John Brown has been a wine and food columnist in West Virginia since the 1980’s. His regular columns appear in the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail under the title Vines & Vittles and in The State Journal - a statewide business weekly
Why most wine rating systems are incomplete
Look, I know I've always preached that wine appreciation is a very subjective undertaking, and that you should drink whatever you want, with or without food. I still feel that way. Yet you may have noticed that most of my wine recommendations also come with a suggested food pairing. That's because I feel strongly that food brings out the best in wine - and vice-versa.
After all, I'm paid the big bucks (EDITOR'S NOTE: When did your bucks become big? The Gazette specifically ordered you be paid small bucks... ;-0) to render an occasional opinion. And that opinion is that while you may prefer your flagon of Vito's Thunder Mountain Chablis on its own, you might be surprised at how much better it tastes when you try it with a complimentary food (like wolf pancreas). Okay, now that I've got your attention, today's missive involves helping you find the right bottle with your meal even when the wine rating experts don't give you a clue.
At least once a week, I get asked this question: 'What is your favorite wine?' My answer is always the same: "It depends." Now, you may think that's a way of avoiding the question, but to me the question is incomplete unless I'm given some type of food context. For example, if the question is stated in this manner: What is your favorite wine with beef tenderloin? I would ask how is it to be prepared? Will the beef be marinated, dry-rubbed (and rubbed with what spices) or just seasoned with salt and pepper? Will it be grilled, pan sautéed or oven roasted?
Based upon your answers to those questions, I would then recommend several wines that would marry nicely with that particular treatment of beef tenderloin. While many wine experts will strongly disagree with me, I don't believe wine can be objectively and properly evaluated on the merits of its own flavors, aromas and textures - without food.
This presents a problem as many of us get our information on which wines to buy from the results of competitive tastings where wines are evaluated without food. The dirty little secret about many wines which score highly in these tastings is that they are usually the ones which are fuller, richer, rounder, higher in alcohol and exhibit characteristics like tropical fruit, blueberries, butter and vanilla, etc.
That's the complaint of many European wine makers (particularly the French), whose wines sometimes are leaner, more understated and generally show very poorly when pitted against new world wines where the only food consumed at the tasting is a cracker or some bland cheese. And I understand the practical problem that tasting panels face when they're trying to evaluate hundreds of wines in order to provide consumers with useful information on which to buy.
So what can you do? Since these tasting panels cannot reasonably be expected to provide the volume and diversity of menu items necessary to judge the sheer volume of wine, you'll need to factor this reality into your decision-making. In other words, try to imagine how well a particular bottle would match the food you intend to serve with the wine.
I know this is not a fool-proof method, but it is a good way to incorporate food into the wine appreciation equation. I guarantee that once you hit the food and wine bulls' eye, you'll understand the value of this type of thinking when you're trying to pick a wine.
One publication which goes to great lengths to suggest the most appropriate pairings of food and wine is certainly true to its name. Food and Wine is my favorite magazine when it comes to emphasizing the importance of properly matching the meals we eat with the most appropriate wine. Check it out.
Speaking of food and wine, here's a pairing I recommend:
Roderer Estate Anderson Valley Brut ($22) - Sparkling wine enthusiasts will love this complex, crisp, yet rich wine made in the traditional Champagne method. Creamy and toasty with flavors of ripe pear, the wine makes a great aperitif with cheese or fruit such as strawberries. It also is a superb match to chicken cordon bleu.