On The Table
Our love of travel has reshaped many of our notions around food and wine pairings. As global experiences make their way into dishes across the country, and as winemakers continue to evolve our notions of Chardonnay’s personalities, it’s an exciting time to be eating and drinking.
“I don't really like rules anymore because we've mashed up cultures and cuisines all into one menu nowadays,” says Master Sommelier Michael Jordan.
Styles of Chardonnay used to be put on a spectrum: at one end were full, rich and buttery styles, while lean, crisp, mineral Chardonnays landed at the other. As winemakers continue to evolve their winemaking, however — whether through closer attention to terroir, new vinification techniques, or an appreciation for Chardonnays from elsewhere in the world — thinking of styles as points on a compass rather than a single line better fits into the modern view.
I don't really like rules anymore because we've mashed up cultures and cuisines all into one menu nowadays,
Break the Rules
“When we throw all the rules out the window, we want to try all kinds of different things with different dishes because it's amazing what can really work,” says Master Sommelier Michael Jordan.
When thinking about culinary and cultural mashups on many modern menus - Korean tacos, anyone? - traditional pairings seem rather staid. With the proliferation of Chardonnay styles, now’s the time to play with your food. As a general rule of thumb, Jordan considers three areas when planning a pairing: first, flavors and aromas; second, a wine’s structure; and, finally, texture. Attention to the latter two, especially, can lead to successful, unexpected matches.
“The compounds, the building blocks typical in any wine, would be alcohol, acid, sugar - or lack of sugar - and tannin,” he explains. “Well, we don't really have tannin in Chardonnay, so we're talking about the first three. With white wines, acid is extremely important; pairing acidity and alcohol levels with dishes is really the thing that makes those magical pairings.”
Hand-in-hand with structure, “Texture’s a big deal in the enjoyment of the wine,” says Jordan. “A big powerhouse Chardonnay — wow, it has really rich texture and much more viscosity, mouthfeel, weight and intensity of flavor.” However, he notes, “in your crisper, more high acid styles, you have intensity, but it's a totally different kind of intensity. The texture is much leaner, it's more focused, it can almost be austere.”
With those elements in mind, Jordan cites barbecued foods and powerhouse oak-aged Chardonnays as one of his favorite cool pairings. “One of my favorite dishes is grilled shrimp with barbecue sauce, served with a Chardonnay that has oak aging and the flavors of oak,” he says. “It will give you these amazing flavors of vanilla, caramel, and baking spices, and aromas of things like crème brûlée. Vanilla, when you pair it, or something like it, with barbecue shrimp — whoa. That oaked Chardonnay is fantastic with that.” He says other barbecued or roasted proteins - pork, beef, or chicken, for example - also match with these Chardonnays.
A filet Oscar with crab on top of the steak on top of béarnaise – Chardonnay is money with that. It is way better than a red wine.
Master Sommelier Thomas Price loves the unexpected pairing of red meat with Chardonnay. Powerhouse styles in particular can hold their own against an unctuous, beef-centric dish. “A filet Oscar, with crab on top of the steak on top of béarnaise — Chardonnay, such as Stonestreet Upper Barn Chardonnay, is money with that,” says Price. “It is way better than a red wine.”
Sometimes unexpected pairings can be a just left-of-center instead of a full 180-degree contrast. Instead of Riesling or Gewurztraminer, two popular matches with spicy foods, Price likes a fruit-driven Chardonnay with a milder Japanese or Indian curry.
With so such varied styles of cuisine, and so many more dining options today, it’s the perfect time to get creative with wine and food. “That's how you find the delicious pairings,” says Jordan. “You try them, taste them, to see what works really well together. When you add flavors and the structure into the equation — wow, anything is possible today. It's quite fun, and it's more than that — it’s delicious.”
Classics remain timeless for a reason: they’re always appealing and prove themselves time after time. However, considering what makes an ideal pairing, beyond just matching (or contrasting) flavors, can bring excitement to a meal.
"Chardonnay is well-poised to be something of a chameleon, as far as its affinities with food,” says Greg Brewer, winemaker for Brewer-Clifton and diatom. “In Sta. Rita Hills, the wines carry a kind of lemon-lime, salt, margarita-esque tendency — so you're reflecting on the role of that lemon, lime, and salt with food. It lifts, it cleanses, and elevates. Chardonnay becomes this quiet support system to the food."
Chardonnay is well-poised to be something of a chameleon as far as its affinities with food.
Chardonnay as an Aperitif
Beyond the dinner plate, Chardonnay is well-positioned to serve as an aperitif. Refined fruit-driven styles, like the Copain Les Voisins, fulfill this particular niche in the dining experience. According to Master Sommelier Thomas Price, higher-acid styles work particularly well to sharpen up your palate before dinner. In addition, their mouth-watering qualities can tempt hunger, prepping both the mind and the body for the meal. “A lot of people have a glass of Chardonnay and then they move into Cabernet with their dinner,” he says. Chardonnay as an aperitif also speaks to a rising awareness of well-being in today’s society.
Everyone’s more focused on their health; where somebody used to drink a couple of martinis before dinner, a glass of Chardonnay is a low[er] alcohol and delicious option.