Why Wine and Cheese Pair So Well

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Wine and cheese. They just go together. But, there's actually a pretty good reason that this pairing typically works together so well.

Let's start with red wines.  They can be rather tannic due to the stems, seeds and stems of the grapes. Tannin is also introduced into red wines from the oak barrels that are so commonly used for aging. All this tannin, especially in young red wines, can leave your mouth with a dry, chalky feeling. This astringent sensation, on its own, isn't a good one.

This same astringency is also found in strongly brewed black tea. And, a common practice is to add just of splash of milk to tea to soften this astringency.

It turns out that the proteins and fats in milk work wonders in your mouth to balance out the tannin in strong tea.

Well, the same goes for astringent or tannic red wine.  Not the milk part, but the proteins and fats contained in cheese act to balance out the tannins in red wines. They just work together!

Cheeses also work well with white wines. But, not in conjunction with tannin. White wines have little to no tannin. They can have bold acidity. And, that acidity yields a mouth-watering sensation which can be very refreshing. But when a creamy soft white cheese is paired with the acidic notes in white wines, it balances things out.

Now, not every cheese works with every wine. But, we'll take a closer look at that topic next time.  Until then, enjoy some nice cheese with your glass of wine. They work together so well. Cheers!

Behind the Cork™ Wine of the Week

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2015 Gerd Anselmann Pfalz Trocken Riesling ($14)

This German Riesling, from the region of Pfalz, is "Trocken" meaning dry (little to no residual sugar). So, while many German Rieslings are sweet, this is an example of one that, while having little to no sugar content, is not sweet yet still exhibits the sweet fruit flavors of green apple, citrus and peach. An excellent example of a dry German Riesling that has bright acidity. When well chilled, this is a wonderful wine to enjoy with cheeses or a lighter meal. 

Riesling - Seemingly Confusing and Often Misunderstood

Riesling is a wine that is most famously produced in Germany where nearly half the world's Riesling grapes are grown. Other great producers of Riesling include the Alsace region of France, Australia, Austria, Canada and the United States. Riesling that is grown in cooler climate regions result in highly aromatic wines with great acidity and big, bright fruit flavors. But mention a Riesling and most often you'll hear "Oh, that's a sweet wine."

One of the reasons that Riesling is considered "a sweet wine" is because it has flavors of sweet fruits - green apple, apricot, nectarine, peach, pear, and pineapple. Flavors that our brain associates with sweetness. Another reason for Riesling's sweet flavors is the fact that it is rarely aged in oak. Not having the rich, toasty and butter flavors of oak lets Riesling's bright sweet fruit flavors shine though. Also, Riesling is rarely blended with other grapes. So, what you get are the pure sweet fruit flavors of the Riesling grape. And the final reason that Riesling is considered sweet is that many Rieslings are, well, sweet.

But not all Rieslings are sweet. They can span the range from dry to sweet. The Alsace region of France is known for its dry Riesling. And warmer climates, such as California, Oregon and Washington, produce dry Rieslings that typically have more muted fruit flavors, are more medium to full-bodied.

Next time we'll look into more detail about at the world's largest producer of Riesling, Germany.  And, yes, German Riesling can be a bit confusing. But, learning just a few key terms will help to cut through the common misunderstand of "sweet" Rieslings and aid in finding the one that's just right for you. Until then, Cheers! Or, "Prost!" as they say in Germany.

 

 

 

 

Factors that Affect How Sweet a Wine Tastes

Last time, the topic of residual sugar was discussed.  Simply put, residual sugar (RS) is a measure of the sugar (typically in grams per liter) that remains in wine after fermentation.

During an uninterrupted fermentation, the yeast will continue to convert sugar to alcohol until nearly all the sugar is gone or the alcohol level reaches the point that the yeast can no longer live. But, if a wine maker decides to interrupt the fermentation, for example by lowering the temperature to the point where fermentation stops, they end up with wines having higher residual sugar.  That's one way to get a wine with higher residual sugar that tastes sweet.

In the case of sweet dessert wines, the grapes are either allowed to ripen to the point where they have very high sugar levels, dried to create a high sugar to water ratio (raisins) or, in the case of Ice Wine, the grapes are squeezed while frozen so the water does not get extracted and only a highly concentrated sugar solution results. In all these cases, fermentation starts with very high sugar levels so that upon completion of fermentation, there is a high amount of residual sugar.

Another way that wines can seem sweet has little to do with residual sugar.  Wines such as Gewürztraminer and Chenin Blanc are typically thought of as sweet wines.  But whereas a dry (very low RS) Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel will have 0.5 to 1.0 grams per liter (g/L) of residual sugar, a Gewürztraminer can have as little as 1.5 g/L RS and a Chenin Blanc may have around 3.0 g/L RS.  To put this in perspective, a soda pop will typically have around 100 g/L RS!  So, yes, a Chenin Blanc may have twice the RS of a Cabernet, but it's tiny in comparison to a really sweet drink. So why are these wines often considered sweet?  Typically, it's because these wines have big, bright, bold fruit flavors and aromas that we associate with sweetness such as melon, apple, honey, rose, pineapple and grapefruit. Our nose 'fools' us into believing that the wine is sweet when it really doesn't have a significant sugar content.

On the other end of the spectrum are wines such as a sweet Riesling. These can have RS levels in the 40 g/L range. This is definitely sweeter.  One of the reasons that this sweetness is kept in-balance is by the high acidity of these grapes.  You've probably experienced this with lemonade and sodas such as colas which are very high in sugar (> 100 g/L RS) but also have very high acidity. The characteristics of sweetness and acidity balance each other out for a more enjoyable drink.

Another common wine that tends to be sweeter is White Zinfandel. It can have RS levels of 20-40 g/L.  Hence, it makes a great entry-level wine or just a sweet refreshing wine.

And, while we often think only of white wines and rosés as being the ones that can be sweet, even red wines can be a bit on the sweet side. Examples include common red wine blends found in grocery stores with brand names such as Apothic Red, Menage a Trois, Stella Rossa, Yellow Tail and Barefoot.  Even the very popular Meiomi Pinot Noir has 7 g/L of residual sugar.  Now you know why these brands are so popular!

As always, what's most important is that you drink what you like. And, if your taste buds steer you in the direction of sweetness, there are plenty of wines to explore and enjoy. Cheers!

Medium Bodied and Full Bodied White Wines

Light bodied white wines are a great place to start when learning about and tasting wines.  They are fresh and crisp with bright fruit flavors and high acidity.  So the next step up is into medium bodied and full bodied whites.

As I have been researching and putting together notes on white wines, I've found that it's been tough, as expected, to describe and define a wine's body.  That's because there are not strong lines between the categories of light, medium and full bodied wines.  But the characteristics of alcohol levels, tannin, residual sugar and acidity do give some basic guidance on a wine's body.

While white wine with less than 12.5% alcohol by volume (ABV) would be considered light bodied, medium bodied white wines are said to have 12.5% to 13.5% ABV and full bodied white are those with greater than 13.5% ABV. These are general guidelines, but at least this is one of the few characteristics that is actually shown on a wine's label (ABV percentage is legally required to be printed somewhere on a bottle of wine).

A wine's residual sugar (RS) is also a telling characteristic of its body, but it is directly related to a wine's alcohol level. The lower the alcohol level, the more residual sugar; the higher the alcohol level the lower the alcohol level. So you can expect a light bodied, lower alcohol, wine to have some residual sugar and to have a slightly sweet taste.  The medium and full bodied white wines will have higher alcohol, lower RS and little to no sweetness to them.

The acidity of medium and full bodied white wines is much lower than light body whites.  While the acidity in a light bodied white wine will give it a bright, crisp and mouth watering finish, medium and full bodied white wines will not. These will be richer and smoother.

And finally, there's the characteristic of tannin. This is something that isn't really a factor in white wines. Tannins come from the grapes skin, seeds and stems.  Most every white wine is pressed and the juice is immediately separated from the skins, seeds and stems. So tannin levels are next to zero.  So called "Orange" wines are made from white wine grapes and they to get contact time with the grape skins, seed and stems, giving them the characteristic light orange color (not the flavor of an orange). Tannins do play a huge roll in red wines and we'll say more about this when we address the medium and full bodied red wines in future postings.

In addition these four characteristics, one must consider that a wine's body is also influenced by the wine maker.  The grape variety isn't necessarily the key to determining the body of a wine. Take Chardonnay for example. A Chardonnay that is produced in stainless steel or concrete tanks is considered light bodied. But, if the wine maker chooses to age the Chardonnay in neutral oak it's going to be medium bodied. A Chardonnay that goes through the addition step of Malolactic Fermentation and is aged in new oak will be full bodied.  So, it isn't just the grape variety that determines a wine's body, it's also how it's made.

While Chardonnay is a great example of a medium or full bodied white wine, there are certainly others. And we'll get to them next time. Cheers!