December 17, 2014

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Balancing Sugar and Acid to make a more food-friendly Minnesota Wine

One of the biggest challenges we face in Minnesota is trying to make well-balanced wines from grapes that often have less-than-ideal chemistry at harvest. Deacidification is nearly always obligatory (either by chemical or biological methods), and stopping fermentation early to leave residual sugar (or back-sweetening wines) is often done in order to balance the high acids. Creating balanced wines from Minnesota fruit is not easy. The trend at the moment seems to be making wines on the sweet side. I would argue that it is easier to make a sweet wine than a balanced wine. Another advantage to creating sweet wines is that they are fairly easy to sell. This is something that is difficult for people who’ve been in the wine industry a long time to readily admit. The vast majority of people who drink wine in the US are new wine drinkers, who prefer sweet, fruity wines. That’s ok… I’ll admit that boxed white zinfandel is how I first became acquainted with wine. It’s a style that’s more approachable than the dry, acidic, or tannic wines. However, it’s the dry, acidic, and tannic wines that make the best food wines, and this is a style that I would like to see more of in the state of Minnesota. I’d also like to throw out this thought: just as many people grow-out of drinking Light Beer and Kool-Aid, many wine drinkers start to move toward drier and more bitter-tasting (tannic) wines over time. So, many of those “new” wine drinkers who prefer sweet wines now, may prefer a drier style down the road.
Why make food-friendly wines? While I understand that the majority of Americans don’t sit down to dinner with a glass of wine, I still think it is important that winemakers in the US strive to make wines that can be enjoyed at the dinner table. Here’s why: whether it’s sitting down to delivery pizza or a meal prepared with some love and effort, for most of us, eating is a time to relax. It’s the one time of day where we can be alone with our thoughts, or be joined by friends and family. When we have a good dining experience it tends to be a memorable experience – even if it’s simply pizza with friends. In fact, I’d argue that the reason pizza is a popular food comes down to the fact that it is usually something that is ordered for parties or events. Plenty of other foods are as easy and simple (and can even be delivered), yet pizza is often the first food you think to order when a group of friends get together. Pizza is associated with fun. Now, imagine if wine had the same association for the general American public? For many people, wine is associated with fancy dinners or special occasions (anniversaries, weddings, holidays…). What if wine were a part of everyday occasions?
According to the most recent Wine Market Council survey, 20% of the US adult population consumes 91% of the wine in our country. Of that “core” group of wine drinkers, only 9% consume wine on a daily basis. Considering that about 3.4 trillion bottles of table wine (678 million gallons) were consumed in the US in 2010, imagine how just a 1-2% increase in daily consumption would affect total wine sales in the US?  Or, imagine if some of the marginal wine drinkers (14% of the US adult population), started drinking wine on a regular basis?

For many people, the idea of pairing food with wine is daunting. They think they need special training, or that they aren’t that sophisticated. The fact is, most people already have had experience with good food and beverage pairings their whole lives. It doesn’t take a sophisticated palate to experience the pleasure of warm cookies with a glass of cold milk, or perhaps the satisfaction of salty pretzels and beer. We can imagine that something tart and acidic like lemonade would taste awful with cookies, or that something syrupy sweet just wouldn’t be right alongside a juicy steak. If wine is thought of as more a condiment or seasoning, then it makes wine and food pairing less daunting. Imagine squeezing a lemon over fried fish. Now think of drinking a nice dry, acidic white wine with that same piece of fish. See, easy!

When the titratable acidity in your wine is high enough where fermenting it dry would make it taste more like biting into a lemon than drinking Chablis, it makes sense to leave some sugar in the wine to make it less tart. It has been known for quite some time that a high-acid variety like Riesling can retain some residual sugar and still taste dry. The International Riesling Foundation (IRF) has done great work determining what ratio of sugar to acid is needed in order to have a wine that tastes dry, medium-dry, medium-sweet, etc. This could be a good guideline to follow with some of our high-acid varieties. So, if you have a wine with a pH of 3.1-3.2, and a TA of 10 g/L, according to their guidelines (see chart below), the wine would taste dry as long has you had less than 10.0 g/L of residual sugar (1.0%). However, as this chart was made with riesling in mind, I can’t say whether it will work perfectly with our varieties. A riesling with a TA > 10 g/L would be considered high in acid, while we are lucky to see La Crescent or Frontenac lower than 12 g/L. **

That’s not to say that sweet wines don’t pair well will food. It’s just that it can be more difficult to find a wine with the right kind of sweetness to balance-out the meal. For example, if you’re serving something savory (like pork), that has a sweet element (baked apples), a wine that has the same level of sweetness as the apples could be a good compliment (say, an off-dry gewurztraminer?). If, however, you pair something that is much sweeter, the balance is thrown off. You have the wine competing with the food rather than complimenting it. Slightly sweet wines can also help tame the heat in spicy foods (like Thai or Indian dishes), but go too sweet and the wine will take center stage. However, when serving a sweet wine with dessert, you want the wine to be as sweet or even sweeter than the dessert. Sweet wines can also be a good contrast to salty foods like blue cheese (however they don’t always work well with hard cheeses). The best way to learn what works with a particular wine is to try a food and wine together.

There are plenty of people who enjoy drinking Minnesota wines, yet even with our wonderful local food movement, many restaurants serving locally-grown food have yet to serve that wine made with locally-grown grapes. The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum will be hosting a wine and food pairing event in September this year, with local chefs choosing their favorite food-friendly wines to pair with a dish of their own creation. Wineries are asked to submit their best food-friendly local wines to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum Learning Center by June 6th to be vetted by local chefs. I encourage local wineries to participate, as I believe this is the next logical step for Minnesota wine – to be seen at the Minnesota dinner table.

**Remember that this is a taste profile, and a wine that retains more than a few g/L of sugar is technically not considered “dry.” This is an important distinction to make, as a wine that is not technically dry still risks refermentation. Red wines that you intend to put through malolactic fermentation should be technically dry. Lactic acid bacteria will metabolize remaining sugar into acetic acid – resulting in a wine with a vinegar taste.)