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What Chefs Want to Know About Wine and Aren’t Afraid to Ask

Most chefs willingly admit to knowing less about wine than they’d like. Maria Helm Sinskey, culinary director of Robert Sinskey Vineyards, invites some of Seattle’s biggest talents to a crash course: She brings the wine; they bring the food.

Maria Hines of Seattle’s Tilth, an F&W Best New Chef 2005, can tell you exactly how the chickens that lay her restaurant’s eggs are treated. But she knows relatively little about how the wines in Tilth’s cellar are made. Indeed, many chefs admit to knowing less than they’d like about wine. So when Hines and several other past Best New Chefs in Seattle got a chance to take a crash course in wine, they grabbed it. Their teacher: Maria Helm Sinskey, an F&W Best New Chef 1996 who is now culinary director of Napa’s Robert Sinskey Vineyards. Sinskey is herself a student, albeit on an elite level; she is on the verge of earning her Master of Wine, a degree held by fewer than 300 people worldwide.

On a rare day out of the kitchen, Hines joined Johnathan Sundstrom of Lark, Tamara Murphy of Brasa and Jason Wilson of Crush for the class. The setting was Taste, a year-old restaurant in the Seattle Art Museum where Danielle Custer, another former Best New Chef, works as general manager. Since the chefs were all curious about geeky winemaking terminology—“I really want to know what a winemaker means when he says his whites go through ‘malo,’ ” says Wilson—Sinskey made sure to demystify some of the jargon. After an overview of how grapes are grown and harvested, and how wine is fermented and aged, she talked about how to taste wine. Finally, she moved into a pairing lesson using wines from Italy, Spain and southern France to complement dishes the chefs had selected from their Mediterranean-influenced menus.

Growing Grapes and Maximizing Flavor

“Even chefs who know a thing or two about wine think grapes just grow, and then they’re picked,” says Sinskey. But there’s more to it than that. In the middle of summer, after the vines flower and the grapes start to get bigger, the fruit begins to change color. “This is called veraison,” Sinskey says. Around the time of veraison, vineyard managers often start what’s known as green harvesting by clipping unripe bunches from the vines, so the plant can focus nutrients into the remaining fruit. Workers also prune the leaves, which helps direct sunlight reach more grapes and helps air circulate around them to prevent rot.

Harvesting Grapes: the Ripe Factor

Grapes are deemed ready to pick when they reach a certain level of sugar ripeness. But for the best wine, Sinskey says, the stems and seeds should also be ripe (this is known as phenolic ripeness). Otherwise, the wines could taste too vegetal. Some winemakers, Sinskey says, let the grapes hang on the vine until their sugar level is very high, creating rich, fruit-forward wines. “These wines are like a meal in themselves and usually aren’t great with food,” she says. For pairing, she prefers wines made from grapes that have enough acidity to balance the sugar.

It’s best to pick grapes in the morning, while the temperature is cool; otherwise, fermentation can begin almost immediately. Harvesting by hand is gentler and allows the pickers to sort the fruit in the vineyard. When vines grow on steep cliffs, hand-harvesting is the only option. Some wineries, however, harvest with machines when possible because it’s cheaper and faster. “You’d think all high-end wines were harvested by hand,” says Sinskey. “But some high-quality estates in Bordeaux harvest mechanically and sort later.”

Fermentation: from Juice to Wine

How exactly does grape juice become wine? Yeast, which occurs naturally in the air and on grape skins, feeds on the sugar in grapes and turns it into alcohol. So, the sweeter the grapes, the more alcohol in the wine—unless a winemaker opts to leave some residual sugar, Sinskey explains.

Most winemakers expose grape juice to commercial yeasts designed specifically to ferment wine; these yeasts may even give off certain aromatics a winemaker might want to capture. Some winemakers, however, choose to let the yeasts that exist naturally in the vineyard do the job. But this can be risky, because the fermentation is harder to control and can stop prematurely. “You might see a tank of grapes going gangbusters with native yeasts, so you think, Let’s see what happens. And then the fermentation just stops,” says Sinskey.

Many crisp, food-friendly whites, like some Albariños from Spain and many Rieslings from Germany, are fermented in stainless steel and topped with an inert gas, so no oxygen touches the wine. This method, known as reductive winemaking, keeps the wine’s fruit flavors and acidity tasting superfresh. “These wines are great for lighter foods, like shellfish. But the bright acidity in these wines can also be just the thing to cut through fatty foods, like duck confit,” Sinskey says. The 2006 Marqués de Irún, a Verdejo from Rueda in Spain, is a perfect example of this; the crisp, fresh wine was perfect with Murphy’s big-flavored paella filled with plump mussels, cockles, shrimp and chorizo.

For wines like traditional white Riojas and many Chardonnays, winemakers ferment the juice in oak barrels instead of steel tanks. An example of oxidative winemaking, this allows oxygen to permeate and soften the wine’s flavors and acidity. The oak adds tannin to these wines, which helps them stand up to rich foods.

Red wines get their color and tannin from the grape skins and seeds, which traditionally are left in contact with the juice as it ferments. But many modern producers crush the grapes and let them sit in a cool place before fermentation. This method, called cold soaking, extracts color without too many astringent tannins. The juice is then fermented in wood, concrete or stainless steel.

Some whites and most reds also go through “malo,” or malolactic fermentation, the conversion of sharp, citrusy malic acid into rich, buttery lactic acid (the same acid in milk). “Malo is crucial for high-acid whites that aren’t made from the ripest grapes,” says Sinskey.

The Influence of Oak

When people say a wine tastes oaky, they’re talking about the roasty, spicy flavors that come from toasted new-oak barrels. New barrels are toasted to a winemaker’s specifications—the darker the char, the stronger the flavor. “To mix it up, you can toast the heads of the barrel heavily and the staves more lightly. Then, only a small amount of wine gets that aggressively toasted flavor,” Sinskey says.

Winemakers often age some wine in new oak and some in old, combining the two before bottling. “Sometimes people like to brag that their wines are aged in 100 percent new oak,” says Sinskey. “In the end, it’s really about balance. You don’t want the oakiness to overwhelm the fruit.” Thick-skinned grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon, can stand up to a lot of oak, but more delicate ones, like Pinot Noir, are easily overpowered. As long as the oak flavors are in balance, they can work well with smoky nuances in grilled foods and with spices, but rarely with seafood. “But if you add something to the dish to bridge the gap, like bacon, it could help make an oaky wine work with delicate foods,” she says.

Different types of oak give wine different flavors as well. American oak offers vanilla and coconut notes, while French oak is generally more subtle, with warm baking-spice flavors, like nutmeg. Since new-oak barrels are expensive, cheaper wines often get oaky flavors from chips that are steeped in wine, like tea leaves in hot water. “You can tell when a wine has seen oak chips because the flavor is not integrated into the wine. It’s just hanging out there,” Sinskey says.

The Right Way to Taste Wine

When assessing a wine, Sinskey tells the chefs to consider appearance (including color and clarity), flavors (including oak and acidity), aroma and, most important, balance. “If a wine isn’t in balance, it can’t improve food,” says Sinskey.

Besides looking to make sure a wine is clear (“Usually, if a wine is cloudy, something is wrong,” says Sinskey), the appearance of a wine can hint at its age. As reds age, they go from purple or deep red to more garnet in color. Whites get darker, going from almost clear to a deep golden (a more yellowish wine can also indicate oak aging). When reds or whites are over the hill, they may look brownish.

Smelling a wine is the next step. Swirling the glass awakens a wine’s aromatics, making them easier to sniff. “I like to stick to common terms when identifying the smells,” Sinskey says. “Universal things that people can relate to instead of something more cutesy. For instance, I say lemon peel instead of lemon Jell-O.” A wine’s nose (the common term for the smells) can give clues about place of origin, since more aromatic wines usually come from warmer climates. It can also reveal whether a wine has been aged in new oak, thanks to the spiced or vanilla notes oak adds. If a wine smells creamy or even cheesy, it reveals that it was probably aged on its lees (the dead yeast and other by-products of fermentation).

After smelling the wine, Sinskey moves to tasting. With some wine in her mouth, she takes a breath and holds it in, making slurping sounds to aerate the wine. “I like to chew it and get the wine all over my palate,” she says. To fully taste a wine, she might hold it in her mouth for 30 seconds. While most wine professionals spit when they’re tasting, she prefers to swallow a small amount: “I want to see if the finish is lasting, or if it dies right away.”

She also considers the wine’s acidity: “Is it refreshing? Does it make you want to take another sip?” She admits that highly acidic wines can be tough to taste on their own: “Wine is all about food. Too often, interesting wines are assessed while they’re completely disconnected from food.”

Thanks to white wines’ zingier acidity, Sinskey thinks they are more versatile than reds for pairing with food. “I’ve come to believe that whites are the better food wines,” she declares. “They’re unfettered. Whites are the underdog.”

But a big, bold red wine with some oak flavors, of course, can be just the right thing for certain dishes, like Wilson’s grilled lamb chops, marinated in a complex blend of herbs and spices including cumin, fennel and marjoram. Sinskey loved how the meaty 2004 Domaine Le Galantin, a Bandol from Provence, stood up to the lamb. Plus, the southern French red had an intriguing herbal quality that really worked with the asparagus, drizzled with a mint dressing, that was served on the side. “Finding flavors in a wine that are echoed in a dish usually makes for a good pairing,” says Sinskey.

The lesson concluded as the chefs, discussion of jargon shelved for the moment, tried different wines with all the dishes they’d brought to the class—a tasty learning experience detailed in the recipes on the following pages.

Published July 2008
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