The Perfect Marriage

by Anita Cheung

Spiced pepper.  Blackberries.  Smoky leather.  Forest fruits.  Long aftertaste.  Melon.  Lychees.  Apricots.  White flowers.  Flavours that explode in the mouth.  Whatever the preference, the world of wine offers something for everyone.

Great wine producing countries such as France, Spain, Argentina, New Zealand, Australia, Chile, Italy and the USA offer so many options to their respective populations in terms of body and depth as well as flavours on the palate and tantalising aromas on the nose.  For the wine lover, wine is not just wine.  It is all about legs, terroir, American oak versus French oak (the effect of each on the ageing process of the wine shall be explained a little later on), tannins and after taste.  Malbec, Carmenère, Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Gamay, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Corvina, Syrah amongst other grace our tables to accompany a meal prepared with thought and care.  Okay, I’ll admit it.  Those were all red grape varietals which are my personal favourites.  However, I’m also partial to some white wines including the majority of the following; Sauvignon Blanc, Viuda, Moscatel, Riesling, Trebbiano Toscano, Pinot Grigio, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Albariño, Pinot Blanc and Airen.  Some will be familiar and some will be new as each country has its specialities as a result of climate and terroir.

The majority of these are frequently enjoyed alongside favourite dishes or whatever is being prepared.  Often, not a thought is given to the contrast of flavours presented on the table and the flavours in the bottle and the combinations are endless.  In general though, most will follow the advice of red wine with meat, poultry, pastas and cheese and white wine with salads, fish and seafood.  However, should the unique flavours of the chosen bottle blend perfectly with the flavours of the food being prepared, then the result is something that is referred to as le mariage (the marriage) in French.  The reason why this is le marriage and not ‘the marriage’ is because the concept is French and part of French life and culture.  Let me explain further.  Should it be a hot day and seafood which has a trace of lemon squeezed over it has been prepared alongside a tropical salad of lettuce and fruit, then a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that explodes into a myriad of summer fruits on the palate will enhance the prepared meal.  Have the same meal with a Chardonnay and the dry flavours will not complement the food in the same way.  It won’t be bad, but neither will it be le mariage.  Should the same dish include deep-fried seafood that is a little salty, then it is likely that the drier Chardonnay will be a better partner on the table.

Once this concept is understood, then much time and pleasure is derived from seeking the perfect mariage.  Obviously, any number of combinations enjoyed with friends will be precisely that.  Enjoyed.  But find that perfect combination and the difference is truly palatable.  Let’s look at another combination.  Have you ever had a perfectly matured cheese with a full-bodied red that after breathing (leaving the wine open for forty minutes prior to drinking so that it can oxidise) balances oak, spices and the flavours of the mature cheese perfectly?  The result is a combination of flavours that both explode and melt in the mouth and one balances the other perfectly.  This is le mariage.

So let’s think about wine - the grapes and the process which add distinct character to each bottle.  It is common to see ‘aged in oak’ written on a bottle at some point, but what does this actually mean?  Well, it means that the wine has been left to lie in oak barrels for anywhere from a few months for a young wine  to 36 months or in some cases, up to 48 months for a mature wine.  The longer the wine has been left to mature in oak barrels, the more characteristics of oak and structure are to be found in the wine.  So if you enjoy a full-bodied red with lots of structure, keep an eye on the label and check how many months it has spent in oak.

French oak or American oak?  The answer to this question has nothing to do with preferring old world wines or new world wines, but lies in the structure of wood and the influence that this has on the ageing process.  French oak is a closely grained wood that when made into barrels means that the wine encased in those barrels is protected from light or air and will take on more characteristics of the wood.  Hence, wine that has been aged in French oak is likely to portray characteristics such as leathery notes, spicy pepper and smoked oak.  In comparison, American oak is less grainy and allows the resting wine to breathe a little which not only means that the wine is slightly ‘lighter’ in comparison (not as strong as a full-bodied Bordeaux for example), but also that tasting notes associated with wine aged in American oak are often of coconut and vanilla.  Hence the wine aged in American oak will have subtle flavours of oak as opposed to the strong smoky flavours of oak associated with wine matured in French oak.  Winemakers will often choose to use both in the winemaking process in order to get the maximum advantage from both types of wood.  Most of the time, ageing in oak barrels is associated with red wines, however, this process is also used for some, but not all, white wines.  Take a Chardonnay for example.  An oaked Chardonnay is infinitely drier than an unoaked Chardonnay.  

Terroir. Earth.  What on earth does this mean in terms of producing wine?  In simple terms, the grape is a plant that adapts to many different conditions and as such, the grape vine will extend its roots to find the water and nutrients it needs.  Terroir refers to moist soil or dry soil.  Sunshine or shade.  Plenty of rain or scarcity of rain.  Whatever the conditions, the grape vine will adapt to its environment and each of these will have an impact on the characteristics and structure of the wine.  

Let’s look at one more step in the winemaking process which is often overlooked.  Many people enjoy a cold glass of rosé on a summer’s day, but most know nothing about a rosé.  Is it a white grape or is it a red grape?  It definitely is not a combination of red wine and white wine mixed together - as was once described to me by an acquaintance!  In order to produce a rosé, which is made from red grapes, the skins of the grapes are left in contact with the wine for less time than for red wines.  For this reason, it is possible to see a Cabernet Sauvignon rosé or a White Zinfandel rosé such as the Barefoot White Zinfandel rosé (made from the Zinfandel grape) from Modesto, California, but each bottle of rosé usually states the varietal of the bottle.

Whilst thinking about rosés and le mariage, it has to be said that there is no other wine that lends itself so perfectly to spicy food.  Whether the dish prepared is Chinese, Thai, Indian or your own home-cooked favourite spiced up with chilli or Burn Yo Face Hot Sauce, a bottle of rosé is the perfect mariage for your meal.  Should the days be cold and warm meaty dishes, pasta or cheese be the preferred order of the day, then a full-bodied red with lots of structure and oaky notes that has been breathed prior to drinking will be the perfect complement.  And if you are really interested in finding the perfect mariage, I suggest that you think about the flavours in the meal that has been prepared.  Then, when buying a bottle of wine, read the labels until one is found that matches the meal or that make suggestions of notes that seem to complement what will be served.  Finally, exactly the same process can be gone through to find the perfect mariage between white wine and seafood, fruit and summer salads.  

Each wine has its unique characteristics with notes of spice, tropical fruits, leather, licorice, white flowers, gooseberries, oak and vanilla to name but a few.  And although it may seem excessive to spend time trying to find the perfect partner for your meal, once you have experienced that combination, a new journey is embarked upon and there is no looking back.  The perfect mariage is waiting for you!

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