There’s a reason French wines are held in such high esteem: for years they served as the benchmark against which all other wines were compared. After all, it was the infamous Judgment of Paris in which several American wines outshone their French counterparts that catapulted California wine onto the world stage. And, let’s face it: whichever wine first tempted us to explore the wonders of the vinous world, chances are that, at some point in our escapades, a French wine stole our heart.
Each month, the #Winophiles dive into a particular aspect of French wine that intrigues us. Sometimes it’s a geographic region like Bordeaux or Burgundy; other times it’s a style of wine (e.g., sparkling) that can be made using a variety of methods. Regardless of the topic, we discuss food and wine pairings, favorite producers, and travel tips. In April, we pack our suitcases with French wine and head across the border in search of Cross-Cultural Food Pairings for French Wines.
Sounds fun, doesn’t it? If you’d like to jump into the conversation, join us Saturday morning, April 15th at 11 am EDT. The Twitter chat brings together food and wine writers who’ve given this topic some thought and come up with creative menu partners for French wine. We’d love to have you! Just make sure to use #Winophiles in each of your tweets so we’ll know you’re there. To get a closer look at our favorite non-French pairings for French wines, scroll down to the bottom of this post for links to all the goodness.
Oh, Viognier, How I Do Love Thee!
My love affair with Viognier has been well-documented in these pages, and it was a comely bottle from Condrieu that first sparked my interest in the world of wine writ large. As I opened it on a snowy winter’s afternoon, an exotic flower garden bloomed in my kitchen, filling it with the hedonistic aromas of far-away places riddled with intrigue. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me. One sip and I left reality behind, transported to a tropical beach redolent of jasmine and honeysuckle.
You might think that such a fragrant wine would pose problems when serving it with a meal. But I don’t believe that’s true: while I wouldn’t pair it with a rare steak, Viognier makes a lovely partner with dishes like tagine that often include dried fruit, or perhaps a cheese soufflé with fresh corn (see photo.) My personal favorite, though, is Indian cuisine. I absolutely love the spices – coriander, cumin, ginger – that make those dishes sing. And in my opinion, they complement Viognier’s charming aromas and flavors.
The Science behind the Pairing
Why does Viognier work so well with Indian cuisine? Well, as I mentioned above, the aromatic components of both the wine and the food bring out the best in each other. They’re not the same, but rather two sides of the same coin. Picture yourself indulging in a home-cooked Indian meal – one bursting with pungent herbs and spices – while chatting with friends on an outdoor terrace. Night-blooming jasmine clings to the walls around you, lightly perfuming the air. Your first taste of Viognier brings all those sensory pleasures together. It works.
Aside from the hedonistic, emotional appeal I’ve made for Viognier and Indian food, there is a biochemical reason the pairing works, especially with spicier dishes. It has to do with capsaicin, the biological compound in peppers (the seeds and pulp) that makes them taste hot. Exposure to capsaicin causes temporary inflammation of the mouth, increasing (to a point) our sensitivity to aromas and flavors. This inflammation is a neurological response, rather than an actual physical burning, and it triggers the brain to release endorphins. (Perhaps why some folks really enjoy chowing down on the hottest peppers they can find!)
Bear with me, because this is where the science gets interesting. Do you know why milk-based drinks like lassi are so prevalent on Indian restaurant menus? Yes, they’re delicious, but there’s more to it. Capsaicin compounds do not react with water, meaning that drinking even a quart of it won’t do a thing to temper a habañero’s fiery bite. So what does work? Fat, as in olive oil, milk, or yogurt (hence the lassi) or alcohol. Capsaicin is soluble in both. Viognier plays well with spicy foods because it tends to have higher alcohol by volume than many other white wines. In his book Tastebuds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food, Wine, and Flavor, François Chartier recommends pairing your favorite picante plates with “a thick and unctuous wine, lightly acidic . . . and containing a high level of alcohol, above 14.5%” to tame capsaicin’s heat. Viognier is capable of ticking all those boxes.
The Wine I Chose
2015 Domaine Saint Amant La Borry (95% Viognier, 5% Roussanne; 13% abv; $19 retail)
Domaine Saint Amant occupies 32 acres in the Southern Rhône commune of Suzette, in the fabled Dentelles de Montmirail mountains. Nestled on terraces at elevations between 1,200 and 1,800 feet, it is the highest-located domaine in the entire valley. Vines (many 80+ years old) occupy the eastern- and southern-facing slopes of Mount Saint Amant, where cooler temperatures and the Mistral wind protect them from extreme summer weather in this Mediterranean climate. This suits Viognier well, allowing it to ripen fully (critical for those lovely aromas) without losing acidity. Soils here are predominantly limestone and clay. Vines are tended manually, as one would expect on such steep terraces, and the wine is fermented in both stainless steel vats (75%) and 20-year-old oak (25%). To preserve as much acidity as possible, the wine does not go through malolactic fermentation.
“It’s about a love story – between a spectacular site and a dynamic family in the heart of the Southern Rhône Valley.”
As the quote from their website indicates, Domaine Saint Amant is a family enterprise, founded in 1992 by Jacques Wallut, whose first foray into the business world was the creation of Unilog, a French tech firm, back in the 1960s. After purchasing the estate he worked as its winemaker until 1997, when he passed the baton to his daughter Camille, originally an architect, who continues at the helm today.
In the glass, this wine is pale lemon yellow, becoming clear toward the rim. On the nose there are all the exotic aromas I love so much: apricot, white peach, honeysuckle, even a hint of pineapple. A sip reveals more white peach than apricot, and there is a lemony thread of acidity running through it. There is definitely some weight to it, although not as much as I was expecting; likely attributable to the vineyard aspects described above. It’s going to be a bang-up match with food!
The Dish: Indian-Spiced Chicken Salad
It’s a dish I’ve made before, one that I love, love, love. The recipe comes from a long-since-discarded issue of Food and Wine. Chock-full of spices (coriander seed, cumin seed, curry, fenugreek) it makes a wonderful match with an aromatic wine like Viognier. But perhaps my most favorite component of the salad is the fresh papaya: it works like a dream with the wine! I wasn’t really expecting that. The moderate alcohol level of this wine (13%) was an asset, too, as the salad was a little light on the capsaicin component (I seeded the jalapeño before adding it.) For spicier versions, I might opt for a “bigger” Viognier, one that has a little more oak influence and an alcohol by volume of 14-14.5%.
NOTE: I realize my wine photo shows the 2014 La Borry. For some inexcusable reason I neglected to snap a pic of the 2015 that I drank with this dish. My apologies!
The Round-Up: What the Bloggers Have to Say about Cross-Cultural Pairings for French Wine
- Martin from Enofylz Wine Blog pairs Bordeaux with Cajun and Italian Classics
- Michelle from Rockin’ Red Blog asks Do Empanadas Bordeaux?
- Camilla from Culinary Adventures with Camilla will match A Vin de Pays d’Oc Chardonnay and an Edible Mollusc from Monterey
- Gwendolyn of Wine Predator highlights Taco Tuesday: Chicken Mole Strawberry Salad with 3 French Wines
- Jane from Always Ravenous takes us to the islands with Chicken Colombo: A Blend of Caribbean Flavors from the French West Indies
- Lynn from Savor the Harvest informs us that Tortilla Española Crosses Wine Borders
- Jill of L’occasion describes A World of Flavors in Marseille
- Peter from The Wine Analyst delves into Food & Wine – Moroccan Chicken Pastilla
- Jeff from FoodWineClick! reports as Loire Valley Wines Take the Spicy Thai Challenge
- Here at The Swirling Dervish, we covered A Feast for the Senses: Viognier and Indian Spices.