food.

Scientifically speaking, the following is a quick guide to flavors:

– salt intensifies all flavors (ex. In dessert, meat, salads)

– sweet masks acid and bitter

– alcohol reinforces sweet and softens acid

– bitter reinforces acid and vice-versa

Fun fact: Because wine cultivation progressed over a time in human history when people ate and drank what they could manage within mere miles of where they lived, the wine pairings of each region have come to reflect the local offerings. It is common to find a clean, white Verdejo in Valladolid paired with the local bacalao, or cod. In Ribera de Duero, you would drink a Tempranillo with the local cordero lechal, or lamb. The wine is cultivated according to the climate and pairings in that region. So, whatever the waiter offers you or whatever you see written on the menú del dia, take it. It is probably right on the money.

I think the point of wine pairing is to achieve the optimum equilibrium of our senses. If you have a steak, or in my case, leg of lamb slow-roasted with Italian parsely, rosemary and garlic and a big Reserva with lots of tannin, the tannins will interact with the fatty, richness of the proteins, softening the wine. Your mouth will thank you.

I am sure that there are a lot of things I am missing in class because I do not speak the language (fluently). But, I am starting to get it. Our theory classes are fascinating, but when it comes right down to it, so much of wine and wine tasting is subjective and you should speak up! If it smells like horse sweat, say so. No one has to know you have never been to a ranch. Your opinion counts. People in this industry seem to constantly disagree about everything as methods change and styles go out of vogue. There is only one absolute: grapes will always become wine.  Though you do have to wait a little while for them to ferment…

Me, being impatient

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