Want Your Wine To Taste Better? Add Salt, Pepper and Fat
It was an epiphany, though not the first of its kind, when I happened to taste a grain or two of coarse salt on some softshell crabs before I had a sip of Vermentino, which, tasted on its own, would have been a pleasant example of its kind. But those two grains of coarse salt sparked my palate and increased the flow of juices so that when the wine washed in over my tongue, it seemed to burst with flavor, definitely enhancing the wine and, of course, the meaty softshell crabs.
There’s an old saying that salt makes its presence felt only in its absence, which is not to say, the more salt the better. Of recent discovery is how a pinch of salt in caramel or chocolate boosts flavor immensely, so that it’s almost become ubiquitous in such confections.
The same thing happened years ago when I served my younger son a thick ribeye that I’d seasoned with coarse salt then charred on a charcoal grill to a beautiful crust while retaining its medium-rare redness within. He took a sip of a big California Cabernet, put down his fork and exclaimed, “Dad, this steak is fantastic! What did you do to it?” It was a very good piece of beef, to be sure, but the addition of that coarse salt before cooking and a dash afterwards had a vivid effect on its bloody minerality and sweet fat that really was worthy of my son’s exclamation.
Black pepper, though a more pungent palate piercer, has much the same effect, though more so with red wines, which is why the French classic steak au poivre, with a lot of coarsely ground pepper in a cream sauce, is such a powerful carrier of flavor with a sturdy red wine like Cahors. The same goes for the Roman pasta dish cacio e pepe, in which the pasta is coated (not really sauced) with coarsely ground pecorino cheese and black pepper, which gives a tremendous boost to both a modest red Italian wine like Valpolicella or Bardolino, as well as enriching the complexity of a Southern Italian red like Taurasi or Nero d’Avola. The salt and fat of the cheese and the punch of the black pepper marry in an elemental way.
Which brings me to the subject of fat and wine drinking. Some years ago I was giving a tasting of expensive Tuscan red wines like Ornellaia and Sassicaia, at a wine exposition in Florida to be held at one o’clock. I had driven three hours from another city, without benefit of breakfast, and was ravenous when I got to my hotel, just minutes from the expo. I immediately ordered a rare hamburger and French fries, and when they arrived, I wolfed them down and dashed to the tent where I was leading the tasting.
The flavors of my quick lunch were still on my palate, not least the fat of the beef and the oil of the fries, in addition to the salt and pepper I added. And when I began tasting those wines, all of which I knew well from drinking them over many years, the flavors exploded in my mouth—a reaction I told my audience about. It was as if I’d never really tasted these wines before! The simple gustatory fact is, fat carries flavors, especially those of wine grapes.
As everyone knows, the sense of smell is the one that allows one to appreciate myriad sweet, salty, sour and bitter flavors, and fat and pepper have their own olfactory stimulants. So the combinations build upon one another.
And what about red peppers in various forms, whole, dried or powdered? I certainly consume them all the time with all sorts of cuisines—Mexican and Asian, certainly—but I always prefer beer. Reams have been written about pairing wines with Indian vindaloo or Sichuan beef or Yucatan chile, but the very characteristic that makes such pepper condiments so attractive—their heat—in such dishes, along with distinct added spices and seasonings as varied as cumin, coriander, ginger, soy sauce, fish sauce and hoisin are too strong to marry well with any white wine, however refreshing, while most red wines’ flavors are blasted into the background under the assault of a habanero pepper. Tabasco is not kind to wine. (Incidentally, I swabbed a little very hot harissa condiment on those softshells, which not only ruined the wine but detracted from any delicacy the crustaceans had.)
The reason I wish to emphasize these elements of mutual enhancement is because far too many wine tastings take place in offices, winery labs or homes without any accompanying food besides a cracker. (If you’re going to serve a cracker make it a Saltine.)
Such exercises insist on tasting the wines purely on their own to detect their virtues and defects, which is fair enough. But without fat, salt and pepper, they are nothing more than exercises, like testing out a new car by running it in a garage rather than out on the road, where one can appreciate its ability to give pleasure and manifest where there might be problems.
Were I to hold a wine tasting, at the very least there would be some mild cheeses on the table, along with salt and pepper grinders of small, individual dishes containing coarse salt and ground pepper that my guests can put their fingers in, then on their tongues. It makes a world of difference, not least because drinking wine without food is like learning the tango and never going out to dance with someone.
Why not join us at our next tasting? Let’s talk wine and taste some of Napa’s best! Most Saturdays from 1-5 pm in our tasting room at 2337 Ocean Avenue in San Francisco. See the full tasting schedule at GoldenGateWineCellars.com