How to Pair Wine

The plate in front of me offers an interesting array of items to tantalize the taste buds.

There’s a wedge of apple and another of lemon. A dollop of cake frosting sits between a sliver of salmon and a slice of cheddar cheese. And there are two teaspoons: one holding a pinch of salt, the other with hot pepper flakes.

The tasting matt next to my plate offers an equally varied selection of six wines, from a coolly refreshing Chablis to a much weightier port. My task: sample them all, in different combinations, to see how they impact the palate, alone and in various combinations.

With a little coaxing from Valerie Upfold, one of our two instructor-sommeliers, I discover that the apple makes the Chablis less acidic, while the chardonnay brings out the sweetness of the apple. The Shiraz tastes bitter with the salmon, as the tannins in a red wine tend not to work well with fish. But the sauterne, richly delicious on its own, taste even sweeter when paired with frosting.

“It’s really about flavor intensity, matching the intensity,” explains Upfold, a recruitment consultant with Profile Consulting Group. “So a food with flavor that is really intense would go with a wine that is really intense.”

“It’s about matching the most intensive flavor on the plate,” she continues. “If people are having chicken, they will often match the chicken, but if it has salsa on it, that’s what you want to match. Because that’s more flavorful than chicken.”

I can honestly say I’m enjoying my first course at the University of Guelph far more than many others I’ve taken elsewhere. That’s not surprising. This is, after all, an introduction to wine and food pairing.

My husband and I enrolled in a Level 1 wine certification program, created by the UK-based Wine and Spirit Trust (WSET) and brought to campus by the school of hospitality, food and tourism management. WSET is considered one of the most reputable wine bodies in the world and its certification programs are recognized in 80 countries.

Level 1 teaches the basics about wine and pairing. The course is aimed at new employees of the hospitality industry, whether working at the LCBO or serving tables in a restaurant, and more than half the 28 people enrolled fall into that category. The rest are more like us.

“It’s also geared at the person who’s been entering the liquor store for 10 years and purchasing wine, without really understanding much of what is behind the label,” says Guelph assistant professor and program coordinator Bruce McAdams. “They may purchase a Stoney Ridge Sauvignon blanc because they had it at a party and they loved it and they’ve been drinking it for years. But they’ve never felt confident venturing into another aisle.”

Those aisles are filled with what is ultimately nothing more than fermented grape juice. The course starts with a bit of basic chemistry, reminding that wine is what you get when you let yeast convert sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. And while a great many factors help produce a wide range of wines, it ultimately all comes down to the grape.

“You need to know what the main grapes are,” explains instructor/sommelier Rob Miller, a 20-year veteran of the beverage industry with a long list of certifications. “I’d say there are 12 to 15 you’re going to come across on a regular basis. Understand what they’re like in a cool climate and understand what they are like in a warm climate. If you know that, that’s half the battle right there.”

Cooler climate regions like Northern France and Germany are better for mainly white wines, high in acidity and low in alcohol, most often thought of as refreshing. The hot climates of Australia, Central Spain and Southern France are better suited for black grapes, commonly producing reds that are high in alcohol and low in acidity.

The course also covers the process for making wine, explaining why reds are fermented before the grapes are pressed, while most whites reverse the order. We review the basics of storing and serving, and learn a systematic approach to tasting. We touch on social responsibility of the drinker and server. And, of course, we devote time to how the tastes of food and wines interact.

Ultimately, both Miller and Uptown remind that enjoying wine – alone or paired with food – involves a high degree of subjectivity. Wine, for most of us, is very much a matter of taste.

“I think it doesn’t matter what the rules are,” says Upfold. “If you want to drink a full-bodied red with a really light fish and think it tastes good, it doesn’t matter what all the pretentious wine people say.”

“Most important thing is not to take it too seriously,” says Miller. “It’s a fun thing. We drink wine to have a good time.”

It is, however, possible to have too good a time in this course. The $345 (plus HST) registration fee covers everything, including glasses, a selection of wines and a multiple-choice exam. But the exam comes right after a fair bit of tasting, and not everyone made use of the well-named spit cups.

Which is how I learned that retaking the exam, if you want the certification, costs $50. And that preparing for it involves nothing more difficult than a couple of cram sessions over carefully planned meals.

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