You’ve seen it, we’ve said it, everyone knows it – wine is best enjoyed with food. Of course, we all enjoy a glass in the evening to relax, to hang out with, but we are also aware that wine’s key role is as the most compatible, the most versatile and the most harmonious drink to accompany a meal, renowned for its capacity to enhance the experience of flavours and textures, either by complementing them, or by providing a (usually refreshing) contrast.
But how does it actually work? Some of the rules are quite famous (red with meat, white with fish, what grows together goes together and so on), but do they actually work on a scientific level? Or is it totally beyond the wit of science, a matter of pure subjectivity? And, for our purposes here at all’Amarone, what is the secret of good wine and food pairing with the wines of Valpolicella, especially regarding the Amarone wines which are considered by many to be ‘too big for food’?
Let’s jump into it then, with some general ideas around food and wine pairings, an exploration of a bit of the science behind them, and a look at how this all works out for Valpolicella.
The General Principles
First, let’s address the idea of ‘rules’. Wine and food have been paired together for as long as anyone can tell, with treatises on (and tributes to) the subject being written as early as 5th Century BC Athens. Indeed, the Gospels of the New Testament describe at least two occasions (the turning of water into wine at the Wedding Feast of Cana and the story of The Last Supper) where we can see the integral role that wine played at the ancient dinner table all over the Mediterranean. However, records back then being as difficult to pin down as they are, the specifics of which wine went with which food are very hard to come by – and no doubt some of the poorer feasts which feature in the Gospels would have not been particularly picky with what went on the table.
Nevertheless, ancient wine habits in any given area were always likely to reflect ancient food habits, which leads us to Rule 1: what grows together, goes together. Wine is likely to have been adapted, changed, and cultivated in order to go with local foods. If you live in coastal area, the chances are that the wine favoured by local growers will have been made with seafood in mind, whereas wine from crops grown in mountainous regions is likely to be designed to sell to people who eat a lot of game (examples of this include the famed white Muscadet, grown at the mouth of the Loire and a dream pairing with the local oysters, and Chianti, ideal for the famed hams and wild boar stews of Tuscany).
This point is crucial, as it is vital to never forget that wine is a local agricultural product, of a piece with its surroundings and environment, and are made with local foods in mind. Which, by way of a couple of examples, can bring us to a few other principles, firstly Rule 2: the wine must be more acidic than the food. Acidity in wine accentuates sourness in its flavours; mismatching it with more acidic food can therefore make the wine taste more sour than intended. This is intuitive when it comes to white wines, the freshness of which can either stand up to something lemony or cut through something oily (like fish), but there can be a geographical factor when it comes to red wines as well. For instance, red wines from Italy tend to be more acidic than average, whatever the grape or region – the sangiovese of Tuscany, indeed the corvina of Valpolicella, and even something as full-bodied as the Umbrian sagrantino, they all have an acidity to complement that extra sharpness that food on the peninsula can have, and has had especially since the introduction of tomatoes. Another example can be seen with Rule 3: the wine must be sweeter than the food. Again, an intuitive idea in relation to wine and dessert, but when we consider the greater-than-normal use German food makes of sweet and salty combinations, the tendency of Germany to produce sweeter wines than average for the table makes sense (additionally, as with cheese and dessert wine, a sweet wine plus a salty food can make a marvellous contrasting pairing).
Some pairing notions are more simply universal, however. No matter where in the world your food or wine may be from, it is always necessary to think about Rule 4: match the body of the wine to the food. Body in wine is a somewhat nebulous concept, but by and large you know it when you see it. Generally linked to alcohol content, it basically means the quantity of the sensation of flavour in wine, as alcohol is a great carrier of flavour despite being flavourless itself. Hence big wines want big food, like an Australian shiraz with a barbecue, or a chardonnay from Meursault with a buttery roast chicken; lighter wines, meanwhile, will want lighter food, such as Beaujolais’ affinity for charcuterie or vermentino matching up so well with pesto (and, on pesto, never forget to match wine with sauce more than the vehicle – pasta is more versatile than pesto!).
Which brings us to the rule everyone knows – red with meat, white with fish, right? Well, yes to an extent, but it’s riddled with exceptions: what about or chicken or pork? Or how about how they’re prepared? Would you really pair a big red with pork and ginger? Or a white wine with swordfish? The answer is that there is a rule in here: pair proteins with tannins. But to understand this, we need to dig a little deeper.
A bit of Science
It is still rather common to refer to food and wine pairings as alchemy rather chemistry, as if there is something almost magical about matching the two up, art rather than science – and indeed, given that we are dealing with the subjectivity of taste here, attempting to come up with ‘objective’ conclusions about what goes together is always going to be futile. Nevertheless, research into the chemical compounds which make up wine, the properties of those chemicals and how they interact with other chemicals (for instance, those in various foods) is a well-established area of scientific research, and there are many principles which we now understand fairly well. For instance, to take the example mentioned above, tannins.
Tannins are, to be technical about it, polyphenolic compounds found in the skins of grapes, and that are also found in other fruits and plants such as bananas and tea leaves. They produce that drying, bitter, astringent sensation you might get from a cup of black tea or a banana (especially an underripe one), and are particularly present in red wines for two reasons: first, they have a higher concentration in most black grapes than white grapes anyway; and secondly, and most importantly, red wine is fermented on its skins in order to leech out that colour (from pigment chemicals present normally only in grape skins called anthocyanins – black grape flesh is almost always as colourless as white grapes, with the exception of special, so-called teinturier grapes). These tannins then combine with the protein in human saliva and essentially inhibit saliva production in the mouth, producing that drying sensation. This is why we match tannic red wines with meat, as the tannins then combine with the proteins in the food, allowing the mouth to keep producing moisture, reducing the astringent sensation and creating new flavour compounds. However, especially given the rise of trends such as vegetarianism, veganism, and of so-called ‘orange wines’ – white wines aged on the skins and therefore with a fair amount of tannins – it would be narrow simply to say that there are ‘red’ and ‘white’ wines which fit neatly into these pidgeonholes.
But wine is built from all kinds of chemical compounds, each of which have a role in its overall profile. In addition to anthocyanins and tannins (which come under the general category of polyphenols, which also include flavonoids, stilbenoids and other delicious-sounding things), there are esters, largely responsible for floral and fruity notes, terpenes, which also cover complex aromas, pyrazines, which can manifest as minty or peppery flavours, and so on.
There are many who think that wine and food pairing should exploit the full range of these – and indeed, there are a group of wine writers, thinkers, sommeliers and restaurateurs who are taking this to the extreme. Led by François Chartier, who in 2015 released a book called Taste Buds and Molecules, this movement advocates an approach to food and wine pairings which follows on from the molecular cuisine ideas pioneered by the likes of Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal (though Blumenthal has now abandoned these ideas). This school of thought maintains that pairings occur according to so-called ‘aromatic bridges’ – essentially, key compounds which a food and a wine will share without also sharing something which makes them incompatible. Perhaps his most notorious example was his belief in a pairing of nori-seaweed and raspberries with cabernet sauvignon, as all three are rich in a compound called beta-ionone (which gives off a sweet, rosewaterish aroma).
Whether or not this particular pairing works is beyond the knowledge of this particular writer, but we don’t need to know perfectly in order to see that this idea has sense. However, it is important to be cautious here, as it is clear that it is not only notable things in common which makes a wine pairing, but the ways in which chemical compounds interact with each other that creates pairings not just based on a pre-existing affinity, but which also manage to create new, third flavours by virtue of their combinations.
All of which brings us to the key question – how does this all affect the wines of Valpolicella? Well, the key there is the plural ‘wines’, as despite their similar grape profiles the way the wines are made renders them very chemically different, and those differing chemical compositions will lead to great variation in your food and wine pairings.
Valpolicella – what’s it made of?
Here we rub up against one of the trickiest aspects of food and wine matching: the fact that, if we are to go into great scientific detail, matching compound to compound, in the end no two bottles of the ‘same’ wine from the same year from the same grape are chemically identical. This becomes trebly complicated with a region like Valpolicella, with huge terroir variation and a wine style based on blending, rather than monovarietal wines like the nebbiolos of Piedmont. The sheer range of chemical possibilities – what can happen if you choose more rondinella than molinara, or how much corvina or corvinone and from what site, and harvested when, and how, and how they were farmed – is a question well beyond the scope of this blog. However, what we can do is try and get to the basic properties of these grapes (especially corvina), break down the different styles of the region, the key aspects separating them and how this will match up with food.
So, firstly, the most important grape in Valpolicella – corvina. It is a child grape of a variety of refosco (making it a grandchild of marzemino) and the parent of fellow-Valpolicella grape rondinella. It is a thick-skinned variety, which gives it a nice dark colour in all styles, and rather late-ripening, generally allowing it to develop a lot of sugar and very high levels of acidity. Like many of the black grapes of Italy it contains benzaldehydes, which when combined with the acids give the characteristic sour cherry notes noted throughout the peninsula.
All of this (in combination with other chemical aspects, particularly from other blending grapes) gives young, un-aged Valpolicella Classico wine its fresh mouthfeel with the aforementioned bright fruits. A fairly straightforward wine, by and large. However, those thick skins are also what makes corvina so particularly suited to withstand the appassimento process needed to turn it into Amarone, as well as providing eventual materials for the ripasso. This is important, as the drying process has a substantial impact on the rest of the wine’s chemistry beyond simply the hydration of the grapes. The first point is that it increases the the concentration of sugar and tannins in the resultant grape must, giving the wine considerably more alcohol and structure; the third, however, is more subtle, in that the process results in certain compounds coming considerably more to the fore. These include guaiacols (associated with smoky aromas), geraniols (the key component of rose oil), apocynin (related to vanillin), eugenols (shared with many spices such as nutmeg and cloves), and so on. Moreover almost all Amarone will go into oak barrels, which further changes the chemical composition to an extent which depends on the manner and length of the ageing (guaiacols even more emphasised, lactones and oak tannins which ‘round-out’ the wine, and so on). Furthermore, the wine itself is always changing by itself, first by the process of malolactic fermentation (which softens the acidity), and onwards, for years in bottle, via the simple instability of the wine chemistry, as the esters break down with the tannins to produce less fruity, less bitter wine.
All of which is a way of saying that, whereas Valpolicella Classico is bright and fresh wine which doesn’t stand much ageing, Amarone (and to a lesser extent Valpolicella Ripasso) are richer, bigger, more structured, and more complex and layered with their aromas and flavours, especially as they age. All of which will a profound impact on which foods go with which.
So, applying our rules from earlier, let’s start with Valpolicella Classico. It is a red wine, generally lowish in tannins, very high in acidity for a red wine (usually a pH of around 3.5, which is very acidic for reds), full of fresh fruity esters and minty terpenes with some background spicy eugenols, aromatic geraniols and just a hint of smoky guaiacols. It is lightish-to-medium bodied, and is almost always fermented to ‘full dryness’ (below 9g of sugar per litre).
Well, what does it grow with? The Veneto is full of hams and cheeses of course, and Verona and Vicenza are both famous for a particular ragu made from duck (mushrooms, particularly porcini mushrooms, also grow in the damp and misty region). These all make sense – the fresh acidity of the wine cuts through the fatty meat and cheeses, while those fresh esters give a fruity, seemingly sweet contrast to the saltiness much in the same way as jams and mostarde do with charcuterie. These will work beautifully, of course – but for something a little more surprising, how about chilling it a little in the fridge, and combining it with certain north-east Chinese and Japanese food? The umami flavours in Beijing duck or many ramen dishes also respond well to these acids and esters, while the slightly spicy and smoky aspects will also find ‘aromatic bridges’ in the food (other slightly surprising combinations might include Spanish omelettes, charred salmon or trout, fresh tomato soup or butter chicken curry!).
Valpolicella Ripasso is also a fine choice for duck ragu, though maybe a little strong for some charcuterie. Other pasta al ragu would be fine choices as well, as it retains enough acidity to add to its extra weight from the ripasso process. Some more intense mushroom dishes would also have enough protein to stack up, as would meaty stew-based foods like boeuf bourgignon, shepherd’s pie and even spicier, sausage-based stews like cassoulet. However, it still has enough acidity to go with bigger vegetable-and-tomato dishes such as parmigiana di melanzana, while its increased richness and spiciness could make it an ideal wine to pair with burritos!
But Amarone della Valpolicella? Altogether a lot more challenging. Firstly the acidity is a lot lower (towards more standard-for-reds 4pH or so), giving a lot less scope for contrasting pairings than the Classico wines. Secondly the alcohol and polyphenolic compounds are way higher, meaning that more delicate ham, for instance, would simply be overwhelmed by the wine. The rich complexity of the flavour compounds should provide plenty of opportunities for aromatic bridges, but perhaps too much so – overemphasising one aspect could mean that other aspects of the wine are somewhat negated, dulling the wine rather than enhancing it. For food to match up to Amarone della Valpolicella, it would need to be rich, moderately (but not particularly) acidic, savoury, and highly proteinous.
Probably the best candidate here is Bistecca alla Fiorentina. There are, of course, the proteins to combine with the tannins, and an inherent weight of flavour to stand up to the hugeness of the wine. There are other advantages to the Florentine preparation, however, via the use of charcoal-grilling, as the intensity of the smokiness both helps it measure up to the Amarone and combine nicely with those aforementioned smoky guaiacols emphasised by the appassimento process. There are other meat-based dishes that could give it a go, of course, as well as old, aged, hard cheeses as well which have the intensity and proteins to pair well such as Parmigiano stagionato (top tip: hard, aged cheeses go better with red wine due to their great concentration of proteins; softer cheeses generally pair up with the zinginess of white wines). However, a leftfield suggestion is a Mexican-style chilli con carne with venison and dark chocolate, which has the strength from the gamey notes and weight from the chocolate, which also shares polyphenols such as resversatrols in which Amarone is particularly rich (not to mention the other spices which find correspondence in the wine). The chocolate must be as dark as possible, however – Amarone remains a dry wine, and too much sweetness would ruin it.
Of course, however, Amarone is one of the great meditation wines, one which needs no accompaniment to fulfil its potential. Oh, and Recioto della Valpolicella? The sweet one? Dark chocolate soufflés, rich cheeses and so on. But this writer is now tempted to try it with nori and black cherries. You never know!