Food for Wine & Wine for Food- Strategies for Successful Pairings

As the sommelier of Il Posto, I field hundreds of oenological questions on a nightly basis. These questions range from the basic to the incredibly complex. The majority of my nights revolve around deciphering our wine list and translating the contents of any given bottle to its potential consumer. The lion share of my evening, however, is spent providing specific wine pairings intended to complement and enhance the diner’s experience. The latter being a daunting task as our dinner menu and wine list change every single night.

Fagiolo: white beans, amaranth, nasturtiums, leek ash, apple, and Mirror Pond.

The chef’s who drive Il Posto’s nightly menus do not hesitate to use unique flavors and obscure seasonal ingredients, such as cardoons, un-ripened almonds, hibiscus leaves, prosciutto gelee, squid ink–you get the idea. Despite the challenge that this presents, it also affords me the opportunity to experiment with countless food and wine combinations. During this painstaking and quite enjoyable undertaking, I have discovered some tricks to pairing Italian wine with food. The very first consideration to regard is the weight of the dish. What I mean by weight is the richness, density, and overall heartiness of the dish. A veal osso buco accompanied by risotto will demolish any light bodied wine. Conversely, a bold heavily extracted California Petite Sirah will completely overwhelm the nuances and subtlety of delicate handmade pasta. An easy way to determine the body of a wine is to gauge its mouth feel. Is the viscosity similar to skim milk, 2%, whole milk, or cream? Match weight to weight.

Now, consider the protein elements of the dish. Cabernets inherently have high tannins. Tannins are byproducts of grape skins, seeds, and stems, as well as the wood the wine was aged in. Historically, tannins have been used to tan animal hides- they interact with protein and fat and dry the animal hide. The same is true with your mouth. Tannins bind with the protein in your saliva and give the impression of  ‘dryness’. When drinking a tannic wine in tandem with a juicy rib eye steak, the tannins attach to the meat and not to the protein in your saliva. This beautiful symbiosis enhances the flavors of the meat and the wine, and as a bonus, means that you won’t need to order your wine with a water back! Also, keep in mind that tannins and spice are archenemies! Tannins exaggerate the perceived heat from spicy foods and can turn your mouth into a flamethrower. I know that no matter what I say you will still pepper your steak, but when drinking a tannic wine, do your taste buds a favor and pepper sparingly.

Zucca Pumpkin Soup and a bottle of Langhe Bianco d.o.c Chardonnay.

As I mentioned before, tannin and spice amplify one another. When pairing to spicy food I prefer a white wine with an aspect of sweetness. Dessert wines like Sauternes or Vin Santo can be too syrupy (plus you only get a couple ounces if you’re lucky). Think more along the lines of German and Austrian style Rieslings and Gewürztraminers. If you find a label that says “Kabinett”, “Spatelese”, or ”Auslese”, it means that the wine is a late harvest and is more inclined to have sweet undertones.  These incredibly aromatic whites can also be found in the Italian region Alto Adige, which happens to share a border with Austria. The sweetness of the wine both balances the heat of the dish and gives your mouth an enjoyable back and forth between sweet and spicy. Next time you are having Thai food, a stuffed chile relleno, pasta with fresh chiles, or if you are just simply inclined, like me, to put copious amounts of Siracha on everything, give an Austrian style Riesling or Gewürztraminer a try and you’ll be happy you did.

Fruit can be a very frustrating ingredient to pair wine with for the very simple reason that wine is made from fruit. Fruits tend to be high in acid, so avoid an acidic wine. The most acidic wines typically come from the coolest climates. You can test the acidity of a wine by taking a gulp, holding it in your mouth, and raising the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. Once the wine is swallowed, gauge the amount that your mouth waters. When pairing wine with fruit look for a white with low acid, a soft round mouth feel, and notes of melon and caramel- i.e. a new world oaked Chardonnay. Tuscans tend to drink Chianti (high acid) with pastas in a tomato-based sauce (high acid). My experience is that these acids tend to compound in a digestively offensive way. The exception to this is if the tomato sauce is cooked down, which removes its natural acid, and/or prepared with cheese, which adds a malic component (the acid found in milk). Unless you choose to dine with a pocketful of Alka-Seltzer, avoid pairing acidic wines with acidic foods.

These tips are just a few of many. There are as many strategies to pairing wine with food as there are foods to eat and wines to wash them down with. In the future, I will discuss what works with gamey meats, foods that have been smoked, cheese, fried food, fish, and the seemingly “impossible” wine pairings. The Old World motto is that, “wine was created for food, and food was created for wine”. This concept articulates the two-person play that takes place between wine and food, in which both participants graciously share the lead role.

About Max Koepke

As a Sedona, Arizona native I grew up obsessed with the outdoors and exploring the southwest. I lived in Orvieto, Italy for six months and gained a great appreciation for Italian food and culture, with an emphasis on wine. This appreciation of wine led me to seeking out employment at places with extensive wine lists that placed their focus on Italian wines. I have worked for Lettuce Entertain You in Chicago, Telluride Ski and Golf at their flagship restaurant, Allred's, and their top-o-the-mountain wine bar, Alpino Vino. Currently, I work as the sommelier at the northern Italian restaurant, Il Posto, in Denver. My sommelier courses were taught by Frasca's Bobby Stuckey in Aspen, Colorado. In addition to the pursuit of wine I also have a passion for photography, the outdoors, and Colorado's striking mountains (especially when they're covered in thick blankets of snow).