For many years I worked with chefs with limited repertoires, imaginations and desire, yet we managed to create some decent wine menus anyway by following the most basic principles of food and wine matching.
Conceiving and executing new dishes for specific components in wines is the more difficult but by far most satisfying way to build a food and wine menu. Whereas there will always be a limited number of wines to choose for a dish, the combination of ingredients and techniques that can go into an originally conceived dish are virtually endless. You’ll always get a better match when you create a dish specifically for a wine rather than choose a wine for a ready-made dish.
The good news for the home cook is that the books, magazines, television shows and even online material that provide a grasp of the basic techniques needed to innovate also seem to be endless. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, for our own home meals my wife was able to draw from Fannie Farmer, Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, and whatever else she picked up from Irish nuns manning her school’s convent kitchen as she was growing up, but that was about it.
Today there is the inspiration we can all draw from the scores of thoroughly trained, talented chefs being churned out by our culinary schools; and all these new chefs inspired by the possibilities of becoming the next Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters, Ming Tsai, Emeril, Bobby or Biba.
Any way you get there, the principles of food and wine matching are the same for everyone. The following describes the thought process behind composing a menu for wine.
TONY SOTER COMES TO DINNER (August 1992)
With the basic principles of food and wine matching in mind, let’s bring the concept out for a test drive, utilizing the example of a menu created for some wines personally presented by the legendary Tony Soter of Napa Valley in 1992. Soter was the founder of Etude Wines; and at the time, he was also been widely acclaimed for his work as the original consulting winemaker for Spottswoode Vineyard, as well as in collaboration with the talented Cathy Corison at Corison Winery.
Whether you are preparing the dinner yourself or are working in a collaborative situation (like the classic chef/sommelier relationship), I find it helpful to put everything down on paper, beginning with the order of service and basic components of each wine.
Basically, you create lists: lists of the key sensory wine components, lists of suggested dishes for them to choose from, and lists of ingredients provide similar or contrasting sensations in context of the wines.
This way a chef has the opportunity visualize the direction of his courses, and conceive each matching dish with its their own intrinsic sense of balance, much like a television police detective looking at a wall outlining the clues in order to solve his mystery.
In my case, for many years I partnered with two inspired chefs, Roy Yamaguchi and his longtime Executive Chef Gordon Hopkins. You would never want to limit the imagination of talented chefs – hence, you give them general directions rather than narrow or specific directions – but at the same time, they need to know the basic dimensions of each wine before they take off.
Step 1 - Establishing Order of Service
You begin by listing the wines in your projected order of service. Although the traditionally accepted order is white wines before reds, lighter before full, and dry before sweet, keep in mind that the actual palate is not necessarily constrained as suchas long as each course’s food and wine match is in harmony and balance. David Rosengarten and Joshua Wesson deserve a lot of credit for establishing this premise in their classic book, Red Wine with Fish (Simon & Schuster 1989).
In any case, for this dinner with Tony Soter, chefs Yamaguchi, Hopkins and I decided to follow a conventional pattern:
1st course: Spottswoode, Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 1990
2nd course: Etude, Carneros Pinot Noir 1990 & 1988
3rd course: Etude, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1989; Spottswoode, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1988; Corison, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1989
4th (dessert): Topaz, Late Harvest Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc & Semillon 1989
Step 2 - Breaking Down the Wines & Suggested Food Components
The second step is isolating the basic taste sensations, tactile qualities, and aroma/flavor components of each wine; and based upon that, drawing up your matching food ideas utilizing the principles of similarities and contrast. Your chef will take the bits and pieces that stimulate his or her thought process, referencing them with a personal culinary mental library.
I think the key to an exciting menu is as much working with well balanced wines as creating well balanced dishes. A balanced dish always gives you the highest percentage chance of tasting balanced in context of a wine; and when your chef is mixing, matching and harmonizing multiple sensory components with specific sensory qualities in wines, the combination is that much more powerful.
The following is an example of the specific information for the Tony Soter dinners that I put down on paper for my partner/chefs, listing each sensory quality like you would a grocery list:
Course 1 - Spottswoode, Sauvignon Blanc
Wine description: Bone-dry white; medium body (not light, not heavy); perceptively crisp, medium acidity (light tartness); fine, smooth (silky) texture; fresh fruit fragrances of melon and citrus; lighter aromatic nuances of green grass and vanillin oak
Suggested dishes for Sauvignon blanc: Mildly spiced, summery sweet shellfish appetizer (i.e. shrimp, scallops, crab, etc.)
Similar ingredients: Mildly acidic fruits (tomato, lime, lemon, grapefruit, pomegranate); mildly acidic cheese (chèvre or feta); leafy green herbs (oregano, thyme, parsley, tarragon; pungent herbs (chive, cilantro, Mexican mint marigold, lemon grass, kaffir lime); vegetal components (olives, bell peppers); very mild vinegars (if balanced with wine’s acidity)
Contrasting ingredients: Vine ripened tomatoes (lomi lomi or concasée); sweet Maui onions (in moderation); moderate spice (restrained use of chili or chiles); aromatics (mild curries, mustards, tumeric, achiote)
Extremes to avoid: Heavy cream or butter (wine will taste thin and acidic); high salt (brining) or soy
Course 2 - Etude, Pinot Noirs
Wine descriptions: Lush, round, fleshy, succulent California style reds; medium body (not light, not heavy); mild (towards low) acidity; rounded, soft tannin (but filling); black cherry perfume (fruit quality flavor over layering tannin); tinge of peppermint spice and warm, smoky/vanilla oakiness
Suggested dishes for Pinot Noir: Salad using smoked meat (beef, duck or quail); or smoked seafood course (salmon, calamari, tako); or modified cioppino (meaty fish, mussels, clams, octopus)
Similar ingredients: Wild berries or cherry; baby greens (very tender, mildly peppery); mild caramelization of meats
Contrasting ingredients: Mushrooms, onions (especially pearl or caramelized); sausages (fresh or mildly cured); alliums (shallots, garlic, green onion); spices (cinnamon, clove, cumin, nutmeg, celery); mildly acidic (like Californian) goat cheeses; mustards
Extremes to avoid: Sharp vinegars (winey balsamics, only in moderation); salty/sharp cheeses (blue, Feta, etc.); more lethal herbs (dill, cilantro)
Course 3 – Etude, Cabernet Sauvignon; Spottswoode, Cabernet Sauvignon; Corison, Cabernet Sauvignon
Wine descriptions: Chunky, black toned, hefty, dry red wine; full body; low acidity; full, generous tannin (rounded, but almost palate drying at the core); combination of flesh and muscle in texture; deeply aromatic blackberry/cassis aromas (black cherry nuance); rich, charred oak, faintly minty and green olive/pepper aromas/flavors
Suggested dishes: Lamb with a twist (in pot-a-feu, garlic sausage, or combined with sweetbreads or white beans?); or marinated loins or wood grilled chops stuffed with olives or soft ripened cheese; or fanciful “lamb sandwich” (Napoleon style layering with offal, couscous, semolina, crusted polenta, etc.)
Similar ingredients: Wood smoke; natural reductions (concentrated without sweetness); wild berries; bell peppers (plays off wines’ herbal notes); smoked green chiles; olives; peppercorn, walnut, hazelnut (tannin neutralizers); eggplant, mustards; hard aged cheeses (Cheddars, Manchego)
Contrasting ingredients: Earthy vegetables (fungus, beets, alliums, garlic); scented herbs (mint, tarragon, rosemary, thyme, mint); tomatoes, stewed or in nage (stripped of sugar, acid); double or triple crème cheeses (in moderation)
Extremes to avoid: Salty blue-veined cheeses; immature (ammonia-like) chèvre and brie; pervasive herbs, spices (dill, cilantro, ginger, kaffir); sun dried fruits or tomatoes (too sweet/tart); sharp leafy vegetables (spinach, sorrel, napa cabbage); stinging dried chilies, powders or curries
Course 4 - Topaz, Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon
Wine description: Sweet (approximately 10% residual sugar) dessert wine; full body (not delicate, about 13% alcohol); elevated, lip smacking balancing acidity; long, viscous (high glycerol), silky smooth texture; concentrated fig and honey-like aromas/flavors; underlying green grassy and apricot-like fragrances
Suggested dish: Creamy dessert with fresh fruit
Similar ingredients: Sweet/moderately tart fruits (berries, cherry); creams (custards) or crème fraiche; honey and fruit liqueurs (moderation)
Contrasting ingredients: Mild dessert spices (vanilla, nutmeg, almond, clove, cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, anise; citrus (i.e. lemon as flavoring, not dominant fruit); fresh mints
Extremes to avoid: Very sweet syrups (keep dessert “dryer” than wine!); sweet/sharp purees (moderated essences okay); dried fruit (stick to fresh); ice creams (iciness will stun palate)
End Results: Two Chefs, Two Menus
As you may have surmised, the interesting part of this exercise is that we had two chefs following the same parameters with the same wines; both of whom prepared two different dinners held on two consecutive nights. Here is what they ended up with:
Roy Yamaguchi’s Menu
Kahuku Shrimp with Crispy Spinach & Spicy Lemon Grass Curry: Spottswoode, Sauvignon Blanc 1990
House Cured Duck Salad with Caramelized Pearl Onions & Shallot Sauce: Etude, Pinot Noir 1990 & 1988
Napoleon of Lamb with Sweetbread Spring Roll & Roasted Beet Sauce: Spottswoode, Cabernet Sauvignon 1989; Corison, Cabernet Sauvignon 1989
Compote of Poached Bing Cherry with Kirsch Crème Fraiche: Topaz, Late Harvest Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc & Semillon 1989
Gordon Hopkins’ Menu
Herbed Soft Shell Crab Salad with Roasted Corn & Black Bean Salsa in Red Pepper Vinaigrette: Spottswoode, Sauvignon Blanc 1990
Spicy Cioppino with Seafood Sausage, Crispy Squid, White Beans & Pizza Crusts: Etude, Pinot Noir 1990 & 1988
Braised Lamb Shanks in Natural Juices, with Black Figs & Couscous: Etude, Cabernet Sauvignon 1989; Corison, Cabernet Sauvignon 1989
Napoleon of Almond Wafers with Wild Berries & Lemon Vanilla Bean Sauce: Topaz, Late Harvest Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc & Semillon 1989
Although he always described himself as a “Euro-Asian” style fusion chef, for winemaker dinners Yamaguchi typically exerted restraint on his Asian side, giving a classical sense of balance to his dishes through technique as well as ingredients.
I always loved, however, Hopkins’ aggressive matches – particularly his mildly spiced cioppino (in its execution, the scented morsels of seafood sat in a pasta bowl over a small puddle of concentrated broth) and his visions of Morocco (the fragrantly brown spiced lamb was particularly luscious with Cathy Corison’s dried fruit-like concentrated Cabernet) – in spite of the rather unorthodox, challenging nature of his approach.
In both dinners, the chefs amplified the crisp yet creamy textured, melony scented dimensions of the Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc by striking notes of similarity with the grape’s intrinsically herbal, acidic nature: The lemon grass in Yamaguchi’s shrimp, and the mildly vinegary, red peppers and crusted green herbs in Hopkins’ soft shell crab salad. By layering dishes to match a wine’s nuances, you can push forth its most flattering qualities while drawing attention to its complexity.
Contrast, on the other hand, can be an approach fraught with risk, although it can raise a match to exhilarating heights. Re the mildly salty and acidic tastes of Yamaguchi’s house cured duck salad in a jus-laced vinaigrette: Surely, not to be expected for a relatively low-acid, dry red wine (the Etude Pinot Noirs) with their modicum of bitter tannin.
But because the wines are in themselves balanced (Soter always places lush, almost sweet fruit qualities above the tannin in his red winemaking style), and because Yamaguchi deftly balances salt and acidity with sweetness (caramelized onions), earthy flavors (shallots, oils and duck stock), and moderate bitterness (use of young, leafy mesclun leaves), the sum total of the wine and food combination in this course comes up fresh, lively, and enervating,
This is why when crafting dishes for wine, you need to always go back to one of our basic principles: Just like good cooking involves a balancing of ingredients and technique, good wine/food matching involves focusing on how specific components in wines interact to achieve a sense of balance and harmony with specific components in dishes.