Monthly Archives: March 2013

What to drink with your fish and shellfish

Seafood and wine the perfect match

Enjoying wine with seafood

The first rule of wine and food pairing, is to drink something you enjoy. The perfect pairing is in the eye of the beholder.

Certain types of wine can be excluded because they clash with fish and shellfish, but a wide range of wines go very well. Heavier styles of wine match better with richer dishes.

Wines to avoid
Avoid tannic grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo. Tannins cause puckering and drying of the mouth, and they react with iodine in marine fish and shellfish to produce a metallic taste. This spoils the food and the wine.

Red wines which can work
Some red grape varieties have low tannin levels, and some wines are made in a way which extracts little tannin from the grapes. Good acidity also helps to match with shellfish, and to cut through rich sauces. Some red wines which do work:-

  • Beaujolais. Made from Gamay grapes, and most have low tannin levels.
  • Pinot Noir. Particularly lighter styles of Burgundy.
  • Rioja. Lighter styles made for early drinking work well.
  • Cabernet Franc. The main source is the Loire in France.

White wines
A whole swathe of dry white wines with good acidity go really well with shellfish. Here are some suggestions:-

  • Riesling. A great grape variety, but choosing Riesling needs care, as styles vary from the bone-dry to the lush, rich and sweet.
  • Chardonnay. A racy Chablis for the shellfish. An oaked wine for the rich sauces.
  • Sauvignon Blanc. Whichever style you enjoy.
  • Albariño. A grape variety grown near Spain’s Atlantic coast. It is just made to go with the local fish and shellfish.
  • Picpoul de Pinet. From the Mediterranean coast of France – just right for the local seafood.

Rosé wines
Rosé wines come in a wide variety of styles. Match them in the same way you would white wines.

Sparkling wines, and the dry styles of sherry go well too.

The choice is your’s, but do try unfamiliar wines, as there is always a better one around the corner.

Why does a wine need acidity?

A wine which doesn’t have enough acidity is flabby and boring.

What is acid?
It is one of the five primary tastes – sweet, sour (acid), bitter, salt and umami (savoury). An example of an acid is citric acid in lemons. These tastes are detected by tastebuds, which are located mainly on the tongue, but also in other parts of the mouth.

acid and sugar in grape berries

How acid and sugar levels vary as a grape grows

How acid levels change as a grape berry grows
The diagram above shows that acid levels increase as a grape berry grows, but only to a point. Véraison is the moment when a grape berry changes, and starts to ripen; it softens, changes colour, sugar levels rise, and acid levels fall. Unripe grapes are hard and acidic, with little sugar. Over-ripe grapes are sweet and bland.

Which acids are present in wine?
Tartaric is the main acid, and its level stays fairly steady during ripening. Malic acid is the other significant acid, and this decreases after véraison.

Examples of two contrasting types of wine:-

  • Champagne – the grapes are picked with high acidity, and quite low sugar levels. In most wine regions the grapes would be considered under-ripe. At the end of production, sugar is usually added to take the edge off the acidity.
  • High alcohol Cabernet Sauvignon – these come from hot climates, where the grapes are picked very ripe, with high sugar levels and relatively low acidity. This sugar produces a wine with plenty of alcohol, and acid may be added to make the wine more palatable.

How can you tell how much acid is in a wine?
Unfortunately, very few wine labels provide this information, but the winemaker’s website often does. Acidity is usually stated as pH. I won’t bore you with a chemist’s definition, but pH is a scale in which water is neutral at level 7. The lower the number, the more acidic a liquid is, and wine is usually 3 to 3.5.

A balancing act
Acidity is particularly important in sweet wines, to ensure they are not bland. Sugar masks the acidity, so it may not be obvious, but all good sweet wines have it.

What is meant by a corked bottle of wine?

selection of natural corks

Bleached and unbleached natural corks

A ‘corked’ wine has a mouldy taste and smell. This is caused by chemicals leached from the cork, and is nothing to do with bits of cork floating in the wine.

Where does natural cork come from?

Natural cork is made from the bark of the Quercus suber oak tree, and Portugal is by far the largest producer. The bark is stripped from the tree, and this particular species is able to regrow its bark. Individual corks are then punched out from the bark. Various treatments are carried out along the way.

Origin of cork taint

The main culprit is a chemical called TCA, 2,4,6-trichloroanisole to be precise, although other similar compounds are also responsible. There are several possible sources of these compounds, and they involve fungi, microbes and chlorine treatments, either of the cork oaks, or the punched corks themselves.

How bad is the problem?

There was a time when the percentage of ‘corked’ bottles was estimated at between 2 and 6%. I would say that the incidence has decreased, but the problem has not been eradicated.

What are the cork producers doing about it?

There are two general approaches:-

  • Change the sterilising treatment – in the past hypochlorite bleaches were used to kill off microbes in the cork. Now they use peroxides, or microwave treatments to remove unwanted life in the corks.
  • Use of high tech analytical equipment, such as mass spectrometers and gas chromatographs. These can detect extremely low levels of contamination.

What are winemakers doing about it?

Apart from changing away from natural cork, the best a winemaker can do is to buy top quality corks. Samples from a batch can be tested by immersing them in wine, to see if there is any contamination.

Threshold levels of taste and smell

The threshold level is the minimum concentration at which a person can detect a smell or taste. TCA can be detected at incredibly low levels of a few parts per trillion (yes, a million-millionth). There are two interesting observations:-

  • Some people are far more sensitive to cork taint than others – they have a much lower threshold level. So that one person thinks a wine is just fine, and another that it is undrinkable.
  • The threshold level increases rapidly as the alcohol content increases. Which is why cork taint is very rare with bottles of spirit.

Can cork taint be completely removed by changing to screwcaps or plastic corks?

The answer is no, but the incidence will be much lower. TCA can contaminate other wooden objects in a winery, particularly oak barrels. So some contamination is always possible.