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.