Pairings: Is It Better to Pair Wine with Food or Food with Wine?

By Juan Carlos Flores Executive Sommelier, Pueblo Bonito Hotels Resorts & Spas | May 06, 2010

On a world map, if we divide the planet into north and south hemispheres, locate the latitudes between 25 degrees and 50 degrees in each hemisphere, and then shade in these areas from west to east all along the map, we will find most of the world's wine-producing countries. These imaginary lines were formerly a simple and generic way to define the areas of our planet that share similar weather conditions that are favorable to growing good quality grapes for producing wine.

Today these lines are less distinct. Countries outside of those latitudinal ranges are producing good wines, having discovered wonderful microclimates that provide the conditions necessary for production of fine grapes. It is important to understand this microclimate concept, because the combination of weather conditions, soil, mountains, rivers, lakes and oceans produce the flora and fauna that ultimately create what we are going to eat and drink. Even the style of the wine will be defined by nature itself-of course with some help from us-and this is exactly what gives each gastronomical region in the world its own unique personality. The better people understand their land, the better they will understand how to produce wonderful products that harmonize perfectly together. And this is what creates the tastes that we want to experience.

How does nature define the style of wines? This is an excellent question, and once we understand it, our parameters for qualifying a wine and making the correct selections for pairing become easier and more enjoyable. Clearly, all of us have different tastes and preferences, but certain basic facts help us achieve more discernment and encourage us to enjoy a wider range of experience, knowledge and confidence about wines. At the same time, we begin to understand that the possibilities are limitless. The more we learn, the more we realize how much more there is to know.

I would like to begin by inviting you to taste a famous white grape variety called Chardonnay from two different countries-one from Chablis in France and another from Napa Valley in California-imagining both as made in the same way and with almost no oak aging. The French wine will show more citrus and green apple aromas, and have a more tart and chalky taste. The Napa Valley Chardonnay will show more aromas of exotic fruits and golden apples, with a fuller bodied taste. How can this be when they are both Chardonnays? Simple. Because the regions and microclimates which have produced them are very different.

In Chablis we have cooler weather, which makes grapes ripen more slowly than they do in a warm region. So at harvest time they have more acidity and less sugar. Sugar will be transformed into alcohol, so the less sugar the grape has once it is harvested, the less alcoholic the wine will be, and more acidity will appear in the flavors. The chalk in the Chablis soil also influences the flavor.

The Napa Valley is a region richer in sunlight exposure and soil, so the Chardonnay grapes will ripen more fully. They can attain higher levels of sugar and more complex aromas, which yield a wine with exotic fruit aromas, golden apples and often a higher alcohol content, depending on the sugar level when the grapes are harvested.

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