When It Comes to Wine, Bigger Isn't Always Better

"Gimme your biggest wine!"

One of the requests I dread the most. I know for sure he just drove up in his Toyota Tundra Crew Max Double Cab 4x4 Platinum 5.7L V8 FFV ** 6-Speed Automatic. After all, why not drive the biggest, most expensive, most powerful vehicle that will never see a day's honest work in its life?

Because it's the biggest!

See also: - Sam Pillsbury Turns on New Zealand Wine - Sort Of

"Nope," I smile as nicely as I can, "I want you to try the opposite," and I splash a bit of my baby, our Roan Red, into his glass. This Cote de Rhone is a true GSM, and the 2011 is one of the lightest reds we have made. But it has divine fragrance, delicate floral fruit, and a long, nuanced finish.

It still surprises me, but about 85 percent of the time, this person's face lights up. They just made a discovery. Bigger isn't necessarily better.

Or some of us men like to think.

"Man, that's good!"

"Look," I say, "do you have ribs every night for dinner?"

What I love is how many people get it if you spend the time with them. It's just education. And the people who don't? Well, everyone has their own physiology. People with fewer taste buds like bigger wines . . . this has been researched. It's not their fault. But I like to try to open things up.

Simple fact: The more intense the wine you drink, the more narrow your food pairing options are. One friend loves drinking a jammy Aussie Shiraz with his chicken salad on Sunday afternoon.

He can taste the Shiraz, but he sure can't taste the chicken salad.

I have nothing against big wines. We make a shiraz and a petite syrah you can stand a spoon up in. But all the time??

I call it Food Wines vs. Cocktail Wines.

It's sort of France vs. California.

I'm generalizing, of course. But I'm a foodie and I make wine to go with food.

Americans like to drink wine like a cocktail. The French wait for dinner and drink it with their food.

My theory is that, a few decades ago, Californians (and Australians), with more sun behind their backs than the French (and so, easy to make jammy, high alcohol wines) went all out for "big" -- because they could -- and they used these to grab the attention of slurpers who previously had existed on a diet of beer and Coke.

It's also part of the fat/sugar/salt immediate-gratification culture. Throw catsup on your fries -- all you can taste is catsup.

We pour sips for crowds all the time. It really is significant how many people toss down an ounce, mutter a comment, and move on. That's the boundaries of their sensual life.

I guess they have sex like that, too.

Segué . . .

Wines are like women. The fabulous ones won't reveal their secrets to you so easily. You need to spend a bit of time with them.

I'll never forget a seminal evening years ago. I was alone in my kitchen in Los Angeles, opening a bottle to accompany my dinner. I love cooking for myself, I can dawdle and experiment. And I remember the wine: It was a Clos de Caillou Cote de Rhone, around $23.

I poured a couple of ounces and swirled-- a faint nose of red berry, a sense of unripe fruit. I moved the onions around the frying pan and sipped.

Absolute zero. What we might call "tight."

Oh, well. It happens. I resigned myself to a dull wine evening, but there was food, and it was still wine. It had alcohol.

Another sip. Hmmmm . . . the faintest hint of some fruit, a tiny bit of fragrance.

Chopped garlic and peppers into the frying pan, ease the heat back, shake the heavy cast-iron (garage sale) utensil over the blue flames.

Another sip. Heavens, there really is something going on. The red berry fruit is ripening, the nose is growing more complex and fragrant, opening up like a flower.

It is true that a wine will "open up" in the glass. This is especially true of young reds. If you pour with an aerator or decant, they can go from dull and bitter to absolutely delicious. Legendary AZ winemaker Ken Callaghan regularly leaves bottles opened on the counter, sometimes revealing lovely surprises days later.

But there's another truth: You also tune in to the subtleties of a wine. All your sensory receptors can start to pickup delicate nuances, your brain can re-program to read complexities too elusive at first.

Especially if you just had a WHOPPER® Sandwich, ¼ lb.* of savory fire-grilled beef topped with juicy tomatoes, fresh cut lettuce, creamy mayonnaise, crunchy pickles, and sliced white onions on a soft sesame seed bun with mustard and ketchup.

*That's from Burger King's website.

Or maybe you were just breathing onions, garlic, and peppers frying in olive oil.

It's just like that shy little kid in the back row. Pay attention; that just might be the next Einstein.

As I poured the last drops of that bottle into my glass later that evening I was ready to crawl over broken glass to get another bottle. Alas, too drunk and too late. But I had just spent a few hours in heaven.

Another segue . . .

Just spent two weeks in France last November, doing one of those wine cruises Eric Glomski and I do together.

I made a point of ordering the inexpensive by-the-glass wines at little restaurants -- because I'm cheap. But also because I wanted to see what the bottom line was. They were all remarkable in their simplicity -- all were bone dry, with good acid and barely perceptible fruit. Guess what? They were great with the food, and that's what they were made for.

There's no way these were Californian wines.

Everyone loves a blow-your-head-off hummer wine. But maybe not every day. Here are some rules -- based on my experience, as I have done no classes, I reckon there are two ways of regarding wine/food pairing:

Simpatico Pairing and Contrast Pairing. The first, just start by balancing the intensity of the wine with the intensity of the food:

Pan-fried snapper with, say, a delicate Chenin Blanc.

Throw some mango salsa on a seared chunk of mahi mahi, better go for a fruity Pinot Gris or maybe a dry Gewurztraminer. Northern California's Navarro makes a brilliant one for $20. NZ's Eskdale Winegrowers makes a beauty too.

Grilled salmon with oregano, try an intense unoaked non ML Chardonnay -- hard to find in a Californian wine, Navarro makes one. Or try a French White Burgundy or our Chard. You could also go for a lighter red like Pinot Noir or a Cote de Rhone.

Roast lamb also will pair nicely with a lighter red as above.

Tomato-based pastas with a medium spicy red like a Chianti.

BBQ steak or ribs and a really rich Zin or Cab. The tannins on a lot of cabs can seem bitter but can work well with intense foods. Our Diva would work here.

It depends in each of these cases on the intensity of the sauces and flavorings. You really can only do it by tasting. I get asked to pair on paper with recipes e-mailed from restaurants all the time. You can guess, but you have to taste to really hit a home run. A bit of cumin can throw everything off.

One of the best pairings I ever had was with a scallop ceviche at Quiessence that the lovely Greg LaPrad paired with our Pinot Gris. It took both into the stratosphere. I asked Greg what he marinated the scallops with.

"Oh," he said, "lemon and lime juice."

"There's something else in there," I said.

"Well, there's a little bit of peach juice," he added.

That was the key. Both food and wine were elevated to heights beyond. That's a pairing. Just a tiny tweak like that made all the difference.

Then there's Contrast Pairing. This is riskier but can be fabulous.

After all, you don't want to marry someone exactly like you.

How about an intense Shiraz/Petite Sirah blend with vanilla ice cream?

After dinner at the vineyard recently, we craved a dessert. I rummaged in the fridge and found some vanilla bean ice cream. I didn't have any chocolate sauce to splash on it. No Cointreau either. Kahlua always works but none there.

Had a half bottle of Diva 2010, 92 percent Shiraz, 8 percent Petite Sirah.

Some 72 percent cacao dark chocolate.

I shaved a bit of the chocolate on the scoops of ice cream. What else?

Limes for our margaritas! Got the zester, and shaved some lime zest on the scoops.

Added a few sprinkles of a fine aged balsamic. Sweet.

Ahh, the final touch: a dusting of some Camargue sea salt.

Now we have creamy sweet, bitter sweet, intense acetic sweet, and oceanic-salty.

With a dry red?

Sound insane?

This was actually much more dynamic that simply adding chocolate sauce or Kahlua.

The chocolate shavings and the balsamic hooked up with the wine. The wine has some chocolate and tannins. The lime and the sea salt added dynamic range.

We had the best dessert ever, vanilla ice cream with an intense dry red wine.

Try experimenting like this at home.

Dessert with our biggest wine. Now, where did that guy with the Cadillac Escalade go?

Finally, speaking of big chocolatey wines . . .

"Everyone Gets a Turn" wine recommendation:

Curt Denham and Peggy Fiandaca of Lawrence Dunham Vineyards want you to try their Signature 2010 Estate grown Petite Sirah. 100 percent Petite Sirah, 83 percent aged in new American oak barrels for 22 months.

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Sam Pillsbury