Hey readers! I’m sorry I’ve been rather quiet on the blog. The last couple months have been intense- from launching a food & negroni club, managing my food tour hustle, writing articles for Eater and now currently traveling like a crazy woman in the USA between LA, Seattle and San Francisco. Not to mention, having just completed an Italian Sommelier certification with FISAR Firenze which I had been following for the last year. Officially I have completed all 3 levels and now am one big exam away from Italian Sommelier status. Yikes!
The last level still fresh on my mind was Level 3: Food & Wine Pairing. With the holidays among us, I’d like to offer you some useful life tips which you may apply during current festivities and the holiday gatherings to come. In short, if you’ve been pairing turkey or steak with Brunello, oysters or caviar with champagne or truffles with Barolo- you’re doing it wrong. Read on to know why!
If this is your first time stumbling on my blog, I’m an American-born food & bev writer in Florence, Italy, I lead culinary wine tours in Florence, Bologna & around Tuscany. Prior to moving to Florence in 2012, I had completed food & wine pairing coursework at The Northwest Wine Academy in Seattle. While left with mixed opinions about the academy and its faculty, I must laud one chef instructor Jay Delong who left one of the biggest marks on my culinary wine path. He was one of the few who really made us pay attention to salt & acid, and how a wine could elevate or mute a food on the palate and emphasized the importance on local gastronomic identity. As part of our exam, he had us all prepare a dish and present a wine pairing, considering place. The results from all of us were fascinating. Hot dogs & rose at a baseball game to Korean Beef Bulgogi with Zinfandel, but explaining that in South Korea they’d usually drink soju, and the drinking culture in Korea was more about eating & drinking, and drinking without food considered faux pax.
In some ways, the American wine studies model is a lot more structured- the academy I frequented was at least 3 hours a day, 3 days a week and weekly papers & quizzes. In Italy’s sommelier training program, you show up once a week for 3 hours and listen to lectures (with tastings, of course) and with one big exam at the end of each level. Despite my preference for the American structure, I nonetheless appreciate where FISAR filled in what my wine training in the states left out. Italy’s biodiversity & traditional regional cuisine gives sommeliers & gastronomes a major advantage where in the states, we are just now snowballing a mega food movement.
In other ways, the Italian sommelier model is rigid and uncreative, following strict rules and arbitrary analysis structure. We literally had to do connect the dots for food & wine pairing practice, giving points to categories which dictates if a symmetrical circle was formed.
What I appreciate about America compared to Italy in general, is the willingness to try anything. Personal freedom of choice is encouraged and if you like chocolate and red wine, then do it because afterall- it’s what you like. Italians in regards to experimentation in the kitchen, is like having pious grandma plan your bachelorette party, or the Italian culinary fascist in your dining room when you make a peanut butter & jelly sandwich, ridiculing you till the end of the jam jar. Despite the fact the acid in the jelly is what gives peanut butter sense & purpose.
One of the most memorable lessons I had in my food & wine pairing course in Seattle, was a lesson all on sensory and training our nose. The class was set up with about 100 test cups with different aromas from flowers, bananas to spices. This association trains our senses to be able to identify wine’s nuances & character. But again, in America it says something that we have to go to these lengths to have to train our senses. In Italy, Italians grow up with a more healthy relationship with nature & the kitchen, always smelling and in contact with wild herbs, celebrating the season with properly ripened produce, whose smell dominates the markets, streets & kitchens. One of the most common expressions I hear, even from children is, “che profumo!” (what a smell!)
Every day when I’m rushing throughout the center, I am met with a waft of lampredotto stewing at the corner street cart, some days I can tell if they are stewing artichokes or olives in their tomato rich sugo. Then 3 seconds later, I am met with a waft of fresh baked bread from the bakery on the corner or cream filled puff pastries coming out of the oven and to the case at the local coffeeshop bakery. Italy’s legacy undoubtedly boasts a strong food culture, and if you can believe it- even Italians themselves admit their food culture is in decline, as evident with their awareness of eggs now available year-round as well as noting differences between seasonal or out of season greenhouse grown produce. But compared to where I came from, I consider Italians natural super-tasters with poignant sensory skills by proxy of simply growing up in Italy.
And while I have a lot of beef with Italian society & didactic structure, these are the things that make my heart flutter, and reminds me why I love Italy so dearly. Food is so ingrained in everyday life, especially in some pockets of Florence, which it makes the desire impossible for me to ever want to be anywhere else.
Going back to my Italian sommelier lessons- I’ve learned that some of the training I had in the states might have been poorly researched. I was shocked recently to learn some pairings were big no-nos. I wanted to stand up to my Italian somm lecturers and shout “have you no soul?! use your imagination- there are no absolute rules in the matter of the palate!”
I will make a note regarding turkey wine pairings (it’s not all Beaujolais and definitely not Brunello) but only for the sake of debunking common myths- these are 3 common fails and explanations as to why they are no-gos, according to the curriculum set forth by FISAR.
1. Oysters and Champagne- NO!
I was stunned when my instructors uttered this and illustrated said blasphemy with dreaded powerpoint slides. My instructors in the states instilled in me the power of bubbly and that it pretty much went with everything- especially oysters! What I loved about this sommelier course is each lesson first started by explaining the compounds of food, it may seem banal but this ground up approach is what would help the rest of the world lacking a culture of taste. Oysters are rich in zinc and champagne is high in acidity- this is a recipe for a palate crash in food & wine pairing terms. Instead of pairing oysters with champagne or bubbly, try a glass of muscadet or chablis.
2. Florentine Steak and Brunello- NO!
When pairing meat and red wine, one must always be attentive to fat, umami, protein and salt. As well as cooking method. Again- I LOVED the 3rd level module of the Italian somm training because they went into so much depth which complimented my training in the states. If you’ve assumed red meat to a big red wine- well, that depends on how the meat was cooked (stewed, slow cooked, boiled, grilled), if there was a rich sauce (like a wine reduction or balsamic reduction) and what cut of meat you’re handling (rump, muscle, tomahawk, chuck, loin, t-bone, etc). Consider that a Brunello is aged & is EXTREMELY structured- high tannin, glycerol, alcohol, body, acidity and earthiness. A brunello would be best paired with a rich meat dish which was stewed or braised in flavorful sauces.
The theory is that if the flavor of the meat dish is persistent, the wine should have a lingering, persistent finish too as is a Brunello. With the Florentine steak- albeit succulent with substantial fat, this meat is grilled without being caramelized & doused in sauce besides a drizzle of oil & perhaps some rosemary and is relatively lean compared to chuck steak used for braises. In other words, a Brunello has too much structure for a simple Fiorentina. I reveled in learning this. There are so many food & wine snobs out there who scoff at Chiantis but little do they know a lighter Chianti is actually the technical match for a meaty grilled naked t-bone. So instead of going for a pricey Brunello with your next steak, try a Chianti from the Colli Fiorentini, Cabernet Colli Euganei or Conero rosso. And get this! Even white wines or rosati such as Tocai Friulano which are aromatic & have fresh acidity, or wines with moderate alcohol content & tannins such as Lagrein Kretzer, Rossese di Dolceacqua or Marzemino del Trentino.
3. Truffles & Barolo- NO!
This one really put me in for the ringer. At one point I asked- then why does the whole food wine world tout their instagram voyeurisms with cult barolo & truffle pasta in Alba, oysters & champagne in Paris and Fiorentina & Brunello around Florence? This should have been a big fat DUH and I’m almost embarrassed to have admitted my ignorance of these pairing no-nos publicly, but my instructors said people obviously have a fixation with pairing luxury ingredients with fine wines, as a sort of status symbol. But really- for a true, humble connoisseur, these matches are big fat no-nos.
So why no truffles and barolo? Simply put, wines from Barolo are Piedmont wines made from the Nebbiolo grape and mostly barrel aged for a combined minimum of 3 years, 5 years for Riserva bottles. While not as big as a Brunello- Barolos are structured and have a unique stand-out character, to say the very least. Barolo have high body, structure, tannin, earthiness & fruit. Truffles are extremely potent, high in umami glutamate and have ethereal flavor notes, as a result of the high structure profile of truffles, they require a wine which submits to them- and not in competition as an aged Barolo would. Still, a wine should have some richness of tannin & body but typically should be more fruit-forward and medium bodied.
While of course a truffle wine pairing depends on the truffle & dish at hand, consider alternatives to Barolo on your next umami binge. Instead of pairing Barolo with white truffle, try local Piedmont white wines with significant structure and pleasant acidity such as Timorasso or Gavi. If truffles are served with meat, look for rich wines with a floral notes such as Merlot di Bolgheri or a Lagrein from Alto Adige. If truffles are served with egg or in a risotto, try aromatic wines with high acidity such as Traminer from Alto Adige, Chardonnay from Northern Italy such as Friuli Venezia Giulia or bubbles like Franciacorta Millesimati.
And while this may be a bit late past Thanksgiving turkey feasts, I had a suspicion about pairing Turkey with Brunello- something I saw out in the food media world. I did due diligence by interrogating my sommelier teachers and they reported turkey and brunello are also a no-no!
According to my wine profs, roasted turkey- despite gravy and stuffing- still remains a poultry meat and Brunello is too structured for this flesh’s oven roasted preparation. Instead of Brunello with your next roast turkey feast, try a red wine with medium body and slightly spicy such as a Schioppettino from Friuli-
What do you think about these pairings now having read this? Did you already know this and was I living under an oblivious rock? I’d love to know your thoughts!
In your matching trust,
Are you hungry for more Food & Wine pairing knowledge? Curious Appetite offers a food & wine pairing tour led by sommeliers and certified wine nerds. And also- our progressive dinner crawl is also led by food & wine experts where we pair each course carefully with the proper wine. Including la bistecca fiorentina with a proper Chianti;)