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What wine for Mardi Gras?

Mardi Gras is almost here, and the classic Cajun and Creole dishes will (or should) be on everyone’s menus. Cajun and Creole cooking is rich and complex with influences from Italy, Spain, France, The Caribbean and Africa just to name the mainstays. Toasty spices, earthy herbs, deep stocks, dark roux, caramelized vegetables all are hallmarks of this definitely American melting pot cuisine. As a chef, I love cooking this food but when indulging in good Creole cuisine the question I hear most is “What do I drink with it?”

For some of you it may be a time for classic cocktails like Sazeracs and Milk Punches or it may even be time for silly Hurricanes, or even a classic Abita beer, but many of us still love wine with our food. What wine choices will make both the wine AND the Creole food shine best? Over 25 plus years developing over 100 wine and food pairing menus, at least half were created with Michael Weiss, senior professor of Wine at the Culinary Institute of America. Our R&D has been exhaustive (and exhausting!) tasting hundreds of wines side by side with a world of flavors and spices. I have learned the MOST IMPORTANT LESSON: not only can wine be overpowered by food, but food can be overpowered, and altered by the wine.

Among the most prevalent New Orleans classics you will encounter around Mardi Gras are baked oysters with toppings that may include bacon, mushrooms, spinach, crab, Pernod/Herbsaint, fresh and dry chiles, garlic and hollandaise. You are also sure to devour some Pan BBQ Shrimp laced black pepper and butter, rich pork sausage studded Jambalaya and of course no Mardi Gras feast is complete without some rendition of gumbo. Gumbo is dark, moderately spiced, earthy and rich. It offers the nuttiness of a brown or “Mahogany” roux, layers of herbs and spices, rich cooked down shellfish or poultry stock, and a depth of flavor created by slowly cooking the “trinity” of peppers, onions and celery. More often than not gumbo also contains the very green tasting okra. 

When eating or serving Gumbo, I’ll bet your first instinct is to break out the big Cab or Zin. Well, that could easily be a case of two thunderbuck rams butting heads. If your wine is as big as the gumbo is big, you may encounter a situation where your wine either overpowers the dish, or gets lost in the spices of the gumbo. Remember that tannins make hot spices hotter! They dry your tongue and actually amplify the heat of a spice. When a chef works to create a beautiful harmony of spices in a dish, a big structured red will throw that balance out of whack, amplifying heat over spice (which are very different things.) Such a waste of good cooking AND good wine is hard to bear.

When pairing wine with Cajun and Creole food I look to create complimentary flavors and extensions of the palate. Over the years I have found one wine that has worked wonders making the food taste better without compromising its own beauty. And that wine is...are you ready?... Chardonnay!

Yes, a solid medium bodied chardonnay with some tropical aromas, medium acidity and moderate amount of oak does great things to dishes like BBQ shrimp, oysters Rockafeller and yes, even dark gumbo. The power of the grape is not to be underestimated when it comes to being the ultimate pairing for kick ass cuisine. Let’s do a quick rundown of Chardonnay’s attributes and why they work best.

Tropical and citrus fruit: Always a plus when eating shellfish and spices with a natural affinity for shrimp and chicken. The tropical flavors also survive the assault of pepper and butter. The fruit will rebound on your palate after each savory bite of food.

Salinity, Herbaceousness, Nuttiness: These nuances found in a well made Sonoma chard are perfect with the subtle bitterness of bell pepper, okra and other green vegetables found in gumbos and stuffings, which can antagonize a rich red.

Tree Fruit, Apple, Pear: The soft essence of sweetness in these notes meld perfectly with musky herbs like thyme, sassafras and oregano found in Creole cooking, each making the other more delicious.

Oak, Butter, Vanilla, Pastry flavors give the chardonnay a strong enough backbone to emulsify the dark roux and down rich stocks flavors on the palate.

Malolactic Fermentation: This process actually adds a creaminess to the wine, which coats the tongue, unlike tannins which strip the tongue. They cool the spices on your palate and prepare you for the next bite.

Overall your best bet is to find a balanced chardonnay, not an oak bomb and not pineapple juice. I recommend cooler climate chard and foggy Sonoma chard, like Iron Horse Estate, a lightly oaked Chablis or even a top notch Finger Lakes Chardonnay such as Hermann Wiemer or Silver Lakes.

If you are one of those who must drink red, I recommend a soft fruity red, medium acidity, served cool. Too much acid will rip through the seafood and not enough will be crushed by the spices, and it is worth repeating, tannins make hot food hotter.  Go for a cold-weather red like a Finger Lakes or Oregon Pinot Noir, or a quality Gamay from Morgon or a young Spanish Grenache. I happen to LOVE Morgon with Cajun food.

When pairing with a zesty, spicy cuisine like Creole, serve your red wine at true cellar temperature, which is 56-64 degrees fahrenheit. Your own mouth and the spices in the dishes will wake the cool wine up on your palate, Trust me. If the wine is too warm, it will make the spices taste hotter and unbalanced in your mouth. Drop an ice cube in it. Go ahead, be daring, you are an iconoclast! There is no true rule on what temperature to serve table wine.

After all, it’s your table.

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