During the winter, nothing tastes better with a hearty meal than big red wines like cabernets. Come summertime, however, the food lightens up, and so do the wines.
Cabernets and zinfandels give way to refreshing varieties like rieslings, rosés, sauvignon blancs, beaujolais, pinot grigios, chardonnays and sparkling wines. But how to choose a favorite from among so many varieties? Taste them. Better yet, taste them with friends by hosting a wine-tasting party. It’s a recipe for lighthearted fun and one of the best ways to learn about wine and food pairing. The first order of business is to . . .
PICK A THEME
Several themes work well for wine tastings. You could center a tasting around a collection of wines from within a region — for instance, wines from Sonoma, Calif., or Willamette Valley in Oregon. Or taste wines by price within a region, pitting inexpensive, mid-range and expensive varieties against each other. Youcould even go for a theme of grapes across regions, comparing, say, chardonnays from California, Australia, France and South America. No matter what theme you choose, limit the choices or don’t make a theme too broad. The next thing to address is . . .
An authentic wine tasting involves several essential accessories: Glasses. Use real wine glasses. They are better-suited for swirling and smelling the wine. Plan twoormore glasses per person. Dump bucket. Set out several containers for guests to spill out any excess or unwanted wines. Rinse pitcher. Unless you have enough glasses for each wine sample, you’ll want to fill a pitcher with room-temperature water so your guests can rinse their glasses before tasting the next wine. Drinking water. Guests will want to rinse their mouths before proceeding to the next wine in the tasting. Pens and notepads. These allow guests to make notes about the wines they have sampled. You also want to get guests talking about the wines (see Page 2 for guidance). Bread/crackers. It’s a little something to cleanse the palate after each wine. But bread and crackers
aren’t enough to feed a hungry crowd. So the third element to consider is . . .
Jerry Comfort, the culinary director for Beringer Vineyards, has developed the "Beringer’s Progressive Wine & Cheese Pairing Wheel and Guide." He analyzed the taste profiles of a broad array of cheeses to develop this handy device, available on Beringer’s Web site, www. beringer.com, for $10.
The reason for the wheel and guide lies with amyth about wine and cheeses.
"Despite a common belief, all cheeses do not pair well with all wines," Comfort says.
"If you’ve ever eaten gorgonzola with a crisp sauvignon blanc or a delicate, fresh chèvre or boucheron with a big, tannic cabernet sauvignon, you’ll never forget the dramatic way the flavors interact."
Among his suggested pairings:
For light, fruity white wines like riesling, gewürztraminer, chenin blanc, viognier, sauvignon blanc or chardonnay, serve fresh creamy cheeses: mascarpone, ricotta, fresh mozzarella, brie or smoked cheeses.
These types of cheese would also be his recommendations for fruity, low-tannin reds like rosé, beaujolais or light pinot noir.
For summer dessert wines like amarone or muscat, serve a wedge of strong blue cheese like Stilton, or dry aged cheese like asiago or a salt-brined cheese like feta.
If youwant to move beyond a cheese board foryour wine tasting, Sarah Jane English, author of "The Wines of Texas: A Guide and a History," offers some other pairing thoughts.
"There shouldn’t be hard and fast rules about pairing food and wine except the personal preference of the individual," she says.
"There are certain classic combinations that you can taste to educate your palate: champagne and caviar, chablis and oysters, sauternes and foie gras, port and Stilton, bordeaux and lamb, chardonnay and lobster, white burgundy and quenelles, and chianti and pasta."
Andrea Immer, author of "Great Wines Made Simple," says it’s all about chemistry.
"Wine is an ideal partner for nearly all foods because of its acidity," she says.
"Tannin in some young red wines is an astringent substance that roughens your tongue and palate. A little protein, like cheese, will smooth mild tannins on the tongue. Protein and fat in cheese or meat coat your tongue and prevent the tannin from tasting harsh, and the tannin keeps the steak or cheese from tasting greasy and heavy. Eaten and drunk together, cheese and wine bring out the best in each other."
English cautions, however, that certain foods don’t go with wine. Those would include salads with acidic dressings, anchovies, fresh tomatoes, fresh citrus fruits, kippers, asparagus and artichokes.
"Otherwise, fill the glass one-third to onehalf full, and enjoy," she says.
Talking about the wine — and then seeing where the conversation takes you — is the essence of a wine-tasting party. However, it’s the area in which novices feel most adrift. Here are a couple of ways to get the conversation started:
Give guests a list of adjectives that are oftenattributed to wine. Include words such as "fruity," "vegetative," "nutty," "woody" and "pungent," along with descriptive qualities of each. See www.winelovers page.com for a full range of information, from a wine-tasting course to reports on wines around the world.
Have tasters mention whether the wine recalls another wine they’ve had in the past — or even another drink or food. Ask associative questions, such as: Does the wine recall fruit? Does it have a chocolaty quality? For more information: http://houseandhome. msn.com and click on Cook and Entertain.
You’re at a party. (Aren’t you always?) You grab some bread, Brie and a glass of buttery Chardonnay and go in search of a comfy place to nosh. But there’s nowhere to sit.
Not to worry: Attach a Stemware Plate Clip to the side of your plate and insert your wine glass. The stainless steel clips act as a third arm for those standing-room-only gatherings.
The clips have a basic metal design that coordinates with most plates and stemware, and a rubber lining prevents scrapes and scratches on plates.
They cost $15 per pack of six and are available online at www.containerstore.com and at Container Store locations (there’s one at Park Meadows in Denver). Or call (800) 733-3532 for more information.
SANFRANCISCO CHRONICLE WINE GLOSSARY
Appellation: Generally, the name of the region in which a particular grape was grown. This can be a state, a geographic area or simply the vineyard itself. Winery: The person or company who produced or bottled the wine. Variety: The kinds of grapes — merlot, chardonnay, zinfandel, for example — in a particular wine. Vintage: The harvest of a particular year. Varietal: A wine that is made mostly from one grape variety. Nose: The wine’s aroma or bouquet. Tannins: Astringent substance in seeds and stems of grapes that helps red wines age properly. Dry: A wine that doesn’t taste sweet. May also be called sec (French for dry).
Sources: MSN House & Home; "Food Lover’s Companion," by Sharon Tyler Herbst