- Steven Kolpan
- Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.
These days many consumers enjoy buying wine with labels that feature animals, such as kangaroos, penguins, fish, lizards, and loons. These “critter labels” don’t just happen by accident. Research has shown that American wine consumers are 40% more likely to buy a wine with a cute animal on the label when compared to a relatively straightforward wine label that gives the basic information: the name of the producer, the name of the grape, the name of the place where the vineyards are located, and the year in which the grapes were picked – the vintage.
Whether we choose our wines based on the cute factor or on the basic label facts, most wine labels give us minimal information. Sometimes the back label of a wine is reserved for marketing the wine, and in the process of trying to hook the consumer with spinspiel, we learn a bit more about the origins of the wine and the philosophy of the producer.
There is one wine producer in California whose back labels actually give us important information, and that is the Calera Wine Company, owned by Josh Jensen. Jensen specializes in single-vineyard Pinot Noir, and for the last 35 years his goal has been to create Burgundy in California. That is to say that Jensen wants to replicate the qualities of the great red Burgundies of France, which by law and custom are 100% Pinot Noir. Since 1975, Josh Jensen’s passion and obsession has been to create the finest Pinot Noir he can possibly make, and he does so in one of the most isolated viticultural regions in the United States.
Jensen’s front label is straightforward. Here’s what we know from reading it: The producer is Calera; the vintage is 2005 (Calera’s 30th vintage); the grapes were grown only in the Mills Vineyard; the varietal is Pinot Noir; the American Viticultural Area (AVA), or officially designated wine region is Mt. Harlan.
Here’s a few things we can’t tell by reading the front label: “Calera” is Spanish for “lime kiln,” which is a hint that the soils of the Mills Vineyard, much like the best vineyards in Burgundy, are rich in limestone; the Mills Vineyard is one of five single-vineyard limestone-based Pinot Noir sites (the others are the Selleck, Jensen, Reed, and Ryan vineyards). So in 2005, the Mills bottling was one of five single-vineyard Pinot Noir wines produced by Calera; and we also can’t tell by reading the front label that Josh Jensen’s Calera vineyards and winery is – and always has been – the only wine producer in the Mt. Harlan AVA.
It is the back label of this wine that really excites me, as it is filled with information about the pedigree of the wine in the bottle (and why it is worth $45 per bottle).
On the left hand side of the label we learn that the Mills Vineyard is 14.4 acres, and we see where the vineyard is located relative to the other Calera single vineyards. We also get some basic contact info for the Calera Wine Company (by the way, the website is terrific if you want to learn more about the winery, its vineyards, and its wines). But it is the right side of the label that makes this wine unique and provides a virtual tutorial in what it means to produce a true artisanal wine from vineyard to bottle. Let’s explore this label and see how it translates to what’s in the bottle.
American Viticultural Area (AVA): Mt. Harlan
Again, Josh Jensen’s Calera Wine Company is the only wine producer in this AVA, due to its extreme geographic isolation.
Mountain Range: Gavilan Mountains
Sometimes referred to as the Gabilan Mountains, Gavilan is Spanish for “hawk,” and red-tailed hawks are common to this mountain range, which is located on the border of Monterey and San Benito counties. The highest peaks in this mountain range are more than 3,000 feet.
County: San Benito
Region: California’s Central Coast
This wine is not produced in Napa or Sonoma counties, or even in Sideways territory, Pinot Noir-rich Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. San Benito County is not known for its wines, but it does have a few isolated wine regions, including the high-altitude, single-producer Mt. Harlan and Chalone AVAs.
Predominant geology: Limestone
After Josh Jensen returned from Burgundy in the early 1970s, he searched for limestone-rich soils for his Pinot Noir vineyards, and his search went on for years. Limestone is a rare soil type in California, which is blessed with a lot of overtly fertile loam and clay soils. Jensen was convinced if he was going to make a Pinot Noir as fine as Burgundy’s best, he could not do it without the terroir-defining limestone soils.
Average Elevation: 2,200 feet above sea level
So these vineyards are close to a half-mile in the sky, and are accessible only by tough-terrain vehicles. At this elevation, all picking in the vineyard must be done by hand. High-elevation, cool-climate vineyards enjoy the morning and afternoon sun to ripen grapes, and also enjoy cool nights that produce high acid levels in those grapes. High acidity in the finished wine makes you want to take another sip of wine, another bite of food. There is nothing worse in the world of wine than low-acid Pinot Noir.
Vineyard location: 9 miles south of Hollister, 90 miles south of San Francisco, 25 miles east (inland) of Monterey/Carmel
Hollister is a city of about 38,000 people, founded by farmers and ranchers, and is currently the most populous municipality in San Benito County.
Owned by Calera Wine Company
This may seem like an obvious and unimportant fact, but it is actually quite important. What this means is that since the winery owns the Mills Vineyard, this wine was made without any purchased grapes. The wine is estate-bottled, meaning that Calera owns the land, grew the grapes, and made the wine. The majority of wines in California are produced at least in part from purchased grapes.
Number of vines: 10,575 (100% Pinot Noir) Vine Spacing: 6’x 10’ Vines per acre: 726
This is significant in that it speaks volumes about Josh Jensen’s approach to growing Pinot Noir. The total number of vines, the vine spacing, and the vines per acre indicate that Jensen believes in a more classic (Burgundian) planting regime, giving the vines plenty of room to grow, and plenty of room for vine roots to extend deep into the soil. By modern standards, which include close spacing of vines, 726 vines per acre is about one-third of what many growers might plant (about 2,000 vines per acre is the modern norm). The relatively small amount of vines, coupled with excellent vineyard management, will provide a low yield in the vineyard, which is what Jensen wants: fewer berries, but more concentrated minerals, flavors, and aromatics in each berry.
Exposure of slope: South/Southwest
These mountain vineyards are planted for maximum sun exposure throughout the day, helping to ensure steady and even ripening.
Year planted: 1984 Rootstock: Own-rooted (Pinot Noir)
Since the vintage of this wine is 2005, the vines were 21 years old at the time of harvest, meaning that the vines are mature, although they still have a long life ahead of them. Perhaps more important than their age is that these vines are planted on their own roots, not a selected rootstock. Ever since the plant louse, phylloxera destroyed the vineyards of Europe and beyond at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, about 90% of the commercial vineyards in the world have been planted on phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks (Australia and Chile being notable exceptions). Jensen is taking a risk here, but he must believe it is important for the vines of the Mills vineyard to be planted on their own roots (the other four Pinot Noir single-vineyards are all planted on various American rootstocks).
The parentage of these vines is also an important issue for those of us who love fine Pinot Noir. The vines are said to be propagated from cuttings of the Pinot Noir vines of the Domaine Romanée Conti (DRC), the most famous and revered vineyards in the Côte de Nuits region of Burgundy. Since smuggling these vine cuttings into California is technically a crime, Jensen will neither confirm nor deny the origins of his Pinot Noir vines, but those closest to him attest that the source of Calera Pinot Noir is, in fact, the DRC.
19-year average crop yield (1987 through 2005) 1.30 tons per care (19.5 hectolitres of wine per hectare of vineyard)
I must have read this label entry more than a hundred times, and each time I wonder, “could this be true?” It is. Jensen’s yield per acre is, in the world of commercial grape growing and winemaking, infinitesimal. Growers whose yields are normally in the three to five tons per acre range produce high-quality wine; three tons per acre is considered an exceptionally low yield, especially in California. What this means is that each berry harvested in 2005 in the Mills Vineyard is precious for not only its varietal character but as a dramatic expression of its sense of place, its terroir. The metric terms above indicate that 1,950 liters (2,060 quarts) of wine is produced per hectare (2.47 acres).
2005 Mills Vineyard Harvest Data
Dates of harvest: September 17-25, October 7
Obviously, fruit in the Mills Vineyard reached desirable ripeness levels at differing times, which is consistent with harvest dates from previous vintages.
Tons harvested: 20.05 Tons per acre: 1.3
Again, the emphasis is on low yields, both in total tonnage and tons per acre. 2005 was a textbook vintage for the Mills Vineyard, yielding exactly the 19-year average crop yield in that vintage. Incidentally, in 2004, the yield was 1.28 tons per acre, but in 2006, a very wet year, the yield was 3.16 tons per acre, still low by industry standards, but quite high by Mills Vineyard standards. Jensen “declassified” 44% of the finished wine, deciding it was not high enough quality for the Mills bottling. The wine found its way his into the 2006 Mt. Harlan Cuvée Pinot Noir, a blend of the single vineyard wines and wine made from younger vines.
Average ripeness: 25.9% sugar
The amount of sugar in the grapes translates into alcohol. Notice on the far right of the label that the wine is 14% alcohol by volume.
2005 Mills Vineyard Winemaking Data
Fermentation: Native yeasts
This means that Jensen chose to ferment this wine with the yeasts present on the skins of the grape. While some producers choose to work only with native yeasts, many more choose to work with more predictable, less risky commercial yeasts. All of Jensen’s Pinot Noir wines are fermented on their own yeasts.
Barrel Aging: 16 months in 60-gallon French oak barrels (18% new)
Because of his love of Burgundy, Jensen uses French barriques to age his wine. French oak has a closer grain than American oak, and imparts more subtle oak flavors to the wine. Note also that he uses only 18% new oak, which imparts the most flavor, aromatics, and wood tannins. By using a regime of mostly-older oak barrels (probably one, two, and three years old), Jensen is using the oak as a spice note in the wine, and not defining it as an “oaky” California Pinot Noir. The wine has great structure and the aroma and taste of oak is delicate, almost a whisper of wood.
Malo-lactic fermentation: 100%
Nothing unusual; this is a given in red wine making (a choice in white wines). Malo-lactic fermentation is a secondary fermentation that changes harsh malic acid (think green apples) to smooth lactic acid (think milk), and in the process lowers overall acidity in the wine.
The wine is unfiltered. Jensen is one of a cadre of serious winemakers who believes that filtering wine strips it of essential flavor, aromatics, and complexity. While the wine’s color may not achieve the brilliant luminescence so prized by so many consumers, the integrity in the wine is more than worth any slight haze in the color of the wine. Not all wines need to be unfiltered, but this wine benefits from Jensen’s non-interventionist approach.
Date of bottling, etc: Completing the picture, Jensen lets us know that this is a small production of a fine wine – the equivalent of about 1,350 twelve-bottle cases, more or less consistent with single-vineyard production in Burgundy.
Too much information? Maybe. But I find it refreshing that Josh Jensen is so proud of his wine that he wants to share his pride, his passion, and his obsession with the people who are going to drink that wine. I wish that other wine producers who share that pride and passion might follow his lead. And what better place to do that than on the wine label?
In the New Testament, Timothy, on the advice of his mentor, St. Paul, said to “drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.” The Bible, as well as far more ancient civil and religious texts, are replete with references to the healing properties of wine and its place in spiritual life and practice. The ancients knew that wine - in moderation - was an aid to health, and so encouraged, even celebrated its use as a daily beverage.
More than 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States and an ardent lover of wines, spoke in support of wine as a national beverage of moderation. Jefferson said, “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage. It is, in truth, the only antidote to the bane of whiskey... Who will not prefer it? Its extended use will carry health and comfort to a much enlarged circle.”
In the modern world, Timothy’s dictum and Tom’s declaration have been accepted as gospel by many, and questioned or rejected by many more. Nearly the entire Moslem world eschews the consumption of alcohol; “alcool” is Arabic for “like a monster,” certainly not a linguistic incentive to imbibe. Other religions wail against the evils of drink, and even in those societies where alcohol is not banned, the secular consumption of alcohol, including wine, is often viewed as a negative societal trait.
Although much of the Mediterranean is populated by Moslems, the European sector of the Mediterranean countries - Italy, Spain, southern France, Greece are the major nations - have, for centuries, embraced wine as a part of a healthy daily diet. These countries have rich wine histories and wine cultures, and produce more wine than any other area of the world. Wine consumed with meals is part of daily life in the European Mediterranean, coupled with the world’s highest per capita consumption of fruits, grains, and vegetables, with most fat calories coming from virtually unrestricted intake of olive oil, a largely monounsaturated fat.
As Americans celebrate the culinary cultures of our nation of immigrants in restaurants and homes, there is serious interest in wine as part of the meal. Americans have become interested in healthy patterns of eating and drinking, and have looked to the traditional Mediterranean diet as a model to follow. We know the benefits of fruits, vegetables, and grains, and consumption of olive oil is at an all-time high in the United States. In our homes, red meat consumption is down, even as we eat more fish and poultry. Of course, wine is part of the Mediterranean diet, and is widely seen as what it always has been, when consumed in moderation; a healthy beverage.
The French Paradox
France is often thought to be the land of artery-clogging, heart-stopping foie gras, rich cheeses, buttery croissants, and Gauloises (although McDonald’s is ubiquitous in the country, and smoking has been ineffectively banned in many public places). Why, then, does France, along with the other Mediterranean nations, have some of the lowest rates of coronary heart disease - America’s number one killer - in the industrialized western world? The answer may lie in a glass of wine.
Dr. Serge Renaud, who was director of the nutrition and cardiology department of the French National Institute of Health Research, studied the relationships between alcohol - especially wine, and in particular, red wine - and health for 40 years. Renaud posited that the moderate consumption of wine is an important element in overall health. He observed that the French consume the same amount or more dairy fat - a definite link to heart disease - than the British and the Americans do, yet the French are 66% less likely to develop coronary heart disease or suffer fatal heart attacks. Renaud claimed that moderate consumption of wine with meals coupled with an absolute prohibition against binge drinking is a prescription for a healthy heart, lower rates of cancer and stroke, and even accidents.
How much is moderate? Renaud had a surprising answer. “For every 18 milliliters of red wine you drink in a week, you decrease your risk of heart disease by one percent. It’s only a drop of wine, just a taste, almost an empty glass. You don’t have to drink it, just sniffing it is enough.”
Renaud’s research was amplified and affirmed by physicians and research scientists in the United States, and found particularly eloquent support in the detailed and long-term work of R. Curtis Ellison, M.D., Chief of Preventive Medicine and Epidemiology and Professor of Medicine and Public Health at Boston University School of Medicine, as well as Arthur Klatsky, M.D., Chief of the Division of Cardiology at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland, California.
It was not a scientist, however, that captured the attention of the health-conscious, wine-drinking American public. Instead, in November of 1991 – almost 20 years ago - the French Paradox was revealed to the masses by Morley Safer, a wine-loving co-anchor of “60 Minutes.” In a 13 minute segment featuring a ground-breaking interview with Serge Renaud, Safer posed this question to Americans:
Why is it that the French, who eat 30% more fat than we do, suffer fewer heart attacks, even though they smoke more and exercise less? All you have to do is look at the numbers. If you’re a middle-aged American man, your chances of dying of a heart attack are three times greater than a Frenchman of the same age.
Safer seemed almost messianic in his answer. While he did mention that the French diet included more fruits, vegetables, and bread than the American diet, he reserved his greatest enthusiasm for red wine, when he reported that:
There has been for years the belief by doctors in many countries that alcohol, in particular red wine, reduces the risk of heart disease. Now it’s been all but confirmed.
33.7 million people watched “60 Minutes” that evening, making it the highest-rated television show broadcast that week. The effect of the “French Paradox” report on the American wine-buying public was dramatic and measurable. The very next day all US airlines ran out of red wine, and sales of red wine began to skyrocket. For the month following the report, red wine sales were up 44% (about 2.5 million bottles) over the same month of the previous year. In July of 1992, the same show was re-broadcast, and sales of red wine went up 49% for that month. Sales of red wine for the entire year following the initial broadcast were up by a factor of about 39%. It seemed like a portion of the American public embraced red wine as the newest health food - the oat bran of the ‘90’s. And since the early ‘90s, Americans have never turned back.
Many of today’s American wine drinkers were children or teenagers at the time Morley Safer made it safe to enjoy red wine in moderation. Most wine drinkers in this country have no idea what the term “French Paradox” means; they drink wine – red and white and sparkling – because they like it and because enjoying wine with food is one of life’s pleasures. Although I am at an age now where I often bemoan the lack of historical and cultural perspective of my younger friends and colleagues, I also think it best that we think of wine as one of life’s small pleasures, and certainly not as medicine, no matter what age we are.
As we began to look deeper into the research on red wine, we became enamored of such terms as “antioxidants,” and some of us can even talk about the beneficial effects of resveratrol, quercetin, and catechin, the primary antioxidants found in red wine. There’s evidence that red wine could have a positive impact on high density lipoproteins (HDL, the “good” cholesterol), and that it could help to dissolve the artery-clogging platelets in our blood.
[SEE SIDEBAR: WINE AND HEALTH]
The French Paradox was full of good news, and the American wine industry was reborn, as were restaurant wine lists, which used to feature lots of white wines and a smattering of reds unless the restaurant was a steak house. Today it is not unusual to find fish restaurants with as many reds on their wine list as whites, sometimes more. Cabernet became the King, and for a while Merlot appeared to be the Queen, until so much of it was relegated to the role of Court Jester. The 2004 film “Sideways” kindled an ever-growing interest in Pinot Noir, as Americans continue their love affair with the media as harbinger of what’s “in” and what’s “out.”
Recently I had a procedure known as a cardiac catheterization, which is a fiber optic probe of the arteries that pump blood to the heart. Happily, my results were good; my arteries are clean as a whistle. I must admit that I credit my moderate consumption of red wine (and olive oil) for the positive outcome of this scary procedure. And so I am not immune to thinking of wine as medicine, but one that I will always be happy to take as a prescription for life. If we live longer we get to experience more of life’s pleasures, so perhaps the wine-as-medicine model is not without its merits. Perhaps. But to be completely honest, unless Morley Safer can prove to me on next week’s “60 Minutes” that wine will permanently and irrevocably wreck my health, I, like most of us, will continue to enjoy the gift of nature that delivers so much pleasure and just happens to be good for me, too.
SIDEBAR: WINE AND HEALTH
As we look at life and lifestyle in the early 21st century, here is what we find about the links between moderate wine consumption and health, based on the most reliable scientific data, as of late 2009.
• Moderate intake of alcohol, especially wine, is associated with improved cardiovascular health. Alcohol exerts protective effects on the heart by raising high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, lowering low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and inhibiting blood clotting. Antioxidant properties of the phenolic compounds – the compounds that give wine its color, aroma, and taste - in red wine, greatly reduce the risk of atherosclerosis and heart attack, by a factor of as much as 60 percent.
• Moderate drinking reduces risk of both ischemic strokes and hemorrhagic strokes. People who abstain from alcohol and heavy drinkers may be at almost twice the risk for ischemic stroke than moderate drinkers.
• Researchers have found that starting to drink a moderate amount of wine during midlife, even after not drinking during younger years, is beneficial to the heart. In one study, wine drinkers were found to have a 68 percent less chance of having cardiovascular illness. Also, the antioxidants in red wine help to improve blood circulation and improve cholesterol levels in people of all ages.
• Excessive alcohol consumption is associated with hypertension, but low to moderate consumption (one to two drinks per day) may actually assist in lowering blood pressure, and, among men, lower the risk of heart attack by a factor of 30 percent.
• Because of wine’s antioxidant properties, specifically the resveratrol in red wine and the quercetin in red grapes, wine may be helpful in cancer prevention and suppression. It is also useful in lowering stress in cancer patients.
• Moderate alcohol consumption leads to higher levels of cognition and memory, and the moderate daily intake of wine, tea, and dark chocolate by elderly men and women can lead to enhanced cognition and memory. In several studies, light to moderate wine drinking has been shown to be highly effective in helping to reduce dementia, as much as 56 percent over those who do not consume wine. Results improved when light to moderate wine drinking was part of a traditional Mediterranean diet.
• Red wine (and tea) have shown promising results in helping patients with type 2 diabetes properly metabolize sugars and starches. Also, the antioxidant resveratrol, found in red wines, may help to prevent type 2 diabetes.
• Dry red wines made from particular grapes—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Syrah—have been found to assist in killing harmful bacteria, including E. coli and Salmonella strains, while not killing off beneficial bacteria (probiotics). Wine consumption inhibits the growth of Helicobacter pylori, the bacterium that causes ulcers, with best results (30 percent less bacteria) shown among those who consumed three glasses of wine per day.
• Both white and red wine can kill streptococci, the bacteria that can cause sore throats (“strep throat”), as well as tooth decay. Scientists found that the acids present in grapes and wine are able to kill the harmful bacteria. Antioxidants in grape pomace (skins, pits, stems) have been shown to inhibit the growth of bacteria that cause plaque in teeth and gums.
• Drinking a glass or two of wine per day on a regular basis can cut the risk of catching a cold by as much as 50 percent, compared to adults who abstain from wine, or drink beer and/or spirits.
• Quercetin, an anti-inflammatory polyphenol found in red wine, has been shown to reduce the growth of prostate cancer and the replication of the influenza virus.
• Moderate daily wine consumption is actually beneficial to liver health, lowering by 50 percent the incidence of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
• Light to moderate wine consumption—one to two glasses per day—results in a lower risk of kidney failure and kidney cancer than abstaining from alcohol.
• Moderate wine consumption may reduce the risk of rheumatoid arthritis.
• Resveratrol, an antioxidant, inhibits the growth of tumors in the prostate, and has been found to enhance life and to suppress the ravages of aging, including keeping the heart, eyes, kidney, and bones healthier. Resveratrol has been shown to be a useful tool in obesity research, as it prevents the development of fat cells, which can be linked to type 2 diabetes and clogged arteries. This antioxidant shows potential in attacking cancer cells, making chemotherapy more effective for cancer patients, including pancreatic cancer, which is particularly resistant to chemotherapy. Researchers are beginning to develop resveratrol-based dietary supplements, medicines, and patches, as a promising new part of the pharmaceutical industry.
• The research dealing specifically with wine consumption by women, who metabolize alcohol somewhat differently from men, is not all good news, especially when it comes to risk for breast cancer. For women who consume one glass of wine per day with healthy meals the risk for breast cancer was 40% lower than for women who are nondrinkers. However, two glasses of wine per day increase the risk for breast cancer by a factor of 10% to 20%. A 10% increase is the same level associated with women who smoke a pack of cigarettes every day. If a woman consumes more than three glasses of wine per day, her increased risk for breast cancer may rise as high as 41%.
In the old days of wine and food pairing, the choice of a particular wine to accompany a particular dish was fairly predictable: white wine with fish, red wine with meat. The pairings were also Eurocentric, meaning that the marriage of food and wine was largely based on the classics: French wines (or wines made from the classic French grape varietals) with dishes that featured the four Mother Sauces of Carême – Béchamel, Espagnole, Velouté, or Allemande – or their derivatives, as developed by Escoffier in the early 20th century – tomato sauces, butter sauces, emulsified sauces, Mornay, Bordelaise, and on and on. In fact, “back in the day” the job of a sommelier was pretty easy: taste the sauces in the kitchen; pair the wine in the dining room.
Many of the wine and food matches derived from the classic European approach have withstood the test of time, and the pairings continue to make for a satisfying dining experience. But many of today’s chefs are creating dishes that are lighter than the classics and perhaps more important, are cooking in a Global Village. No longer content to focus solely on the traditions of Carême and Escoffier, chefs are looking and traveling all over the world for inspiration. Today’s wine service professionals need to follow that lead, catch that inspiration, and pair exciting wines with creative dishes that are either true to the letter or based on the spirit of foods from the Mediterranean, Asia, Central and South America, and any other place in the world with a dynamic food culture.
One of the most compelling trends in today’s restaurants is a sea change in the palate of both chefs and guests. Spicy food, from a reasonably mild mole of Mexico to a fiery hot chili sauce of China, has taken center stage in many restaurants, and customers are “eating it up.” Spicy foods add visceral excitement to dining, and cry out for a beverage that will cool down the heat while highlighting background flavors and textures. In the not too distant past, beer was the go-to drink for heat and spice, and most of the time a cold beer will chill the chilies without offending the rest of the dish; beer is a simple solution. Beer is also a cultural talisman, as many spicy-food cultures – India, China, and Mexico are just three examples – have, at least until recently, been closely identified with beer, each country producing craft beers as well as national brands.
The world is changing. Practically overnight, China has become the 6th largest wine-producing nation in the world, and India is coming on strong. Mexico has a small but active wine industry. Still, we don’t drink much wine from these countries, at least not yet. At the same time, chefs and restaurateurs want to offer great food and wine pairings with spicy dishes. Creating the ideal marriage of wine and spice can be challenging, testing the palates and creativity of chefs and wine professionals. The results can be sublime.
I am a great believer in rules, except when it comes to food and wine pairing. Unlike many of my fellow wine professionals, I believe that a) wine is a food that just happens to be in a glass; b) just as anyone can choose anything he/she wants to eat, the same person should be able to choose anything that he/she wants to drink, and c) although I believe in absolute freedom where wine and food are concerned, there are some helpful guidelines that may lead us to highly successful wine and food pairings. Where spicy food is concerned, I can’t emphasize enough that the traditional “rules” should be trashed, while attention must be paid to some pretty simple guidelines.
In general, when pairing food and wine the intensity of the food and the intensity of the wine should be near-equivalent: Power with Power. Light dishes with light-bodied wines, red meats and rich sauces with reds. When it comes to spicy food, forget that. A Thai beef salad, redolent of fresh lime juice and chilies, is not going to work with most red wines, even though the protein in the dish is beef. Think of the rare beef as a condiment to the salad, a lovely, rich texture, but with the sweet/sour lime juice and the spice of the chilies as the “center of the plate.” Did someone say “off-dry Riesling” or “Cava,” the great affordable sparkling wine from the Catalan region of Spain? Congratulations! You “get” it.
The fiery spice of chilies or other spice-laden ingredients is, honestly, a problem for many wines, because of 1) relatively high levels of alcohol in the wine; 2) tannins in red wines and oak-driven whites; and 3) relatively low acidity in popular wines for warm climates. Alcohol: every sip of wine, every bite of food amplifies both the alcohol of the wine and the heat of the dish, so unless your restaurant patron likes to sweat while eating, high alcohol does not work with spicy food. Tannins – the astringent/near-bitter elements of wine make the heat of the dish “pop,” while overwhelming every delicate nuance of flavor and texture in that same dish. Low levels of acidity don’t refresh, don’t cleanse the palate of heat and spice, and don’t encourage another bite of food, another sip of wine.
Let’s look at a semi-dry Riesling from the Mosel region of Germany, the Columbia Valley of Washington State, or the Finger Lakes of New York State. The very slight sweetness in this relatively low-alcohol wine actually will neutralize some of the heat of the chilies, making for a milder palate sensation, while the high acidity of a wine from a cool climate will refresh and “scrape” the heat from the palate, while matching the refreshing sweet/sour flavors of the fresh lime juice. The beauty of this pairing is that the rare beef stands out as a silky, sexy texture, but because it is a small, thinly sliced portion bathed in spice and lime, its power is ameliorated by its condiments. With the Riesling, the spicy beef becomes an earthy but delicate component of the dish, contrasting the citrus of the lime juice and the refreshing acidity of the wine.
If we pair the same dish with a sparkling Spanish Cava (or a Prosecco from Veneto, Italy, a Sekt from Germany, an Extra Dry Champagne, or a Blanc de Blancs méthode champenoise bubbly from California), all of the Riesling-Beef Salad interactions occur, plus one big contrasting interaction. The bubbles in the wine, coupled with fruit and acidity, really cleanse the palate efficiently, cooling off the heat, matching the acidity of the lime, and creating a bit of an instant marinade for the beef, rendering it richer and smoother as a background texture to the dish.
The key to pairing spicy food with wine is to create a contrasting relationship between the two flavor elements, not a complement. Fruity and/or off-dry white wines are the ideal choice for spicy food, as is bubbly, as is dry to semi-dry still or sparkling rosé. Light fruit-driven reds, such as Beaujolais or Valpolicella, as well as lighter, mostly inexpensive examples of Pinot Noir, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Merlot can work well with moderately spicy food, especially if you chill the wines for about a half hour before service to bring out their essential fruit. It would be a mistake to pair a spicy dish with an oaky Chardonnay – the oak and alcohol would fight the heat – or with a robust red, such as a Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah – the tannins would end up tasting bitter, as would the strong dose of alcohol. Instead, try a Sauvignon Blanc or unoaked Chardonnay (true Chablis is the benchmark of this style), a White Zinfandel, or a chilled Fleurie from the Beaujolais region of France.
Whether you’re serving spicy dishes from the Americas, Asia, the Mediterranean, or beyond, here are some wines that will almost always create a slam-dunk marriage with spicy food. Experiment with these – mix and match – and inevitably you will find a union that will lead to a lifelong and happy marriage in the glass and on the plate.
Riesling: Dry to semi-dry wines from the Mosel region of Germany, the Columbia Valley of Washington State, or the Finger Lakes of New York State
Chenin Blanc: Vouvray or Saumur from the Loire Valley of France, and varietal Chenin Blanc from Stellenbosch, South Africa or from Nasik, India.
Sauvignon Blanc: New World Sauvignon Blanc with its “fruit salad in a glass” flavors, shines in wines from Marlborough, New Zealand, as well as wines from California and South Africa. Sauvignon Blanc from Chile is getting better and better, and is a great (and economical) choice for a wine-by-the-glass – or bottle - with spicy food.
Gewürztraminer: “Gewürz” means spicy in German, so if you want to enhance the spice in a moderately spicy dish, choose this wonderful varietal, traditionally from Alsace, France, and bone dry. Off-dry to semi-sweet versions of the wine – actually more appropriate with a heavier dose of spice – are found in California and Washington State.
Chardonnay: avoid oak-and-alcohol bombs at all costs, but do choose unoaked, lighter examples of this wine from Chablis in Burgundy, France, as well as Australia, New Zealand, Italy, and California.
Viognier: The ancestral home for this grape is the Rhône Valley of France, but those wines tend to be a bit full and perhaps too dry for spicy food. Look for simpler, hazelnut-stone fruit laden Viognier wines from California or Australia.
Vinho Verde: This fruit-driven, off-dry, ultra-light-bodied, highly affordable white from Minho, Portugal is the ideal foil for seriously spicy food.
Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio: The same grape in two different languages. Pinot Gris from Alsace might be too powerful, but easy-drinking Pinot Grigio from Northeast Italy is terrific, while fruity, nutty Pinot Gris from Oregon is ideal with spicy food.
Torrontes: While everyone knows about Malbec from Argentina, its signature white grape is still something of a secret. Floral, perfumed, fresh and fruity Torrontes is a wonderful match with spicy seafood dishes.
Rueda: named for its denominación in Spain, Rueda produces only white wines, featuring the fruity, juicy Verdejo grape. That juiciness is what makes Rueda wines perfect with hot and spicy dishes.
Moschofilero: Greece’s answer to Riesling, Moschofilero, from the Mantinia wine region of the island of Peloponnese, is a wine that will cool even the spiciest dishes, providing just a bit of charming fruit to the mix.
Just about any good sparkling wine from a cool climate – the lighter the better, the fruitier the better – will work well with heat and spice. Try Cava from Spain (an extraordinary value), Prosecco from Italy (likewise), fine sparklers from California, Washington State, Oregon, New Mexico, and New York State, as well as Asti (white bubbly) or Brachetto d’Acqui (light red bubbly), both from Piedmont, Italy, and both low in alcohol. For a real surprise, treat your customers to fruit-driven off-dry sparkling Shiraz from Australia, or a semi-sparkling, low-alcohol Lambrusco from Emilia-Romagna.
Thirst-quenching dry to off-dry rosés from Spain, France, Italy, California or Australia will create another fruit-driven “sauce” for spicy dishes. The strawberry/cranberry/raspberry notes pop right out of the wine. And don’t forget the previously ubiquitous (and undeservedly maligned) semi-dry to semi-sweet White Zinfandel if you want to calm that heat down with the tastes of berries and peaches.
When it comes to reds, look for simpler wines that don’t have much more body than a rosé. That means Beaujolais (or any Gamay-based wine), Valpolicella, a simple Chianti, a lighter Côtes-du-Rhône, and inexpensive examples of Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, or Merlot. A good rule of thumb: if the red wine can’t take chilling in the wine fridge before service, don’t pair it with spicy food. If a bit of chill brings out its fresh, red fruits, then that’s the red you want to counter the heat.