Celebrate the New Year with Sparkling Wine service

When you think of New Years Eve, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Okay, besides Times Square and Auld Langs Syne....think wine, think sparkling, think popping corks! Champagne. But we need to be a little less specific because I know most of you aren't springing for true Champagne. Remember "all Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne". For this discussion, we'll simply focus on sparkling wine, and leave the technical differences for a later post. For the article on Sparkling wine, click here.

While I'm sure we have all had sparkling wine, are you sure you are serving it properly? Let's take a look at the "art" of serving sparkling wine.

Temperature. Storing and serving sparkling wine at a temperature of 40 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit is recommended. Why? The cooler the temperature, the more carbon dioxide remains trapped in the wine. This will also enhance the crispness of the wine. If you open a bottle at room temperature, you might as well just drink it out of a Dixie cup. A mistake a lot of people make is in keeping their sparkling wine chilled. Most just throw it in a bucket of ice. Remember to add water to your bucket, so the ice water can envelope the entire bottle.

Opening a bottle of sparkling wine seems daunting to some, but it is really very simple. Just remember that that bottle is under considerable pressure (from 5 to 6 atmospheres). At this pressure it can be dangerous, so make sure you aren't pointing it towards anyone. First, cut and remove the foil. Keeping your thumb on the top of the cage, untwist and remove the cage, while alternating your thumbs to keep the pressure on the cork, remove the cage. Cover the cork and top of bottle with a cloth, and hold the cork firmly. Do not twist the cork, but turn the bottle. The goal is to slowly remove the cork. The goal is to actually open the bottle without popping. As it was described by my Sommelier instructor, "the sound of opening a bottle of sparkling wine, should be the sound of a proper woman passing gas"...gotta love the visual there!

Last is pouring the sparkling wine. Make sure you are using the right glasses. Those flat, wide glasses that grandma gave you are not the best choice, as the bubbles will dissipate quickly. Champagne Flutes are the preferred serving choice. These tall thin glasses will preserve the bubbles. Make sure they are never washed with soap, as this smooths out the little rough spots that will enhance the bubbles. Your older, scratched-up glasses will produce more bubbles than your newer glasses. Next is pouring the wine. As a Sommelier, I have been taught to pour right down the center of the flute in a slow and steady stream, but I'm rethinking that. A new study by French researchers, and published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, suggests that less carbon dioxide is released when gently poured down the side of the glass. Since you typically don't swirl glasses of sparkling wine, you can fill to a higher level than still wine.

Now that you have the basics of sparkling wine service, enjoy the New Years celebration (or any other time of year), with your favorite Champagne, Cremant, Cava, Sekt, Spumante, or Sparkling wine.

Happy New Year everyone!

Wine Pairing (Part Four - Challenges)

In our previous three updates, we looked at the basics of food and wine pairing: regionality, weight, and balance. Even if you tried to follow all these ideas, there are still foods that present challenges. In todays' post, we'll look at some of the more unusual pairings.

When I think of challenging foods, my first thought turns to artichokes, asparagus, eggs, chocolate and cheese. But why should artichokes and asparagus create such challenges? Artichokes have two molecules, known as cholorgenic acid and cynarin, which make wine taste bitter, or even sweet. Because it makes wine sweeter, look for more acidic and crisp wines. The vegetal profile of a young Sauvignon Blanc should work well. But, if we review our first pairing post, and find out that artichokes originated in the Mediterranean, or to be more specific, Greece, then a nice acidic Greek wine might be worth a try. We often think of Greek wines as being dry and hard to drink, so they might just be the perfect choice for a food that will make them taste sweeter.

Asparagus, on the other hand, contains some very strong flavors that often clash with wine (and some noticeable affects to some after consumption...if you know what I mean). Again, match the vegetal components with a vegetal wine (Sauvignon Blanc). For both artichokes and asparagus, can be made more "wine friendly" by adding lemon (acid).

Eggs can also be a little challenging due to the mouth coating affect they have. Think how eggs over-easy, or the texture of a hard boiled egg yolk, coat your mouth. In this case, you'll want to cut (or contrast) the coating affect with some acid. The bubbles of a sparkling wine can also cleanse the palate. Your ultimate decision on which wine to pair will be determined by the preparation and the accompanying ingredients in the dish.

Chocolate, a tough pairing with wine? Yeah, I know wine and chocolate are supposed to be natural partners, just like wine and cheese (which we'll talk about next). While a lot of red wines have chocolate aromas, they tend to be dry, tannic wines. Remember one of our pairing "rules"...make sure your wine is sweeter than your dessert, or else the wine will taste flat. For this reason, bittersweet chocolate works best with wine. I find that Ports and Muscats work nicely with chocolate, but my favorite pairing is Brechetto d'Acqui from Italy (a frizzante style red wine).

Lastly, a quick look a cheese. There are so many cheeses, there is no way to cover them all, but let's consider the types of cheeses. There are fresh, soft, semi-soft, hard, and blue cheeses. On top of that, cheese can be made from cow's, goat's, or sheep's milk - each imparting different flavor profiles. In general, when pairing cheese with wine, think the lighter/ fresher the cheese go with crisp, fruitier wine. Semi soft cheeses move up in weight, as well as mouth coating creaminess, so think acid, but with weight and fruit (this can range from a fruity Sauvignon Blanc to a full bodied Pinot Noir, and everything in between). Hard cheeses tend to be aged longer, and have more distinct flavors. A "rule" to follow here would be, "the stronger the flavor, the bigger the wine" (Merlot to Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon). Blue Cheese can range from mild to strong. Remember to match salt with sweet, so the salter the cheese, the sweeter the wine. Classic pairings are Port with Stilton, and Sauterne with Roquefort

So, what are your food and wine pairing challenges? Add your comments, and we'll walk through some possibilities, and why they should work. As mentioned in the first post in this series...drink what you like, "rules" are made to be broken and in this case are only guidelines to help you out.

Wine Pairing (Part Three - Balance)

In our previous two posts, we talked about two of the easier ways to determine what wines might be the best choices for pairing with a meal: Regionality, and Weight. This third concept is a little bit more difficult, as it will require some knowledge of the food components and as well as the profile of potential wines. In this post we will be looking at Balance. To be more specific, we'll look at matching or contrasting with the flavor profile of the meal.

To start, let's review the the taste components our tongue can recognize: salt, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. The first four should be pretty familiar to you, but the fifth one, umami, is a bit foreign to most of us. It has to do with being savory. All five of these sensory components are found in food, and the idea is to find wines that match or contrast with those components. Salt and Umami are not found in the flavor profile of wines, but they are things to take into consideration when pairing a wine.

Let's look at the basic components, and see how the idea of matching and contrasting work for each.

Salt - We sense saltiness on the upper back of our tongue. Since wine doesn't (or at least shouldn't) have a salty component to it (okay, okay, unless it's a Manzanilla Sherry), we're typically not going to be matching flavors. With salty foods, we will be looking for wines that contrast, or counteract the saltiness: sweet, acidic, or sparkling wines. This is why a Sauterne (sweet) works with Roquefort (salty), or Port works with Stilton. This also explains the traditional pairing of Champagne (sparkling; acidic) with oysters (salty). Now back to that Manzanilla Sherry, and its' taste of the sea...try that one with green olives or seafood.

Sweet - We taste sweetness on the tip of our tongue (here's a tip...if you can't determine the difference between sweet or fruity wines - stick just the tip of your tongue in the glass of wine, and see what you taste). With sweet foods, we are looking to match or compare the sweetness. You will always want your wine to be sweeter than the food. Mildly sweet foods work well with mildly sweet wines. When pairing with a dessert, we want to make sure the wine is sweeter than the dessert. If the food is sweeter than the wine, your wine will tend to taste tart and thin. A classic pairing here would be apple pie with Sauterne, or Madiera (Bual or Malmsey)

Sour - With sour, think acidity (lemons, vinegar). We taste acidity on the sides of our tongue, and the amount of mouth watering we experience. We need to match acid with acid, or else your wine will taste flat and dull. Think of how you might add a squeeze of lemon juice to food to intensify flavors...matching with an acidic wine can do the same thing. Remember that acid levels are typically higher in white wines than red, and also cooler region wines will be more acidic than warm region wines (having to do with grape ripeness and sugar levels). An example of a classic pairing would be goat cheese or chevre with Sauvignon Blanc, particularly Sancerre (from the cool Loire region).

Bitter -We taste bitterness on the back of our tongue. Bitterness can come from the cooking technique (grilling or barbeque) or from the foods themselves, like walnuts. We can match that bitterness with tannic wines (see note below), or we can contrast that bitterness with fruitiness. This is why Zinfandels work so well. They can have fruitiness to them, or they can be made full bodied and spicy.

Umami- Savory is more of a mouth feel, than a taste. but it can be paired with wines that express certain levels of sweetness.

Tannins - While this is not a taste sensation, it is still something that we experience with wine. When you swirl a wine in your mouth, you will pick up an astringency, or drying affect on your palate and gums. Since tannins are a component of skins and stems of grapes, this is really only noticeable in red wines.

In our next post, we'll take a look at some of the tougher foods to pair, and the tricks of pairing wine and cheese.

Wine Pairing Basics (part two - Weight)

In the last post, we discussed the easy way to pair foods and wine...regionality. In this post we'll look at how the weight, helps to determine what wine might work best. The old thought was "white with white meat" and "red with red meat". As we'll see, that may not always be true.

First, what do we mean by weight? Weight is just what it sounds like: Is the meal light, medium or heavy? Examples of a light meal might be something like poached sole, versus a heavy meal would be beef stew. Take into consideration the cooking method used. From lightest to heaviest, cooking methods to consider would be steam, poach, boil, saute, broil, grill, roast, braise, stew. The food itself, can also be categorized as light to heavy. Consider these items: Sole (a light, delicate low fat fish); Chicken (light to medium, low in fat); Salmon (medium, high fat fish); Beef (heavy, low to high fat). Now combine those with cooking method, and you should have an idea of what I am referring to as the weight of the food. Grilled Salmon is going to be a heavier dish than a poached salmon, so you might consider two different wines for each of these salmon dishes. But let's step back for a moment. What is a light or heavy wine? Usually we think of whites as being lighter than reds, and rose somewhere in between. But, a Pinot Noir (red) can be lighter than buttery/oaky Chardonnay (white) or full bodied Marsanne (white). As mentioned in part one of this post, knowing the profile of different wines certainly helps. The best way to know the weight of different wines is to taste, taste, taste (while tasting, think "non fat milk", "lowfat milk", "whole milk", and "cream" - what is the mouth feel remind you of?). Another way is to read reviews. If a review refers to a "full bodied", or "big" wine...well there is a clue. What they are usually referring to is alcohol. The higher the alcohol level of the wine, the "bigger" it will taste. Personally, I find that higher alcohol wines are harder to pair with food. Keeping the alcohol level between 11% to 14% works best with most foods. I find that higher alcohol and higher tannin wines increase the heat/spice levels in food, and clash with salty dishes (particularly with fish, which turns metallic in flavor, when paired).

As mentioned above, the weight of the food is affected by the cooking method. What we are really talking about here is intensity of flavor. Think of this way, steaming food, doesn't add much flavor to food, but grilling on the barbecue can add smoky flavors that might have some bitterness. Obviously, the grilled food will be more intense than the steamed, no matter what the food is. In addition, any added sauce will have an affect on the total weight/intensity of the meal.

When determining what wine to pair with your meal, not only is it important to know your grape varieties, but also the style. Consider this, 100% stainless steel fermentation is going to be much lighter, and fruitier, than a wine that has gone through 100% barrel fermentation with a long aging period. It would be safe to say that 100% stainless steel fermented Chardonnay would be lighter than an oak aged Chardonnay (not to mention a Chardonnay that has gone through Malolactic Fermentation MLF - a discussion for a later post).

Keep these ideas in mind next time you are looking for a wine with your meal, and you'll be well on your way to an enjoyable experience. Remember to experiment. Try pairing food and wines that don't work too (scallops with Cabernet Sauvignon), so you can taste the results and understand how they affect each other. I look forward to hearing about your pairing successes

In our next post, we'll look at balance, or rather comparing and contrasting flavors.