Pairings with pinots and the futility of looking to science for answers

I have a horrible (given my current location) admission to make: Central Otago pinot noir is, to date and as far as I can tell, not my favorite thing in the world. That said, Otago pinot noir is lovely and fulfills a completely different function at table. One of the best meals I’ve ever had with an Oregon pinot was the whole salmon I roasted with a bunch of herbs and various alliums for my last Thanksgiving in the States. A guest serendipitously brought a Lange pinot, and it was memorable. On the other hand, Grasshopper Rock’s example — grown on the Clutha River in Alexandra, Otago — didn’t really grab me on its own, but was just lovely when I tried it alongside some smoked hoki that I’d brought home from the Auckland fish market (yes, in my backpack, on the airplane). Those rather robust smokey flavors emphasized the wine’s structural and savory notes and took the focus off cherry flavors that were a bit more candied than I prefer.

What I just offered you is a lay theory. To make it more than that, I’d need an empirical study or three to examine the interaction of smoky foods with various potential sensory qualities found in pinot noir. The problem with that idea, apart from it having nothing to do with my current main priority, i.e. the PhD, is that food and wine pairing research is obnoxious. .

Food and wine pairing articles (I’m quoting this one) are full of statements like this: “This research found that eating cheddar cheese before drinking Shiraz reduced some of the negative characteristics of the wine and enhanced the preference for the wine. This indicates that consuming food and wine together can minimize some of the less desirable flavors of both.” And hypotheses like this one: “Certain food and wine combinations will be perceived as significantly better than others.” The latter of which, I suppose, points out that food-wine preferences could be completely personal, like favorite colors (except that favorite color preference isn’t random, either).

Perhaps this sort of research really interests sommeliers who could think about the benefits of a shiraz and cheddar pairing in a tasting menu, though I doubt they need reassurance that their choices will work for someone other than just themselves. The question still arises: is science, in all its reductionist glory, really the best way to attack food and wine pairings?

First, let’s get a methodology point out of the way. Apparently, the best way to evaluate food and wine pairings is to ask people to eat and drink at the same time rather than, say, munching a bit of cheese, swallowing, and waiting thirty seconds before taking a sip of wine or vice-versa. Because that’s the way people usually eat.

Moving on. Research to date says that wine sweetness and astringency, but not its acidity, are significant in determining ideal food pairings. The most recent food-wine pairing article I’ve encountered tried to suss out whether acidity was in fact important, and the role of wine expertise in food-wine preferences, along with moving beyond many previous studies by pairing wine with foods other than cheese. The chosen foods? Chevre, brie, salami, and milk chocolate, paired with an Ontario chardonnay, an Ontario sauvignon blanc, an Argentinian cabernet sauvignon, and an inexpensive LBV Port. Needless to say, this study isn’t going to give me any insight into my pinot noir pairing theories. Or, for that matter, any insight into any real food and wine pairing conundrum anyone ever faces anywhere.

I’m poking fun, but I’m not being wholly fair. The authors of this article have more expertise in what they’re doing than I do. It’s obvious to any wine or food nerd which of the above pairings will and won’t work, but that evidence is anecdotal, not scientific, and maybe those assumptions are worth testing. But when the authors begin asserting that this study provides evidence that acidity, sweetness, and tannins are all important in pairings, just from showing that milk chocolate works better with port than with chardonnay? No. Four examples aren’t enough to allow for that conclusion, not near enough to weed through and rule out all of the other things (confounding factors) going on in both the wines and the food.

So we’re back to where we started with pairing food and wine. What says our weight of accumulated, non-scientific wisdom? And does it taste good? The reductionism of sensory science may have useful ways to tackle the hyper-complexity of food + wine (don’t ask me whether that’s more or less complex than, say, the human immune system, which science seems to tackle with at least some success), but I’m not sure they’ve figured them out yet. And when I’m trying to decide what to serve with my next glass of pinot noir — Oregon, Otago, or otherwise — the only research I expect I’ll do will be on my favorite cooking blogs.

**All sorts of other fascinating alternate-scientific approaches have been taken to food and wine pairing, Chartier’s fascinating Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food, Wine, and Flavor being perhaps the most interesting example. What I’m talking about here is the mainstream pairing science found in peer-reviewed journals.

Felton Road’s low-tech precision winemaking

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Gareth King at Felton Road

“Precision viticulture” refers to a technology-laden mission to optimize and equalize grape quality at a local level, decreasing variability plot-by-plot, potentially even plant-by-plant. By collecting data on water use, vine vigor, temperature, soil conditions, and other parameters at multiple points across a vineyard, vignerons can understand how different areas of the vineyard are differing in their performance and, consequently, irrigate or fertilize or prune or harvest or what-have-you differently to suit. Affordable GPS systems, high-tech mapping with geographic information systems (GIS), and lots of spiffy little wireless sensors have made all of this possible and even reasonably practical for vineyards within the past several years (Australia’s national Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation has been notably pushing PV adoption in that country). Oddly enough, though, I hadn’t really thought about what an equivalent “precision winemaking” strategy might look like before a week or two ago.

A week or two ago I paid my first visit (of many, I expect) to Central Otago, New Zealand’s most southerly wine region, famous for pinot noir, Wild West-style scenery, and hordes of international backpackers. When I made arrangements to stop by Felton Road, I was warned that I wouldn’t be able to meet Blair Walter, the winemaker, because he planned to rack that day. (Rack = remove wine from one container to another, most often for the purpose of separating it from the lees, the dead yeast cells and other particles that collect at the bottom of the barrel or tank.)  When I learned how he was racking — he found a few minutes to come out and talk in between barrels — the first thing that came to mind was, “gosh, this sounds like precision winemaking.” If precision viticulture is approaching the vineyard on a vine-by-vine basis, then precision winemaking seems as though it should be approaching wine on a barrel-by-barrel basis. Far from technology-laden, though, Walter’s method is simple, elegant, and light on gadgetry.

Their pinot noir is made like this:

1. Crush grapes into stainless steel fermenter tanks. Ferment.

2. Press and transfer wine to barrel. Let wine sit in barrel until February (in Otago, that’s about ten months after harvest).

3. Rack wine off lees, out of barrel and into tanks.

4. Bottle.

Racking happens only once. Walter says that everything that comes out of the barrel during that single racking goes into the bottle. With that single control point before bottling, he sounds fairly obsessive about ensuring sure that he sees everything that comes out of those barrels. Unsurprisingly, he uses a Bulldog Pup, a clever little racking wand that  moves wine by positive displacement instead of active pumping. Positive displacement functionally pushes — “displaces” — the wine out of the barrel by filling the barrel with gas. The barrel is sealed save for a tube pushing the gas in and the tube letting the wine out so that pumping in gas increases the pressure inside the barrel; the wine has nowhere to go but out the exit tube. Bulldog Pups are far more gentle than any pump. They can also virtually eliminate oxygen exposure during racking when nitrogen or argon is used to do the pushing.

Neither of those is Walters’ main reason for using the Pup. He even uses plain-old forced atmospheric air, replete with oxygen, to push. After ten months undisturbed in barrel, the wine can use the oxygen exposure. His reason for racking this way is so that he can watch the wine as it comes up the tube (through a conveniently placed sight glass) and decide on a barrel-by-barrel basis what to leave behind. Bulldog Pups have a foot that will automatically shut off flow at a pre-set level: a winemaker can decide to leave four inches of lees in each barrel, set the foot appropriately, and then leave the cane to mind itself while his attention is elsewhere. Walters doesn’t automate, and the only person who racks is him.

Walters’ approach reminded me of what his colleague Gareth King, Felton Road’s viticulturist, said about how he practices precision viticulture. The man doesn’t seem to want for much, but when we encountered the harvest crew coming in from a morning vineyard walk, he said, “You know my best technology? They just walked past us.”

I can’t say what difference GPS sensors versus summer interns might make, but I can say that Felton Road’s pinots were among the best I tasted. Central Otago pinots can be a bit clunky, but Felton Road’s are texturally lighter and more elegant, with plenty of clean raspberry and strawberry aromas up front backed up with enough earthiness and tannins to keep things interesting. The 2012 Bannockburn and 2012 Cornish Point bottlings seemed to walk that balance of lightness and structure particularly well.

Precision viticulture is veritably new. It’s downright revolutionary, really, in terms of how it changes the way vignerons can think about vineyard management. But technology isn’t the only way to pay attention to details. The old-fashioned strategy of carefully and consistently observing what’s happening with individual vines isn’t an exact substitute for GPS-enabled water uptake meters: the technology is more precise and lets the vineyard manager put his eyes in a lot of different places at the same time — and collect data in his sleep or during family meals, which has to be a real boon. And I can imagine monitoring individual barrels with some kind of wireless oxygen sensor that can track and measure differences between how each barrel transmits oxygen — since every barrel is unique in this respect — and lets winemakers make corresponding individualized adjustments. No amount of careful personal attention could do that.

But Walters’ version of precision winemaking and King’s version of precision viticulture will serve as a good reminder for me every time I read a journal article or press release about some nifty new precision gadget. Some of the best technology comes on two legs.