Ever wonder what a wine critic means when he or she says, this is a food wine?
Some might suggest it's a derogatory term because "food" wines have a reputation for, well, needing food to make them taste better. Usually food is used to ameliorate rough tannins or too much acidity or a high rate of alcohol. At least, that's how they're viewed in the tasting arena.
On the other hand, many suggest the duty of every wine is to be able to work well with food. That said, we all know wine is better with food than without. Now imagine what the pairing could be when the wine is perfectly paired with a complimentary style of food.
Curiously, wines that have all the necessary attributes to enhance certain foods end up profiting from such a union, and taste even better. It's a Catch 22 in a good way. And that leads us to the inevitable question: which are the best food wines on the planet?
Here are six ideas to start your journey:
I'm not sure there is better food wine than champagne and the best of its sparkling imitators. The acidity is bitingly fresh and the mix of nuts, brioche and yeast flavours along with moderate alcohol and practically no oak — at least any you can taste — conspire to make sparkling wine a much better food candidate than consumers might imagine.
I've sat through numerous all-champagne dinners and never once wished there were other wines at the table. It's the bubbles that subdue anything deep fried, or wrapped in pastry, while the acidity suits salt and fat, be it salted nuts or caviar and crème fraîche.
If you are more into spice or Asian food sparkling wine can still work, it just needs to be fruiter. In the latter case think New World sparkling wine.
Practice pairings: Louis Roederer Brut Premier Champagne, France $68; Blue Mountain Gold Label Brut, Okanagan Falls, B.C. $24
There was a time when chardonnay meant white burgundy and all its incumbent flavours: Citrus, minerality, tree fruits, nuts, yeast and wet stones, all with a hint of grilled toast and butter.
After losing its way for a few decades, New World chardonnay is returning to the fold exhibiting much of the classic Burgundian framework with a touch riper fruit. No matter which style you prefer, both can be stunning food wines when the oak is perfectly orchestrated.
Think lobster, crab, chicken, quail, turkey, pork and veal; your job is not to mess up the match with a dish too big or too rich that overpowers the wine.
Practice pairings: Drouhin Vaudon Chablis Premier Cru Vaillons 2011, Burgundy, France $42; Penfolds Koonunga Hill Chardonnay 2011, South Australia $15
A century ago riesling was the go-to wine adorning just about any table in the world where food and wine was served.
It's been a rough ride for the German grape since then but there is hope in 2013 that riesling has found new respect among chefs and diners who have come to accept its inherent qualities as perhaps the most versatile wine of all with food. Riesling is all about sugar, or lack of it.
When it is bone dry you can use it like a squeeze of lemon to freshen dishes. As the residual sugar increases, riesling can tame the spice/heat and smoke in dishes until it's in its sweetest incarnation, when it can work its magic on stone-fruit dessert dishes.
Practice pairings: St. Urbans-Hof Riesling 2010, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Germany $20; Gunderloch Fritz's Riesling 2011, Rheinhessen $17
Pinot noir is another variety closely linked to its ability work with food. The temperamental grape is anything but after it's bottled. Bursting with ripe fruit and lower tannins, it is a poster child for food matching.
Cheese and pinot is a wondrous match, and the fruiter the pinot the better. In this case, it doesn't really matter if the cheese is young or old, or soft or hard.
Simplicity is the key to great pairings and with pinots, especially older French bottlings, it is the simple dishes that work best. Think roast veal loin, roast chicken, grilled lamb. It's also a great wine for mushroom dishes be they risotto or pasta. In fact any earthy, vegetable dish comes to life with a glass of pinot noir.
Practice pairings: Mud House Pinot Noir 2010, Central Otago, New Zealand $23; Nk'Mip Pinot noir 2011, Okanagan Valley, B.C. $22
Syrah, or shiraz if you prefer, is an underrated food wine if you match the right syrah with the right dish. Little or no new oak is the key to allowing this big red to best express its origin and its big rich peppery, meaty flavours.
Fresh, earthy and fruity, with bits of pepper, they seem to blend effortlessly with comfort foods such as grilled or roasted lamb, beef and poultry, coq au vin, game, duck, pork or a variety of cheeses.
Shiraz is also a wine that can tame rusticity in a dish so think stews and cassoulet along with wild boar and or barbecue. The only caveat is spice. Be careful not to set off a spice war where the spice and the alcohol in the wine increase the heat or spice in the dish. This is where the fruit comes in. It can really help to balance the dish and increase the flavours for all.
Practice pairings: Jim Barry Lodge Hill Shiraz 2010, Clare Valley, Australia $28; Chapoutier Tournon Mathilda Shiraz, Victoria, Australia $22
Sangiovese may not be the best-known grape variety, perhaps because it's hidden behind more famous place names such as Chianti, Rosso di Montalcino and Brunello di Montalcino. But when it comes to the dinner table, few reds can compete with its sheer ability to enhance food.
What makes it such a fabulous food wine is a healthy level of natural acidity coupled with medium tannins and alcohol — better described as balanced. Steak Florentine, roasted game birds, beans, mushrooms and more — they all work with sangiovese. My favourite pairing is the most basic of all: spaghetti and meatballs in a tomato ragú.
Practice pairings: Villa Antinori Toscana IGT Rosso 2008, Tuscany, Italy $27; Banfi Rosso di Montalcino 2010, Tuscany, Italy $25
Anthony Gismondi is a West Vancouver-based freelance wine writer who travels the globe is search of terroir-based wine.