Bauhaus Restaurant's Wine Director, Alan Koller, explores the art of wine pairings and the many challenges that come with it, from the step-by-step process of searching for a wine to the pressure of ruining a dish.
"It is a new year and more often than not, that means ‘a year in review’ or ‘great wines of the year’ thing, but I will leave that to Wine Spectator. Instead of reminiscing wines that are no longer available in the liquor store, let’s take a look into probably the least discussed topic when it comes to wine: pairing food and wine together. Its discussed infrequently, and usually follows the same safe rules that everyone already knows. Even when the show ‘Somm: Into The Bottle’ addressed the topic, they didn’t dive deep. They recommended Beaujolais with a corndog. Somms love Beaujolais, and they will put that stuff with anything it seems.
Before we jump into pairings, I want to discuss one of the most important factors: our individual sense of smell and taste. This is part of our biology, and is unique to each of us. As we all know, we have taste buds, and we all have a different number of them. Some people have many more than others, and they’re known as ‘super tasters.’ Others have elevated levels of smell receptors (think master perfumers). Now, when you combine super tasters and people with elevated smell receptors, you will find master sommeliers. These people can pick up the most subtle of flavours, and when you see a blind tasting in which the taster figures out the wine, you can bet they fall into the super taster category. Or, they simply got lucky and used decades of drinking as a reference point.
Now that we know this fact, let’s get into my mindset on how I create pairings. It all begins with the food. It is impossible to pair a wine with a dish that I have never tried. There has been a couple of times years ago where I have tried to do it, and both times the wines were switched immediately upon trying the dish. Now, I won’t pair anything before I try the dish. Let’s move on. So, what am I looking for when I try the dish?
Firstly, I’m looking for the main component of the dish – quite often the protein. Protein will dictate the wine. When there is no protein in the dish, I try to look at the intensity of the main component. This is where the old adage of ‘white with fish and red with meat’ comes from, and I will say that this rule is basic, and many of us that make pairings love to break this rule. I hope that you’re ready for when I do. More importantly, I hope that you trust the reasoning behind breaking the rules. If the dish doesn’t have a protein, I will move on to the next steps listed below.
The second component I look for in a dish is the sauce. Is it cream-based, herb-based, shellfish- or fish-based, a reduction, red wine sauce, mole, or any of the other sauces that I don’t have time to list? Personally, I pay more attention to the sauce than the protein, Quite often the sauce can be the more dominant flavour in the dish.
The third component I search for is the supporting cast – what comes with the dish? Essentially, what are the accenting flavours the chefs have included? Did they use nuts, herbs, vegetables, and which ones? Do they have a hidden strong flavour, like blue cheese or plankton?
Finally, the last component I take stock of is the mouthfeel of the dish. I am looking for intensity, sweetness, saltiness, acidity, and how delicate or fatty the dish is. This is the key area for the overall pairing, in my opinion. Many pairings go wrong at this stage because the wine creates a conflict with the dish, which can result in you reacting negatively to the dish. Think of a mild dish that gets hit with a strong tannic finish from the wine. That is not a pleasant finish, and unfortunately when you get a pairing wrong, the way the bite finishes can dictate whether or not you like the dish as a whole. It is not lost on me that I can destroy an otherwise excellent dish with the wrong wine.
Once I decipher the dish, I begin to think about wine possibilities. To do this I consider what the dish wants and what it doesn’t.
Step 1 is the wine colour. Red, white, rose. Sometimes I try all three, but usually I can narrow it down to one of them quickly.
Step 2 is the body of the wine. How heavy a wine do I need? The weight of the dish and the weight of the wine should be similar.
Step 3 is acidity and tannins. Does the dish want strong acidity or mild acidity. Do I need tannins? If so, how do I want those tannins to react in your mouth? Firm, mild, or silky?
Step 4 is the flavour profile of the wine. Do I want to add a particular flavour, or a contrast? Is this a dish that wants a complimenting flavour, such as truffle, or do I just want to accent the dish to create a slightly more complex flavour profile? In step 4, the possibilities are endless.
Step 5 is to find wines that will possibly work, and begin opening bottles to try with the dish. Then we adjust, and adjust some more.
Step 6 is to involve the staff in the tasting. What is their response to the wine with the dish?
Hopefully at this point I have something that we can present to guests. Sometimes I do, but sometimes I go back to the drawing board and start all over again.
To give you an example, I will use our present pairing of the Hamachi with pickled cucumber and daikon with sea vegetables and a plankton emulsion from the Tasting Menu. The chefs have created a beautiful opening dish to the menu. When you try the dish, you find it very delicate but it has a great deal of complexity. The joy in the dish is experiencing these restrained flavours - the subtle nature of the Hamachi, contrasted by the bright acidic tones of the cucumber and daikon, and these amazing oceanic notes of the sea vegetables and plankton.
The process of choosing the wine went this way. I knew this dish needed a white wine, and I quickly ruled out sake because of the delicate and complex flavours. I began with sparkling wine, but found the acidity to be too much with the pickled daikon, and it distracted me from other flavours I wanted to showcase. I wanted a delicate white wine with mild acidity. Pinot Grigio came up in conversation, but I thought that was boring. I brought in a viognier from Israel – no. Albarino from Spain – nope. Loureiro from Portugal – again, no. Something from Greece that I can’t recall – no. Riesling – no. All of these wines were too big and overpowered the dish. I went home that day and began researching wines, determined to find a white that is light, tart, and mildly acidic. I went on to the BCLDB website and searched obscure white wines, created a list, and reviewed the winemaker notes for the wines. I drove to a liquor store where I could find the wines I chose, and walked in and bought the first one on the list. Took it back to the car, opened it and knew right away that I had found the right wine. I walked back in and bought the rest of their stock. The wine is the Jidvei from Transylvania in Romania. A Feteasca Alba. A light, dry wine that has tart fruit to contrast the sweetness of the Hamachi, pickled cucumber, and daikon. The wine finished with a wonderful lime leaf and blossom tone that worked well with the lime the chefs used in the dish.
The final part of doing a wine pairing is to create a convincing story to create the full experience for your guests. If I just put a glass of wine with your dish, what was the point of doing the pairing? A pairing is designed to elevate an experience – it should challenge you, educate you, excite you, and most importantly it should create conversation. It is the conversation that is sometimes key. You may not agree with the pairing, but my hope is that you understand the concept as to why I did what I did.
I hope you enjoyed a brief look into the process of wine pairings. I am about to start the journey all over again this week. Look for our new tasting menu coming at the end of January!"