Figuring In Taste Vectors For Pairing Wines

Helmut Donnhoff at Hermannshohle Vineyard, where Donnhoff Estate Riesling is produced. Photo from Roberto Viernes

One night I was having dinner at a restaurant, not really paying too close attention to the food and wine pairings. I had just ordered a bottle of off-dry Riesling for the general style of food that we were ordering, mostly seafood with Asian inspired sauces and preparation. I’m not as fussy about wine and food pairings as I used to be. I just don’t want the two to clash.

As we worked our way through the appetizers and moved onto the entrée, I tasted my deep-fried whole sea bass with my Riesling, and they went pretty well together. Then I dipped a piece of the same fish into the rich kabayaki butter sauce and drank another mouthful of the Riesling, and it was suddenly a magic pairing. I was reminded of what Sarah Moulton of TV Food Network fame once told me about flavor. We had done a special dinner together for the REHAB Hospital, and while we were having dinner she shared with me her thoughts about the delivery of flavor to our palates, not only with food but with wine.

She said that there are basically two major vectors for flavor. In food there is fat. Fat comes in many forms. Some are glorious like butter, duck fat or cheese; others are not so glorious like oils, transfats and the like. Fat in itself has little to no flavor. Butter is quite mild on its own unless it is salted, enhanced or combined with something else. Whipping cream, which is very high on the fatty totem pole, is another example of something that is quite fatty but does not have a whole lot of flavor. For Sarah, some of the best things in the world need and contain fat in order to be flavorful. Bacon, the now banned-in-California Foie Gras, chocolate and ice cream are perfect examples.

When it comes to wine, she said that alcohol is the major vector for flavor. And she is right. When you look at critics who rate wines according to a 100-point scale, the highest rated wines are almost invariably those that have rich alcohol levels, many exceeding 14.5 percent by volume. Those wines carry an enormous amount of flavor in them. Those high-alcohol wines also tend to carry plenty of oak flavors as alcohol acts as a solvent in an oak barrel, leaching more of that flavor than a wine with less alcohol for the same duration. I think this is why those wines that score highly are easy to appreciate by any wine drinker. They are obvious and overt. You don’t need to be able to search for the flavor when it reaches out to grab your tongue.

But here is the rub. I’m drinking a glass of Riesling that is relatively lower in alcohol at about 11 percent alcohol with a rich, buttery and salty sauce with a rich and salty fish, and the pairing is phenomenal. I can taste all the wonderful nectarines, citrus and minerality in the wine but it is now elevated by the combination of fat and salt. So could it be that it is not only alcohol in wine that transmits the flavor? I dare to say that there is a combination of things in wine, not only the alcohol that does so. Or perhaps it is the combination of vectors in food and wine, some type of cocktail that truly brings the best out in each other. I will do more research until I find the answer. I may be onto something here.

Recommendations: 2010 Donnhoff Estate Riesling ($19) If there is a better ‘Estate Riesling’ from Germany, I’m buying. This one simply explodes with copious amounts of fruit, elegance on the palate and just the right balance of acidity and sweetness. You have to taste it to believe it. 2010 Malvira Birbet ($19) This is made from the Brachetto grape and produces a lightly sparkling, deep rose/purple wine that is fruity, sweet and exotic. Notes of pomegranate, roses, melons and berries abound. If you like Moscato d’Asti, you will absolutely go bonkers for this!