Wine for a Summer Picnic

With summertime fast approaching it will soon be time to focus on going to the beach and picnics.  The recipe for a great picnic is great weather and food and of course, wonderful wine.   A good picnic wine will be refreshing, balanced, and will pair well with the foods you pack. A picnic should not require a lot of fuss and muss.  The focus should be on sharing good food and wine with family or friends.  If it requires a huge amount of time and effort to prepare, the outcome is probably not worth the effort.

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One thing not to do is consider a picnic the same as a barbecue.  The wines that pair well at a barbecue are not necessarily the same ones that work well at a picnic. Barbecues are all about bold and spicy where picnics are more about a broad spectrum of lighter fare. Most of the foods served at a picnic will be cold and on the lighter side.

Common picnic foods include things such as potato salad, cold fried chicken, cheeses and crackers, charcuterie, fresh bread and fresh fruit. Wines best suited include cool, crisp, whites, rosés or very light reds.

White wine options include Sauvignon Blanc and Fumé Blanc which are dry, crisp, herbal whites that are ideal for summer sipping. They won’t overpower picnic food.  Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio or Pinot Blanc are fruitier but still light and perfect for a picnic. They are bright, acidic and loaded with crisp citrus fruit and minerality.

A dry Riesling with crisp acidity and light mineral flavours will pair well with spicier foods such as charcuterie.  Moscato d’Asti is a lightly fizzy white with apricot and almond flavours that will pair well with fruit and salads.

A freezer sleeve that slides over a standard 750 ml. bottle will keep your wine chilled.

Rosé or blush wines are versatile. They should also be served chilled the same as whites. These lightly acidic wines offer fruit flavours such as melon, strawberry and red fruit qualities that pair well with cheese and crackers, seafood, salads or cold chicken.

Light red wines with less alcohol, such as Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Beaujolais would be good choices for a picnic, particularly charcuterie and cold cuts. While these wines don’t need to be served chilled, they should not be overwarmed so transporting them in a cooler would be a good idea.  Set them out about 10 minutes before serving.

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Rosé With a Difference

Now that the warm weather is here it is a great time to crack open a bottle of Rosé.  Pale Rosé is by far the most common and thus the most popular type of Rosé but there is a second less known, darker Rosé.

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Darker Rosés can have a fuller body and a greater concentration of flavours.  They may be more complex and structured, making them able to pair well with a wider array of summertime foods.

The most common types of red wine grapes used to make Rosé are Grenache, Sangiovese, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan, Cinsault and Pinot Noir.  The skins are generally exposed to the wine for only a short time. Where some red wines ferment for weeks at a time on red grape skins, rosé wines are left for just a few hours.  However, when making dark Rosé, only dark-skinned varietals are used, such as Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Syrah, Merlot, or Cabernet Sauvignon.  The grape skins are also exposed to the wine for a longer period of time in order to gain more flavour.

Where light and medium bodied Rosés pair well with cheese, creamy sauces and dips, savoury canapés, mezes and tapas, darker Rosés will go well with smoke and char flavours of grilled meats and vegetables, as well as full-flavoured sauces.

The occasion for serving Rosé varies by type as well.  Light or medium-bodied ones are best served chilled and lend themselves well to sipping while relaxing at the cottage or in the backyard.  Darker Rosés, on the other hand, fair well served chilled, at a backyard barbecue.

Whichever Rosé you prefer, now is the best time of year to sit back, relax and enjoy a glass.

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Wine and Fish Pairings

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Because there is such a large array of types of fish and so many ways of preparing it, there is a wide variety of wines suitable to serve with fish.  Both the flavour and texture of the fish are key and are often categorized into the following four groups:

  • Lean and flaky mild fish
  • Medium textured fish
  • Meaty fish
  • Strong flavoured fish

Lean and Flaky Mild Fish

Lean mild fish include sole, perch, flounder, tilapia and sea bass.  These fish pair well with fresh zesty white wines including Sauvignon Blanc, Unoaked Chardonnay or Chablis, Champagne, Muscadet, Portuguese whites or Greek whites.

Medium Textured Fish

Medium textured fish are considered as flaky fish but are of a firmer and thicker texture than the lean fish.  Some experts would include sea bass in this category in addition to trout, arctic char, haddock and cod.

Wine pairing options to consider include medium bodied oaked Chardonnay, California or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, White Rioja, Sémillon, Pinot Gris or Vermentino.

Meaty Fish

Fish considered as meaty include salmon, tuna, bluefish, monkfish, mahi mahi, shark, and swordfish.  The range of wine options increase with this category to include dry Rosé and lighter reds.

Wine pairings include whites such as oaked Chardonnay, Champagne, White Burgundy, Grenache Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Gris, as well as reds such as Pinot Noir, Beaujolais and Valpolicella.

Strong Flavoured Fish

Strong flavoured fish are oilier, as well as being stronger in flavour.  Included in this category are herring, mackerel, sardines and anchovies.  These fish need to be offset by crisp bracing wines, including both white and chilled red options.

White options include Champagne, Sauvignon Blanc, White Bordeaux and Grenache Blanc.  Red wine choices would be Gamay and Pinot Noir.

Preparations and Sauces

The way the fish is cooked, whether it is baked, fried or grilled, influences the wine choice as well.  Further complicating things is the inclusion of other ingredients.  For example, spicy dishes are served best with a wine containing some sweetness in order to offset the heat.  Fish served in a cream sauce is best served with a more acidic wine in order to cleanse the palate.

Curry Sauces

Since curry sauces tend to be a little bit on the sweet side they pair well with wines such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer or Prosecco.

Herb Sauces

Herb sauces will often contain basil, parsley, dill, chives, mint, cilantro, dill, lemongrass, capers or even cucumber.  Complimentary wines include Sauvignon Blanc, Chablis or Trebbiano.

Spicy Sauces

Spicy sauces will be made with paprika, pepper, cumin, coriander or chili.  Such fish dishes will pair well with Grüner Veltliner, Gewürztraminer, Riesling or a red Grenache.

Sweet Sauces

Pineapple, mango, orange, teriyaki and sweet and sour sauce are all considered as sweet.  The lighter coloured sauces pair well with a Riesling whereas the darker sauces, such as teriyaki, are well complimented by a Rosé.

Zesty Sauces

These include lemon, lime or vinegar-based sauces that will pair well with light zesty wines such as Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet, White Bordeaux or Grenache Blanc.

Fish and Chips

A fresh, dry white wine with a high level of acidity is best suited for countering the fattiness of battered fish.  A crisp Sauvignon Blanc pairs well, as does a dry Champagne or similar white sparkler.

Raw Fish

If raw fish is your thing, it will pair well with an extra dry white wine such as Muscadet or Trebbiano or a red such as Pinot Noir or Burgundy.

Smoked Fish

Smoked fish, such as salmon or trout, will be a little drier than unsmoked fish of the same species.  Smoked fish will pair well with a vintage Champagne, Sparkling Rosé, dry Riesling or White Pinot Noir.

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Cooking with Wine

Cooking with wine was first introduced by the Romans but it is French chefs who have been credited with refining the techniques.  Even though other cultures have used wine in cooking, it is the classic French methods that have prevailed.  These include braising, deglazing, marinating and poaching.

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Braising with Wine

Braising will help to take a modest cut of meat and make it become extra special.  You can use simple cuts such as beef, lamb or pork shoulder, beef or lamb shanks, chicken thighs, beef brisket or various stewing meats. You can even use this process with vegetables.

Braising meat in butter or oil sears it to create a dark golden flavourful crust.  Wine and stock are then added and the meat is then left to simmer.  The acidity of the wine tenderizes the meat while the alcohol cooks off.

Bold flavourful red wines such as Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon are best for braising as they will provide good flavour, complexity and richness to your dish. 

Deglazing with Wine

Deglazing a pan with wine is one of the easiest ways to make a sauce. Start by pan-searing chicken, pork, beef, lamb or even eggplant to brown them as described in braising above.  Once seared, add wine to the pan to loosen the caramelized brown bits.  The wine reduces and becomes concentrated in the hot pan.  In addition to helping to make a tasty sauce it helps to clean the pan.

Deglazing works best with meats and vegetables that are thick enough to brown before becoming overcooked.  Be careful not to rush the process in order to prevent charring.  A generous amount of oil in the pan will help with the browning.  Any excess can be poured off prior to adding the wine.  To give the sauce more length and flavour, stock, cream, chilled butter, sour cream, water or jam may be added.

Depending on what’s on the menu, either red or white wine may be a suitable choice.  When selecting a red however, it is important to select one with lower tannins.  Otherwise, when the wine is concentrated it will become bitter. A Pinot Noir or Gamay is always a good choice.

Marinating with Wine

Wine will infuse flavour into whatever meal you are preparing. The acidity in the wine will break down meat tissue and tenderize it.

Marinades usually consist of an acid (wine, lemon or lime juice or vinegar and oil) as well as flavour additives, such as maple syrup, soy sauce, brown sugar, herbs, spices, sesame seed oil or mustard.

The wine to use in the marinade should be selected in the same manner as you would when pairing a wine to enjoy with the dinner itself.  The meat, fish or vegetable being prepared should determine the wine selected for the marinade.  For darker meats like beef or lamb, red wine will complement their flavour.  White wines are better suited for fish, poultry or vegetables.

That being said, keep in mind that the wine needs to have enough acidity to tenderize the dish.  Either the description on the wine label or the store shelf should provide the necessary information.  If not, the store staff should be able to assist you in making the appropriate selection.

Poaching with Wine

Poaching simmers delicate foods like fish and poultry in a flavourful liquid.  The acid in wine, lemon or lime juice or vinegar helps cook the food and enhances its flavour.  The poaching liquid needs to be well seasoned and the food is often served with a sauce to give additional flavour.  The food being poached should always be simmered and be completely submerged to ensure it cooks evenly.

In order to avoid discolouration of what is being cooked, white wine is usually recommended when poaching.  Suggested grape varietals include Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc.

Final Thoughts

When pairing the wine with what you are preparing, select a wine of the same colour and similar characteristics. Lighter dishes should be paired with a lighter bodied wine while heavier dishes should be combined with medium or full-bodied wines.

No matter what you are preparing and how you are preparing it, keep in mind that you will also want to drink it.  Most recipes don’t require an entire bottle of wine so what’s left should be something that you will enjoy drinking.

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Wine with Pasta

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Pairing wine with pasta is somewhat of a misnomer as what you are really doing is pairing the wine with the pasta sauce. For the purposes of today’s discussion I will stick to the basics, focusing on five common types of pasta sauce:

  • Tomato
  • Cheese
  • Seafood
  • Pesto (herbs)
  • Primavera (vegetable)

Tomato-Based Pasta

The tomatoes in these sauces make them high in acidity.  Because of this, a relatively tart but not too heavy wine is often best suited for these dishes.  If you want an Italian wine, Primitivo, Sangiovese or Chianti would go well.  Other options include Grenache, American Zinfandel or a French Rhône blend.

Cheese-Based Pasta

Cheese is very versatile and pairs well with either red or white wine.  It is best to pair the cheese with a wine having similar characteristics.  For example, creamy cheeses, such as ricotta, will go well with an oaked Chardonnay or Italian Trebbiano.  Light body red wines compliment sauces made with hard cheese.  Some suggestions are Pinot Noir, Sangiovese and Langhe Nebbiolo.

For additional cheese pairing ideas see my blog Cheese Pairings from March 6, 2021.

Seafood Pasta

For everything except tomato-based seafood dishes, a lighter weight, acidic white wine is the ideal choice.  Options include Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio, Grenache Blanc, Muscadet, Verdiccio or Vernaccia.  For tomato-based dishes a Rosé is a good option.

Pesto or Herb Pasta

Although pine nut and basil pesto is probably the most common of the herb pasta sauces, other options include basil and walnut, parsley and pistachio and peanut and cilantro.  A white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc or Austrian Grüner Veltliner would be a good choice.

Primavera Pasta

Primavera sauce may consist of a variety of vegetables such as onions, garlic ramps or artichokes.  For non-tomato based primavera sauces, a flavourful white wine is well suited.  Options include Sauvignon Blanc, Vermentino and Trebbiano di Luana.  For tomato-based primavera, follow the suggestions for tomato-based pasta above.

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Wine with Comfort Food

With the warmer weather becoming a distant memory and the dark cold days of winter coming, thoughts turn to hunkering down in front of the fire and indulging in comfort foods. When pairing your wine to your meal there are 5 factors about the wine to consider: tannins, the body or ‘weight’, acidity, intensity and sweetness.

Tannins

Tannins are the components in red wine that make your mouth feel dry and give a wine its texture.  When served with food tannins will soften proteins and provide a good balance to fatty foods.  Therefore such wines go well with rich meats and cheeses.

Body

Body is the perception of weight in a wine.  A light body wine will feel lighter in your mouth than a wine that is full-bodied. When pairing with foods, it is best to pair full-bodied wine with heavier foods.

Acidity

Acidity in wine generally ranges from being soft and light, like a pear, to crisp and bright like a lemon.  Acidity will cut through rich and fatty foods.  Wines with crisp acidity pair well with rich meats and cheeses, creamy sauces and oily foods.

Intensity

Intensity is the speed in which the wine’s aromas and flavours react to your sense of smell and taste.  Wines with more intense flavour and aroma (bouquet) will be best with subtly flavoured foods like creamy pasta, risotto or mild cheeses.

Sweetness

Sweetness relates to the taste of the wine rather than the actual amount of sugar content.  When pairing a wine with food the wine should taste as sweet as, or sweeter than the food.  Sweet wines also pair well with spicy foods.

Based on this information it can be a simple process to pair wine with your favourite comfort foods.  For example here are some suggested wines to pair with my own comfort foods:

  • Homemade Mac & Cheese
    Light unoaked Chardonnay goes well but if you like to add lobster or crab then a white Burgundy or Chenin Blanc may be more to your liking
  • Spaghetti and meatballs
    A red wine such as Sangiovese, Chianti, Barbera, a fruity acidic Merlot or a Zinfandel
  • Homemade Pizza
    Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, or Merlot
  • Grilled Cheese
    Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio), Gewürztraminer or Riesling
  • Meat Lasagna
    Primitivo, Sangiovese, Barbera or Valpolicella
  • Chicken Noodle soup
    Pinot Blanc, unoaked Chardonnay or light-bodied, low-tannin reds such as Beaujolais, Gamay, Baco Noir or Pinot Noir
  • Beef stew
    Red Bordeaux, Malbec, Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Chicken and dumplings
    Oaked Chardonnay
  • Chili
    Malbec or Zinfandel
  • Shepherd’s pie
    Syrah (Shiraz) or Zinfandel
  • Chicken pot pie
    Chardonnay or Merlot

Comfort food and a nice glass of wine; what better way to brace yourself for the cold weather ahead!

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