Food + Wine kicked off its first ever Chicago food + wine festival (@chicagofoodwine) last month, giving attendees a chance to taste food created by top chefs, watch culinary demos, and participate in some fine wine tasting events, too.
At the food + wine festival, I had the chance to meet Ryan Arnold (@wine_ryan), an expert sommelier and the Divisional Wine Director of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, so I asked him to share his best tips for selecting and pairing wine.
Once you know the language of wine, you can move on to the next step: pairing it with your favorite foods.
First, Ryan said, you need to know a few crucial vocabulary terms, so that you can properly describe the style of wine that most appeals to you:
Tannin: A substance that gives wine complexity and a dry taste. Tannin naturally exists in grape skins, seeds, and stems. Since red wine is fermented with the grape skin and pips, it is generally more tannic than white wine.
Dry: A descriptor for wines that dry out your mouth. Sometimes people use the term "earthy" to describe this taste. Dry wines can challenge dishes with oil and clash with the taste. But they go very well with fat and protein, making them popular choices at steakhouses.
Off-Dry: This term is used to describe wine that isn't dry and isn't sweet.
Fruit-Forward: These wines have lighter, brighter flavors, and are low in tannin. Fruity wines are sometimes described as being sweet.
Light-Bodied: These are generally crisp, refreshing white wines. Light-bodied wines have less than 12.5% alcohol.
Medium Bodied: Medium-bodied wines fall between light- and full-bodied wines, and pair very well with food. Zinfandel, Grenache, and Merlot are examples of medium-bodied wines.
Full-Bodied: More tannic, these wines are darker in color. Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Nebbiolo are considered full-bodied wines. Full-bodied wine has more than 13.5% alcohol.
Once you know the language of wine, you can move on to the next step: pairing it with your favorite foods. As we toured the festival, I asked Ryan to suggest wine pairings for a variety of cuisines featured there:
Mexican Food: Mole can be sweet and earthy, so go for a bigger red like an Australian Shiraz. But if you are ordering a light ceviche, try Chacoli, a slightly effervescent white wine from the Basque region of Spain.
Indian or Thai Food: These foods have a spicy heat component, so you want a wine with slight sugar and acidity to offset the heat. Try pairing a Cabinet Riesling from Germany or an Austrian Riesling from the Wachau Region. The acidity of these wines make you salivate, cleansing your palate, and neutralizing the heat.
Italian Food: Soave is a beautifully textured and under-appreciated white wine from the Veneto region of northeast Italy that pairs well with cheesy pasta dishes. It is rarely oaked, so it has the body and weight to hold up to ricotta and cheeses, and the mild acidity to pair with a carbonara.
Steak: Nebbiolo from Italy is one of the iconic pairings for steak since it is high in tannin and acidity. However, it has a lightness that doesn't overpower the richness of a great steak.
Finally, don't forget the toast. Cheers!
Ryan Arnold's go-to favorites:
Best wine for a BYOB
Bring a versatile red like a Pinot Noir, Gamay, or Beaujolais. They can even be paired with lighter dishes like salads that are traditionally paired with white wine.
Most bang for your buck
Explore Beaujolais. While most people know of Beaujolais Nouveau, the region has much more to offer. Cru Beaujolais is a $20 wine that tastes like a $40 California Pinot Noir, with flavors of plum, pomegranate, and cranberry.
Try Franciacorta, an Italian sparkling wine made in the champagne method. It's a step up from Prosecco and isn't as sweet—but at a lower price point than champagne. Also try Lambrusco Amabile, a sparkling tannic red wine that pairs wonderfully with cured meats.