the   T h e o r y   of   M a t c h i n g   P i n o t   N o i r   and   C u i s i n e

The theory of wine and cuisine matching may be at its most advanced form with Pinot Noir.
It’s not that it is so difficult, it’s just that Pinot is .... well, intriguing.
Pinot Noir can suck up as much thought as you want to give it.  But it’s a good sport.
If all you want to do is give it as much thought as BBQ’d hamburgers topped with mushrooms,
that’s plenty good enough to amuse the wine and your diners too.
After all, if you’ve got really good Pinot, flaunt it.  Pinot is one of the grapes of a lifetime.
That is to say that you only have to live a lifetime to begin to understand it.

Actually it is much more difficult to understand as a winelover than a winegrower.
As a winegrower anywhere in the world, one quickly realizes that great Pinot grows
in such a narrow ban of conditions, that if it doesn’t do well, just pull it out.
Don’t take it personally, just plant something else.
As a winegrower, the first and foremost consideration is getting the wine from a great vineyard.
And even then, as one continues the winegrowing in the cellar,
one quickly realizes that Pinot is going to do what it wants, when it wants to.
This is to say, it is a little bit of a folly to think
that one can generalize on Pinot to the point of coming up with an accurate theory
of cuisine matching.  But that’s ok because....
Pinot has puckish genies that encourage folly.  So the torpedo onions be dammed!
Folly ON!

The basis of Pinot Noir is a greater or lesser combination of grapeyness, smoke, mint, lavender,
violets, dried cranberries & cherries, meatiness, and the ethereal.
Such a laundry list of culinary elements gives the clue that it will match with almost anything ...
which it won’t.  But that’s ok..
Remember that Pinot likes to suck up as much thought as you’re gonna give it.
Nevertheless, there are a couple of flagpoles that I use to run up my recipe flags
                             to see if anyone is going to salute.                                          
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The first is, “Could this recipe have dill, rosemary, or tarragon added to it?”
The question is an independent thought,
and not reliant upon whether or not these herbs would actually make the recipe better.
It just asks the question for the matching test.
The second question I ask myself is:
“Is this classic enough, or, is this avant garde enough?”
If the recipe is classic, and classically matches with fine old Burgundies,
the question reminds me not to try and improve on the fare.
If avant garde, then let it be out there.... avoid the middle-of-the-road.

What happens on the palate for cuisine matching?
This is where Pinot Noir has to understood
for each individual producer and bottling that you are matching.
One of the tendency of winemakers that haven’t drunk enough grand old Pinot
is that they take it to be just another varietal.
And as such, they tend to pull it to the center of what a ‘consumer’ likes.
Apparently they haven’t had an old Pinot that is just slightly darker than rosé, that is absolutely
bursting with flavor, with tannins that are gloriously non-articulate-able.
So some winemakers are not celebrating the diversity among varietals,
but bringing them closer by making Pinot Noir with more color and more tannin.

We are not of that school.

On the palate, and in the noggin, the nature of Pinot Noir is to enliven –
and as such there needs to a certain airiness or lack of heaviness.
Believe me, old great Pinots weigh in...
but in such a way that the heavy mysteries of life are nevertheless enlivened.
So, the tannin level is one that is luxurious and not overtly masculine.
On the palate there will not be the tannin levels that need to be there to stand up to
rare beef (use Cabernet). There will not be the overt flavors that can stand up to
full-flavored Italian cuisine (use Zinfandel or Chianti).
There will be too much going on for a dish that is middle-of-the-road (use Merlot),
or one that is the epitome of springtime (use Cinsault or Grenache).

The nature of Pinot is to provoke thought, connection and contemplation....
It beckons the greatest teacher of all:
Direct Experience.
So here are some guides to beckon the teacher:

Ones that Will work Easily –

Spices & Herbs - Fresh ones preferred like Rosemary; Dried ones like Dill and Tarragon.
Roasted Chicken - This is a classic, well browned but not dried out, don’t cremate it.
Pork - Classically in any of the roast forms rather than sauced in the rib and chop forms.
Mushrooms - They will need other ingredients that should be very light on tomatoes, if any.
Potatoes, Peas, & Carrots - Classics where less is better, they should be salted with precision.
Celery - if cooked or stewed and combined with other classic ingredients, but not raw celery.
Onions - very similar to celery they can work really well as a classic, avoid the raw state.
Eggplant - with the skin on it harmonizes well with the tannin and is a fairly neutral vehicle.

Ones that Will work with More Attention –

Spices & Herbs - mild curry, saffron, nutmeg & 5-spice, dried marjoram, thyme, bay leaves.
Fish - Salmon & the more flavorful ones work better, others can work with the right herbs.
Sausages - if an ingredient yes, but as a featured item go for the mild, less Italian ones.
Ground Meats - pork is better than beef, turkey is ok, ground salmon is very interesting.
Eggs - these may work as vehicles for the right spices and herbs in the form of frittata.
Beans - white ones in a cassoulet work really well; black beans and pintos, less well.
Ethnic Foods - there is no generalizing here, it can be fun if going the avant garde route.
Dolmas - these are any vegetable stuffed or any leaf rolled up with stuffing.
Cheese - as an ingredient I would tend more toward the blues than the fetas
Risotto - here is an Italian dish that adapts well to Pinot, use any of the matches above.

Ones that will Not work Easily –

Spices & Herbs - cayenne, cumin, ground coriander, lemon blends, oregano, fresh basil.. none easily.
Grilled Rare Beef - this is a round peg trying to get into a square hole.  If it's not grilled and raw, maybe.
BBQ - you know, it can definitely work
if you just have an overwhelmin’ hankerin’.
Shrimp & Shellfish - it can be done, but I’m not sure it’s worth the effort and saffron.
Fresh Corn - this can get a little middle-of-the-road and a little too sweet.
Green Bell Pepper - they get too strong and it generally gets too Italian too fast.
Hot peppers - try the under appreciated white wines that go well with peccant food.
Tomato - typically too much acid, dominance, and/or needing strong Italian herbs.
Cole crops - brussel sprouts, no; cabbage and broccoli, maybe; kohlrabi does work.
Asparagus - I wish it could work without having to overcook the poor little stalks.
Fruits - not as a platter, but as minor ingredients in the more avant dishes.
Pizza - if really custom made, but it’s just the wrong iconography.
Chocolate - Syrah & Merlot have it hands down, but why pass up a chance to eat chocolate?

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