The Second Step
After considering the essential differences between old-world and new-world wine, the second factor to wrap your mind around is wine’s weight. The weight of wine on the palate doesn’t simply correspond to alcohol content, but rather an impression of alcoholic strength, tannin, and overall textural sensation.
Put It Into Perspective
One wine retailer likes to use the humorous analogy of motor oil, and the way different weights have different abilities to coat the inside of your car’s engine. But while it may be fun to compare Australian Shiraz to 20W50, the analogy is not entirely practical when discussing liquids that we taste with our mouths. So, to help you make sense of wine weight— which is crucial in pinpointing your palate preferences and in making effective wine-and-food pairings, I have created a quick-and-easy scale with 4 familiar potables, each representing a different degree of “heaviness” for your tongue to detect: Skim Milk, Whole Milk, Half & Half, and Heavy Cream. This is not to say that wines will actually exhibit the texture of milk or cream; this is purely analogous, and is a tool that will put into perspective the basic variations in wine weight.
Comparing Apples to Apples
Analyzing the weight of wine can also spark discussion in regional diversity. In my current mad scientist experiment, instead of just reiterating that Vinho Verde is light as in skim milk and Malbec is dense as in heavy cream, I sought to demonstrate that the 4 degrees of wine weight can apply to the same grape variety, depending upon the climate in which it’s cultivated. The example I chose is the noble Syrah variety, which appropriately runs the entire wine weight spectrum, from its classy origins in the cool-to-moderate conditions of the Northern Rhone Valley in France, to its bolder and sometimes behemoth incarnations in the new world, particularly the southern hemisphere. The food pairing that was put to the test was a roasted Murray’s chicken with roasted root vegetables and quinoa.
The Contenders and their Results:
Representing Skim Milk: Juveniles Crozes-Hermitage ’08 $15
Here is your classic Northern Rhone Syrah, sporting aromas reminding of white pepper, juniper, menthol, cassis, baking spice, and orange zest. It’s dark fruit, game and earth flavors are well-pronounced, but the important part is that all of this beautiful and complex character is delivered within a light and elegant textural framework. It pairs particularly well with the root vegetables and quinoa.
Representing Whole Milk: Gres Saint Paul Coteaux du Languedoc Antonin ’07 $18
Taking Syrah way down to the South of France, the climate lends a bit more ripeness and fullness to the wine. The white pepper, roasted herb, spearmint, eucalyptus, and tar aromas are in play, but the aromatic fruit aspect (cherry liquor) is prominent. This would suggest that the palate will be fruit-driven as well, and thus have a bit more textural density to it. Sure enough, there is rich and angular fruit, with flavors reminding mainly of raspberry, plus marzipan and game notes lingering in the background. This beauty proves highly appropriate with the entire meal.
Representing Half & Half: Quintay Syrah Clava ’10 Casablanca Valley, Chile $13
This is where Syrah bulks up a bit. The hot, often unrelenting Chilean climate yielded a powerful Syrah with aromas of sexy red fruit, sappy pine forest, eucalyptus, and petrol. The body is powerful and thick, showing extracted fruit flavors and low acidity. This wine works nicely with the fatty aspects of the dish, but it dominates most of the more delicate food flavors, rendering it an overall mismatch.
Representing Heavy Cream: Thorne-Clarke Barossa Shiraz Shotfire ’08 $18
While Southeast Australian Syrah (Shiraz) can be impressive to behold, it often takes on a life of its own, and remains a meal in itself. This Shotfire is no exception. Incredibly complex, and crafted in a slutty, in-your-face style (approaching 15% alcohol), it is loaded with aromas and flavors not normally associated with grapes (cola, scotch, oak, sherry wood, devil’s food, menthol, spearmint, and eucalyptus all pop out of the glass). The acidity is low, the texture is absolutely seamless and almost oleaginous, and its fat black fruit clings to the palate for minutes after the swallow. A true heavyweight, this proved entirely inappropriate for the meal. This is a job for a ribeye steak.
There are many more wine weight experiments that can, and will be conducted, including ones with white wine. But the results will likely be similar. The point is this: Wine and food pairing is a question of balance. Whether you enjoy elegance or hedonism or both, one of the key approaches to creating harmony on the palate is to understand weight and texture, and to employ that knowledge when matching food with wine. Planting a few seeds in your palate’s mind about grape varieties and regional expectations will go a long way when you’re sitting before a restaurant menu and a wine list. It’s not always an absolute science, and the perfect pairing is not going to happen every time. So just get a feel for the basics, and enjoy the ride.