Wine lists measure how customers are valued
A well thought out wine list is an important facet of any restaurant. Conversely, a bland wine list that was assembled without regard to the cuisine can detract from the dining experience. Proper pairing of wine with food can create a synergistic flavor experience. For some styles of cuisine that wonderful experience cannot happen if wine list is put together in a boiler plate manner.
Some wine lists are a representation of what wines are popular in our culture at the moment. Unfortunately, offering wines that have mass appeal isn't always the best option for the cuisine featured. Just because millions of people are buying a particular bottle of wine doesn't make it a universal match to all food.
A wine list that compliments the menu is not an accident. Understanding why some wines are not appropriate for a certain cuisine is as important as knowing why some wines work well. My inspiration for this article comes from a recent experience at a Thai restaurant. Every course was delicious. The quality of ingredients showed that the chef cared about what went into his dishes. There were wisps of lemongrass, perfectly cooked ornate discs of squash and eggplant, and curries that were sweet, yet sizzling with the flavor of hot peppers and ground exotic roots and seeds. This was no 'dollar-a-scoop' fare. The wine list, however, was filled with tannic reds, oaky chardonnays, and acidic sauvignon blancs. It was a snapshot of producers with big advertising budgets.
Among all these selections there were only two offerings that were appropriate for hot food, Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling and Chateau Ste. Michelle Gewürztraminer. Of course a chardonnay or sauvignon blanc would have been a lesser evil to the red wines, but they would not have elevated the taste experience the way the former selections did. The red wines on the list would have diminished the flavors of the food, leaving a dull, astringent sensation in their wake with every sip.
What makes those particular bottles from Chateau Ste. Michelle perfect for spicy food? They have residual sugar, a slight amount of sugar left over after fermentation. The wine's sweetness is absorbed by the heat of the spices and the food is enhanced by the residual sugar's soothing effect on the heat. The flavors of both the wine and the food are enhanced and focused.
When I attend a wine tasting and encourage someone to try a wine with residual sugar, I often hear that the wine is too sweet for their tastes. I explain the virtues of pairing wine containing residual sugar with Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Cajun, or Mexican food. For many people, it is this niche that earns wine with a touch of sweetness merit.
Pairing wine with food is not as difficult as the experts make it out to be. There are some basic rules to be followed, but once you're in the right category, the range of wines is considerable. The first step is to rule out those bottles that can detract from the experience, such as tannic-red wine with spicy-hot foods or acidic wine with salty foods. Then focus on those wines that offer some component that compliments the wine, such as residual sugar for spicy-hot food, or prominent acidity for fatty foods.
The effort put forth to build a great wine list shows. Attention to the wine list spills over to the wait staff in the form of knowledge and enthusiasm. If a restaurant cares about its customers' total experience it will show in their wine list. If that attention is not there you might want to seriously consider ordering a beer.
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The Portuguese call alvarinho the 'Queen' of all Portuguese white grapes. A title well deserved for this elegant wine. It is lush with creamy flavors of apricots and peaches and complimented by a marriage of white flowers and minerals. This exotic and perfume-like grape grows in a few obscure areas of Spain and Portugal exclusively. The Spanish call it albariño. The northern area of Portugal is known for old vines that are 50, 60, and 70+ years old.
Alvarinho (ahl-vah-ree-nho) is a small berried, low yielding grape with a thick skin that is difficult to vinify. When pressed, alvarinho offers small amounts of juice compared to other varieties. For these producers, showcasing alvarinho's luscious quality is more important than following market trends. They are not swayed by the popularity of other varietals and resist the urge to pull up their sluggish old vines for high yield mainstream grapes. Their steadfast devotion to this frustrating, yet superior varietal, is paying off; alvarinho has a small but growing following here in the U.S.
It is believed that alvarinho was brought to the Iberian Peninsula by monks on a religious pilgrimage from France in the twelfth century. Others believe that it evolved from Riesling and was brought to the area by German monks. A third camp believes that alvarinho is an indigenous grape. Regardless of where it came from, its elegant presence has been cherished for hundreds of years.
Its acidity offers a wonderful balance to its freshly sliced peach and apricot flavors. If it has undergone malolactic fermentation, the wine can be drunk while young. If it has not undergone malolactic fermentation the wine can age for a few years developing a floral canvas of flavors. Alvarinho is a wonderful example of the extraordinary and exotic wines that wait for us if we just choose to look for them.