We recently had the pleasure of joining Mario Batali at Chateau Chantal in Traverse City, where the chef shared some of his favorite Michigan-inspired recipes. Mark Johnson, winemaker at Chateau Chantal, was onsite to share his recommendations on wines to pair with these dishes. Today, Mark shares his thoughts on the best wines to pair with food – whether it’s Mario’s dishes you’re enjoying or one of your own.
We all in Michigan should consider ourselves among the luckiest people in the world. I don’t think that there is anywhere on the planet where you can find a large number of great, food friendly wines!
What makes wines food friendly is their ability to bring out the best flavors is the foods without overpowering them. Big, blockbuster, high alcohol, high tannin, knock your socks off wines get the high scores from wine writers but usually don’t work well with food as they over power the food. Ask any good chef and you will hear that the most food friendly wines are the lighter ones with good, bright acidity that gets the taste buds active. These are exactly the style of wines that we grow in Michigan. I say “grow” because this isn’t something that the winemakers do, but rather characteristics that come naturally from the varieties of grapes we grow and the climate in which we grow them.
Five wines which I consider to be most food friendly are:
- Sparkling. I don’t write “Champagne” as that is a region in France but we make fantastic “champagne style” wine in Michigan. As is often quoted, “Champagne is not just for breakfast anymore”. Too often, sparkling wines are only used for festive events but they make fabulous pairings with many lighter foods. Our Tonight sparkler at Chateau Chantal is a blend of Chardonnay and Riesling with just a splash of Gewuerztraminer thrown in to lift the flavors. It’s the acid from the cool climate grown grapes along with the carbonation in the bubbly that makes it such a natural with food. Try Tonight with anything from fruit to fish to poultry or all by itself.
- Semi-dry Riesling. Michigan’s signature grape variety is a no brainer with many foods. Again it’s the acid that makes it work. Because Riesling has naturally high acidity, the wine maker has the option of leaving a little (or even a lot) of residual sugar in the wine. The acid allows the wine to stand up to the protein in the food and not appear flat. A slight amount residual sugar takes the edge off of the acid and can marry well with many foods which contain small amounts of sweetness. The wines slight sweetness also pairs very well with smoked foods such as smoked white fish or smoked pork tenderloin.
- Pinot Grigio. Most Michigan wineries are making wonderful Pinot Grigios. Made in the classic Italian style with low alcohol and stainless steel fermentation, these wines are very fruit forward, light and fresh. They are beautiful with fruit, cheese or any white meat or fish.
- Pinot Noir. If Riesling is Michigan’s signature white grape, Pinot Noir is our red. This is the classical, cool climate, red. It’s said that a good Cabernet Sauvignon with “knock your socks off” while a great Pinot Noir will “ease your foot into a silk slipper”. If the steak is burned or tough, serve the big Cab and no one will notice. If you have a really fine cut of meat, prepared just right, compliment it with a warm, soft, rich medium bodied Pinot Noir from a cool climate growing region. For a more full-bodied wine, we make a single vineyard, reserve Pinot Noir which is even more of a good thing!
- Late Harvest Riesling. The greatest dessert wine known to man. Again, the natural acidity of the Riesling grape allows it to handle some residual sweetness without being cloy. These rich, lush wines pair exceptionally well with fruit and cheese (especially blue cheese!) and fruit based desserts or crème’ brule’.