y brother-in-law Tom came up from the basement with two bottles of red: a Bolgheri Superiore DOCG Toscana 2003 and a Sangiovese IGT Toscana 2008. “Which should we drink tonight? he asked, joining my sister, Lois, and me in the kitchen.
“What’s for dinner?” I replied.
“Tonight, I’m making lasagna,” said Lois, “and tomorrow Tom is doing steak on the grill.”
“Perfect, we should have the Sangiovese tonight and the Bolgheri tomorrow.”
“Okay,” said Tom, “but how did you decide?”
With that, we sat down while I explained the three mental steps I went through to pair the wine with food.
Step 1. Identify the characteristics of the wine
Begin with the structure of the wine. This means the “weight” of the wine. Is it heavy or light? Looking at the alcohol content of the wine is a good clue because a wine needs more structure to support higher levels of alcohol. Otherwise, it risks being unbalanced and all you’ll taste is the alcohol.
In our case, the alcohol content of the Bolgheri is 14.5 percent alcohol and the Sangiovese 13.5. The difference is primarily the result of the grape varieties. Bolgheri Superiore DOCG is made with one or more Bordeaux grapes: cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot. Whereas the Sangiovese IGT comes from sangiovese grapes, the same variety used to make Chianti Classico.
Then, examine the balance of the wine. Wine has “softness” (related to alcohol and sugar content) and “hardness” (tied to acidity, tannins and minerality). Aging a wine reduces acidity and softens tannins. You always need to bear in mind that only wines with good acidity and tannins can be aged. Otherwise, they become flaccid and taste flat.
The Bolgheri Superiore is likely to be nicely balanced after eight years in the cellar, though some acidity and tannins will remain. By contrast, the Sangiovese is young and will be acidic with lighter tannins.
Step 2. Identify the characteristics of the food
The lasagna for dinner on the dinner menu for tonight is fairly structured with plenty of fattiness from the cheese and meat. Tomorrow’s grilled steak menu is more structured with some fattiness as well.
Step 3. Pair the wine with the food
First, match the structure of the wine with the structure of the food. In this case, the Sangiovese and lasagna match because they’re less structured while the Bolgheri and the steak go well together because they’re more structured.
Second, match up the characteristics in the wine and food (except in the case of sweet food when the best pairing is a sweet wine). The Bolgheri will be an excellent match for the steak because the wine’s acidity and tannins nicely counter the fattiness of the meat. Likewise, the Sangiovese fits perfectly with lasagna because its acidity will cleanse the palate of the heaviness of the cheese.
“When you explain it that way, it sounds so simple,” said Tom.
“It is pretty simple once you know the characteristics of the wine. Knowing the grape varieties and wines is the only hard part. But remember that I’m oversimplifying. One Bolgheri Superiore DOCG is not always like the next. Ditto for Sangiovese or any other Italian wine.”
“How can that be?” asked Tom.
“Vineyards just a few kilometers away from one another can yield very different wines. The classification, like Bolgheri Superiore DOCG, allows for variation in grape varieties.
“One could be all cabernet sauvignon and another could be merlot and yet another could be a mix of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and even some other varieties. Plus, the winemaker has a lot of choice in the cellar about how the wine is made.”
“So if you really want to be sure you know what’s in the wine, you have to know the producer?” he asked.
“Absolutely,” I replied, “And in this case, I don’t know either of the producers so I’m making my best guess.”
My best guess turned out well. Even if it hadn’t, experimentation is half the fun. The more you try, the more you learn. Your only assignment is to drink more wine.