Describing wine is not the easiest thing to do. When you are starting out, when asked to describe what you smell, you might say that you “just smell wine.”
But as you taste more, study more and hone your palate, you may start to describe sauvignon blanc as “citrusy with notes of lemon, lime and green grass” or pinot noir as “earthy with aromas of dried cherry and mushroom.”
How do we learn to describe wines like this? And once we can describe wines, how do we begin to understand how to pair wine with food? At the Paradise Ridge tasting room in Kenwood, sensory experiences with herbs or chocolates highlight the chemistry and fundamentals behind food and wine pairing.
Tasting Room Manager Annette McDonnell joined the Paradise Ridge family in 2008. McDonnell was raised in Sonoma and has worked in the culinary world at Park Avenue Catering under Sonoma County Chef Bruce Riezenman and in catering with Café Lolo. At Paradise Ridge, she has been able to combine her passion for food, wine and hospitality to create a unique way to educate people about wine and food pairing.
McDonnell, in partnership with Swede’s Feeds Nursery, planted an herb garden behind the Paradise Ridge Tasting Room.
The garden focuses on four flavors — bright, bitter, sweet and savory — that represent the four food groups. Using both everyday cooking herbs, as well as unique herbs, McDonnell utilizes the garden to expose flavors found in wine.
For bitter, she planted arugula, parsley, chives and kale; for bright, lemon verbena, cilantro and lemongrass are planted; for savory, there is thyme, sage and purple basil; for sweet, oregano, tarragon, basil and rosemary are the herbs.
Wine can also be broken down into these four groups and described accordingly:
— Bitter: high acid, no sugar
— Bright: high acid, low sugar
— Savory: moderate acid, moderate sugar
— Sweet: low acid, high sugar
McDonnell then takes guests through the tasting. By combining different herbs, different flavors are highlighted. For example, the Paradise Ridge 2013 Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine is high in acid with citrus flavors hitting the front of the palate. I took some parsley and smelled it and then retasted the wine. Stone fruit characteristics were more pronounced in the wine and the mouthfeel was more mid-palate. This was an example of pairing the “bright” wine with a “bitter” herb.
When I tried the same thing with the lemon verbena, a “bright” herb, the wine was not enhanced. And when I tried oregano, a “sweet” herb, the acid from the sparkling wine was all I could taste. It was fascinating to see how chemistry plays a role in wine and food pairing. Matching chemistry, such as a “bright” herb with a “bright” wine did not enhance the wine. But when paired with a competing chemistry, such as “bitter” herb with “bright” wine, the wine shined.
In addition to the herb garden, McDonnell and local, handcrafted Wine Country Chocolates created herb- and fruit-infused chocolates. A 61 percent dark chocolate infused with lemon is paired with the sauvignon blanc. The chocolate is savory with moderate acid and the lemon peel is bitter, which helps balance the acidity of the wine. When paired with the sauvignon blanc, the wine is creamier with more texture and depth. The barrel select chardonnay is paired with a dark chocolate infused with tarragon to bring out the fruit and texture of the wine. The Rockpile zinfandel is paired with dark chocolate infused with kale and tart cranberry.
The wine has notes of blackberry, dark cherry and cranberry with medium acidity and soft tannins. When paired with the chocolate, the kale tempers the tannin in the wine while the cranberry brings out fruit. The Rockpile cabernet sauvignon is paired with a dark chocolate infused with kale and tart cherry and the late harvest sauvignon blanc is paired with dark chocolate infused with sage and orange.
Every winery wants the guests’ experience to be memorable. Some offer barrel tastings, others offer library tastings. Some do food and wine pairings and others take you into the vineyard. At Paradise Ridge, they are making food and wine pairing relatable. In an approachable, casual and fun way, you will learn to pay attention to the chemistry of food and wine.
The Guided Herb Garden & Wine Sensory Experience is $20; the Self-Guided Infused Chocolate & Wine Sensory Experience, $25, and the Guided Infused Chocolate & Wine Sensory Experience is $40.
Paradise Ridge Winery is at 8860 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood. For details, visit www.prwinery.com