Pairing Food and Wine at Home

Wine and food correlate. If paired properly, the elements of both wine and food can be enhanced but, if not, the opposite may happen.

My experience at a seminar organized by the Japan Sommelier Association and hosted by Ema Koeda, a food and wine specialist, was eye-opening. She explained her own theory on pairing and invited participants to taste some examples of pairings. I was amazed by the positive effects that this brought to both wine and food, which cannot be achieved if they are tasted separately.

Now that you may be spending more time at home, I’d like to share some of the tips that I learned from Ema for you to try pairing at home.


What Is the “Pairing Equation”?

Having spent most of her childhood abroad, Ema graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, a prestigious American professional school for cooking. After working as a chef at a winery in Napa, she became independent. She now serves as head of the Napa Valley Vintners Japan and proposes pairings of food with Napa wines, based on her theory called the “wine and food pairing equation.”

How does it work? Each ingredient, cooking method, and seasoning, as well as each type of wine, is allocated a score. If the total score of a dish is balanced with, or close to, that of wine to be paired with, the paring is likely to succeed.

The basic idea is to give a low score to lighter foods (such as vegetables, fish, or white meat) and cooking methods (such as raw or boiled), and a high score to heavier foods (such as marbled meat) and cooking methods (such as deep-frying). When it comes to the wines, light white wine (such as unoaked Chardonnay) has a low score, and full-bodied, rich red wine (such as Cabernet Sauvignon) has a high score. Therefore, if you choose a wine that has the same or similar total score as a dish, you have a better chance for a successful pairing.

The key here is “bridging ingredients.” These connect wine and food and cover a wide spectrum of foods – from lemon and nuts to tamari soy sauce and white miso (Japanese seasonings). Adding the right bridging ingredient to a dish can make it a better match for the wine and can even bring out the hidden elements of that wine.

For example, a bottle-fermented sparkling wine tends to have flavors of nuttiness and brioche. By adding almond butter to the dish to be paired, a connection between wine and food is made and each element of the wine and the food is more integrated and harmonious on your palate. Likewise, Napa's Chardonnay often has sweet nuances such as honey, so adding a little honey to the dish serves as a bridge between food and wine, as Ema explains.

At the seminar, a premium sparkling wine of “L’Ermitage 2012” was offered together with a mushroom canape with almond butter. L’Ermitage is a top-range wine from Roederer Estate in Anderson Valley, Northern California, which has depth and complexity with flavors of ripe peach, apricot, brioche, biscuits, caramelized nuts, and a hint of black truffle. The depth and complexity of this wine were underlined by pairing it with this canape.


Pairing Pork Cutlets with Chardonnay

Pork cutlets, or tonkatsu, are popular as a Japanese home-style dish for both kids and adults. Ema explains:

“If you have a choice between tonkatsu brown sauce or tartar sauce, please choose tartar sauce. It goes well with medium to full-bodied Chardonnay. Adding squeezed lemon as a bridging ingredient will bring out the acidity and citrus notes of the wine and make the pairing even more enjoyable. If you want to pair with a lighter-style Chardonnay, you can put salty lemon and chopped green veggies on top of the pork cutlet.”

As a wine to pair with tonkatsu, I would suggest “Karia” from Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. This 100% Chardonnay wine has white peach and pear fruits, a creamy texture, and a refreshing lemony finish. Around 30% of the wine is aged in new French oak barrels for nine months and oak is well integrated, not dominant. It is a medium to full-bodied white wine that goes well with pork cutlets and tartar sauce.

What is Good to Pair with Napa Merlot?

The next pairing suggestion is hamburger steak with mushroom sauce (a simmered sauce made with mushroom, tomato, Worcestershire sauce, red wine, and balsamic vinegar) and Merlot red wine. You can add oregano when making the hamburgers to make them even better. The black Merlot grape has soft tannins and ripe fruits, especially those grown under the sun in Napa. It is a friendly and accessible wine, and a nice choice for wine beginners too.

“Hamburger steaks have a softer texture than a chunky meat steak, so they go well with Merlot. If you want to pair these with a Cabernet Sauvignon red wine with firm tannins, I recommend buying blocks of meat instead of ground meat and making roughly minced meat yourself,” says Ema.

The bridging ingredient you want to use for pairing with Merlot is dark chocolate. This is a flavor often found in Napa Merlot. For example, adding a small piece of dark chocolate as a hidden flavor in hayashi rice (hashed beef stew with rice) makes the pairing with Merlot outstanding.

I would like to recommend a Merlot wine from “Duckhorn Vineyards,” a winery with a long-standing reputation for its Merlot. This is a fine wine with a smooth texture and complex flavors of ripe American cherry and plum, cinnamon, and nutmeg. For a more everyday wine, Merlot or Zinfandel wines from sister winery “Decoy” in Sonoma are suggested.


A Versatile Condiment Perfect for Napa Red Wines

Lastly, I would like to introduce a versatile condiment that goes well with any Napa red wine. This recipe was developed by Ema and is very easy to make by simply mixing the ingredients in a food processor: black olives, walnuts, raisins, cranberries, dried oreganos, dried thyme, salt and pepper.

This condiment brings out the aromas and flavors of wine and enriches the pairing when added to any food such as bread, cheese, meat, etc. What are used for this condiment such as olives, walnuts and raisins are all flavors often found in Napa's red wines.

Ema says, “This condiment is perfect for any red wine from Napa and makes the pairing better! If you want to match with Cabernet Sauvignon, try grilled steak; and for Zinfandel, try thickly sliced bacon.”

Cabernet Sauvignon is a full-bodied red wine with violet flowers, cassis, black cherry fruits, and spices, and is great when paired with meat dishes such as beef steak.

Napa offers a world-class red wine from Cabernet Sauvignon and has a number of prominent wineries famous for its Cabernet wines. From among these, I would like to suggest the “Grgich Hills Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon. This producer practices organic farming, and its wines are consistently high quality. For a casual occasion, Robert Mondavi’s private selection might be more readily available.

Now that you might be spending more time at home, why not try pairing your favorite dish with a glass of wine?


The Japanese version of this article is published for my wine column at Forbes Japan (here).

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My Champagne Life

by Yuri Shima

My Champagne Life 

by Yuri Shima
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