Make your match
Falling in love is simple, according to New York City-based sommelier Josh Wesson. At least, that is, when it’s love between food and wine.
“Wines and foods fall in love for pretty much the same reason that people fall in love,” Wesson said.
Wesson introduced his “Many Sips of Enlightenment” Taste of Vail seminar on Saturday with the four basic principles of love: sex, money, contrast and similarity.
“Two of [the principles] have everything to do with what we are talking about today,” he said, “and two of them have nothing to do with it.”
The love of wine and food can seem inspired by sex and money, no doubt, but Wesson said pairings — in people and on the palate — made from both contrasts and similarities are the elements of everlasting foodie affection.
“All you need to understand is how wine and food go together,” Wesson said to the lively audience Saturday afternoon at Cucina Rustica in the Lodge at Vail. “There can be basic contrasts and similarities based on fundamental tastes your tongue tells you, and you can have more complex tastes that come from a combination of your tastes along what your nose is telling you about a wine.”
Wesson used three foods — aged Scharfe Maxx Swiss Cheese; pulled pork with light sauce from Moe’s BBQ; and a bittersweet chocolate cake — with three coinciding flights of wine to demonstrate how pairings can be created from dynamic combinations.
“My secret agenda here is not just to share with you how to pair wines, but to understand that there are many paths to enlightenment,” Wesson said. “Each flight with the different foods is going to reveal different things about the wines and foods matching together.”
While red wines are often poured alongside cheese boards, Wesson said that whites are often favored by sommeliers to complement the fresh and aging dairy. The flight he chose for the Gruyere-style cheese included two very different wines: a French pinot gris and a reserve Rioja from Spain.
The pinot gris from Alsace is pretty full bodied with a creamy texture, just like the aged cheese. The wine offers a suggestion of sweetness, finishing with a clean and light tartness. No oak on the wine keeps the taste buds fresh, which helps to bring out the flavors of the cheese. The richness of the cheese and the richness of the wine made for a match, reflecting Wesson’s theory of pairing for similarity.
Tannins create a palate cleansing, Wesson said, and the modest-yet-present tannins in the Rioja stripped some of the richness of the cheese from the tongue. The oak that came through from the barrel-aged tempranillo grapes added a deeper dimension to the nuttiness of the cheese. The wine, similar with an aged style yet contrasting with the tannins that cut through richness, made for a lovely pairing.
“These wines could not be any more different from one another,” he said, “and yet they both found happiness with the plate of cheese.”
Pulled pork is a somewhat “neutral vehicle” to pair, Wesson explained, with a light sauce that brings together a bit of sweet and tart with savory and salty.
This flight was created from three very different wines — two are pretty sweet (a floral wine of muscat and grenache gris, and a sparkling Argentinian rose), light and perfect for a picnic, and one is a dark fruit forward, yet dry, California zinfandel.
The sweeter wines did not make the pork taste more sweet, but actually balanced the sweetness into a crisp and delightful bite.
“This wine may have even tasted too sweet when you tried it on its own,” Wesson said of the sparking rose, “but when you add the pork, it mellows out.”
The zinfandel didn’t have sweetness, but the wine changed when you tried it with the pork.
“It makes the wine taste more acidic,” he said. “It becomes a little bit sharper, and that sharpness helps to cut through the fat of the pork.”
Wesson chose four wines to date the bittersweet chocolate cake: a “complex” cabernet, sparkling shiraz, classic tawny port and a rare, sweet sherry.
The cabernet is a wine that has been aged extensively in oak (for 20 months), with aromas of green pepper and roasted beets, and tastes of ripe fruits, without any expression of residual sugar. The bright taste of strawberry, for instance, cut thought the richness of the chocolate cake nicely, just as a fruit glaze on the dessert would.
“It’s a razor’s edge to walk when you are serving red wine with chocolate, especially if the chocolate is sweeter than this,” Wesson said. “Because the sweetness in the chocolate can crush the fruit of the wine.”
A sweeter wine, like the sparkling shiraz from south Australia, has more residual sugar present, but is not as sweet as the cake. The sugars from the cake and the wine seemed to fall together perfectly, leaving room for some vanilla in the wine to break through.
When the sweetness of a wine is equal or greater to a bittersweet chocolate cake, the experience of both the wine and the cake totally changes. The classic tawny port was sweet and acidic on its own, but when combined with the cake, more dynamic flavors come through from the port, like caramel and coffee grounds. The bittersweet cake seemed to pull flavors from the sherry as well, making the very sweet wine taste almost like a dry wine.
“The wine is much sweeter than the cake,” Wesson said of the sherry, “and the chocolate pulls flavors out of it that were not there before.”
Part-time Arrowhead resident David Cooper attended the event with his wife, Jane. He said he found that the true “love” dynamic of wine and food are that they bring out the best in one another.
“When you try the wines with the food, the flavors change,” David Cooper said. “So what I found really interesting was how much influence the food had on the wine with all the contrasts and similarities.”
Maybe love isn’t so simple, because there’s always a wine or a food that will turn your head and infatuate your taste buds.
“No one owns your tongue,” Wesson said. “You have the right to your own palate; don’t let anyone tell you what to think — you own it and be proud of it.”