Thursday, January 17, 2013
Pairing wine with homemade pickles
I never found that tongue twister difficult, not like saying "toy boat" 10 times fast. But actually finding a wine to go with pickles, that's another story. Vinegar and hot spice are death to most wines; vinegar can make wines taste thin and acidic, which is why green salads are hard to pair with, and hot spice can make alcohol feel hotter. Many pickles also have sugar, which can make less-sweet wines taste sour.
My friend and former colleague Jonathan Kauffman, now the San Francisco editor of Tasting Table, is making a variety of pickles at home, to his partner's occasional chagrin, as you'll understand if you know the smell of fermenting cabbage. I invited myself over for dinner to see if I could pair wines with his handiwork.
Jonathan made five kinds of pickles, and the longtime restaurant critic has a deft hand because they were very different and I liked them all:
* Fermented brussel sprouts with curry leaf, garlic and fenugreek: the spiciest and most complex
* Simple sauerkraut with dill
* Turnips pickled with vinegar and salt; the most "pickley"
* Carrots buried in red miso for two months: mild and a little sweet
* Fuyu persimmons pickled with ginger and long pepper: Sweet and spicy.
Choosing wines to bring to Jonathan's place was a multi-level challenge. I wanted things I would enjoy drinking, but also didn't want to take a great wine and waste it on an evening when we wouldn't appreciate it.
I brought a box of stuff and pulled corks in the kitchen, Jonathan and I comparing notes while our non-critic partners sat in the living room wondering if we would ever invite them to eat or drink anything. ("Here, have some Moscato," I tried to mollify them with, and that worked for a while.)
Everything I brought, I thought might work. Here's what failed. A Sauvignon Blanc, even though I brought a floral Sauvignon Musque clone; the acidity of wine and pickles combined rather than contrasted. A very nice Moscato d'Asti, which I thought was a no-brainer, failed: the pickles took away its sweetness, making it seem fat and milky. I brought a friend's tasty homemade sparkling plum wine, made in Oakland from tiny yellow plums. That failed for the same reason as the Moscato.
Here's what worked:
Cantine Maschio Treviso Prosecco Brut NV ($12)
Forgive me, Cantine Maschio, this was a wine sample that had been sitting in my refrigerator for months. It's a widely available wine, but it has more soul than I realized. The winery is family-owned, and while the grapes come from the wider Treviso region that includes the original Prosecco area, 100% of them are the Glera grape (formerly also known as Prosecco; people started calling it Glera in 2009 because Prosecco as a region, grape and style of wine is just too confusing.)
I'll be honest, I had this wine before in a mass-tasting format and thought, meh. But I never tried it the way Italians drink Prosecco: as an aperitif, with food. The Prosecco, dare I say, sparkled under these circumstances. It cleansed the palate, tasted lively, wasn't so serious that I worried about not fully appreciating it, yet I enjoyed every sip. This was the hit of the night, which is something considering that it was also the cheapest beverage on the table.
When Jonathan served his main courses (cauliflower frittata with smoked cheese, and roasted butternut squash with tahini), I moved on from the Prosecco. But that's fine, that's what the Italians do. They know something about wine over there.
I was worried about bringing a dry Riesling. A sweeter Riesling seemed a more obvious choice. But honestly, I didn't have one sitting around the house, and I had this. And we were just trying some stuff.
Unlike with the Prosecco, I was also worried about spending a wine that I had planned to enjoy under more ideal circumstances. Weingut Liebfrauenstift is a 205-year-old estate winery inside the oddly named city of Worms. Ancient sandstone winery walls create a microclimate for the vines. And I love German dry Riesling; it goes with everything.
See that last sentence? I had to test that theory. Well, it's true.
As with the Prosecco, I first tasted the wine on its own and thought, meh. Austere. The pickles brought it to life, bringing out minerality and lengthening the finish. My enjoyment of this wine rose continuously throughout the evening. Perhaps predictably, when we moved on from the pickles, I could easily have finished the whole bottle had I not brought everything else and ... well, OK, wanted to share. If you insist.
This was my secret weapon. Sake is served with pickles all the time in Japan. Good sake has a number of qualities that make it work: it tastes less acidic, can carry a little sweetness better than wine, and can have a rich, creamy mouthfeel that makes a nice contrast.
I brought two sakes to Jonathan's, and we liked both, but this was more successful (and, unfortunately, more expensive.) Though it's made by the ancient, artisanal yamahai method, this is a particularly clean-tasting, wine-like sake, which is kind of ironic. It's fruity and refreshing, and was like having a cleansing bite of green apple after each taste of pickle. It was the most delightful beverage with the pickles, although the fact that it costs 5 times as much as the Prosecco can't be ignored. And it was elegant with the main course as well, staying in the background more than the Riesling, letting the food speak.
So in sum, when pairing with pickles, provide Prosecco, Riesling and sake. That worked for me. Your move, Peter Piper.
Posted by W. Blake Gray at 6:00 AM