Pairing Wine With Spices: The ‘It’ Flavors Of 2012

Once a year, the multibillion dollar spice spigot called McCormick & Co. releases a sprinkle of predictions about what flavors will be in vogue during upcoming months—a compilation collected by their posse of parlously picky palate probers including staff chefs, sensory scientists, marketing experts and food technologists.

They obviously take themselves very seriously, and so do their fans.  According to Kevan Vetter, McCormick’s Executive Chef, “We’ve already had over a dozen requests for the list since last October, which speaks to the credibility we’ve established with our customers.”

Chef Kevan Vetter

It may speak less glowingly of their customers’ credibility since the list doesn’t come out until January, but it’s interesting to note that many of the unusual  ‘flavor pairings’ that McCormick’s predicted for 2011 did indeed wind up on top-flight restaurant menus.  Whether this indicates a Nostradamus-like skill set among company soothsaying savor surmisers or simply that a lot of chefs read the list first and design their menus second is hard to gauge.

Jan was the cute one anyway

But I suspect the latter.  Question: How farfetched is the idea that two chefs independently decided to match fennel with perri perri sauce, mustard seed with vermouth, caramelized honey with adzuki beans and ancho chili with hibiscus?

Answer: About as farfetched as my own 1974 McCormick prediction that Marcia Brady would be doing nude scenes by the end of the decade.

Actually, it took until 1981.

Anyway, this year’s pairing prophecies are equally bizarre, and contain  like-levels of gustatory guesswork.  Eggplant with harissa??!  Personally, I can’t stand the former and have never heard of the latter, but it doesn’t matter because the opinions of my puerile palate were not solicited.

Rather, Marianne Gillette, Vice President of Applied Research at McCormick, maintains: “We have a special creative process which allows us to pull together consumer insights with our own extensive knowledge of flavor that spans all the way from an individual aroma molecule to understanding how a full menu works, to map out a consensus opinion on what people will be eating in the future.”


Now, This Is Food For Thought: What About Drinking?    

Most reputedly ‘serious’ overviews of food and wine pairings wind up being borderline useless unless they take into consideration the very flavor elements upon which McCormick stakes its multinational claim: Spices.  Alone, most elements of a meal are fairly neutral, and without a prior understanding of how each plate is seasoned, it’s hard to play nuance against nuance when looking for an appropriate wine.  The overall ‘weight’ of the dish, along with acidity, richness and fat is important, but everything else being equal, a recipe that is heavily seasoned with, say, paprika or sage or khmeli suneli… or harissa… will suggest a specific eno complement.  It’s too mail-it-in to recommend off-dry gewurtztraminer or riesling with spicy fare; a bit of experimentation will bring to the surface alternatives like Albariño from Rías Baixas or Vouvray; functional reds include Dolcetto and Barbera.

But what about the real left-field trends track in McCormick’s esoteric list?  What are we to do with the dills and the coconuts and the honeys and the sofritos?  These are tough calls for the most trench-tested sommelier, and not every recommendation will suite every palate.  But that’s the fun of mix ‘n’ match ‘n’ trial ‘n’ error: One man’s meat is another man’s poisson.  Smart people who do not use ‘n’ in sentences call this ‘The Empirical Method’.

Here’s a personal shot at some potential drinking buddies for the top eight of McCormick’s 2012 Flavor Forecast:


1)  Blueberry with Cardamom

Dish:  Spiced Duck Arepas with Blueberry Sauce

Serve with: A rich, fruit-forward red with rounded tannins and a nice acidic backbeat; look for something fragrant and silky with  notes of berries and spice.

Specifically: Viader Cabernet Franc, ‘Dare’, Napa, 2005, about $25:  Sourced from small selected blocks from vineyards in the Oakville and Howell Mountain, the wine’s foreground shows a moderate intensity of blueberry and plum with secondary notes of cocoa, tobacco and cardamom.


2)  Cumin with Sofrito

Dish: Sofrito Stuffed Skirt Steak

Serve with:  A tart, juicy red wine with bright fruit wrapped around a sparkly soul; look for a wine big enough to stand up to chile and tomatoes, but subtle enough to mirror the dish’s myriad spices.

Specifically: Harvest Moon Sparkling Zinfandel, Russian River, 2009, about $38:  A serious wine in a category that many folks snicker at; this vintage Method Champagne saw six months in neutral barrels and 11 on triage; it displays dried cranberry, white pepper, yeasty bread dough and crisp, refreshing effervescence.


3)  Dill with Mint and Melon

Dish: Chicken Gyro with Melon-Mint Tzatziki

Serve With:  A savory and crisp white, medium-bodied with steely acidity and upfront herbal notes backed by ripe vine fruits.

Specifically: Matua Valley Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, 2007, about $13:  This classic Marlborough sauvignon blanc shows pristine varietal character—grass and citrus on the nose, a brisk mid-palate loaded with melon, grapefruit, lime zest and mint, and ultimately, a long, juicy finish.


4)  Grapefruit with Red Pepper

Dish: Grilled Oysters with Grapefruit and Red Pepper Relish

Serve With: A snappy young red without intrusive tannins; look for something from a cooler climate with tart red fruit, bright acid and minerals profiled throughout.

Specifically: Domaine Vacheron Sancerre Rouge, 2008, about $40:  A somewhat rare bird—red Sancerre—offers a unique interpretation of pinot noir—sharper and steelier than Burgundy, it provides a purity of fruit, not a lot of earth, but flint and slate drawn from the soils of the Loire Valley.  Elegant and almost ethereal, it provides a foil to the creaminess of oysters and a mirror to the red peppers both in color and ripeness.


5)  Vanilla with Butter

Dish: Vanilla Butter Poached Scallops with Sweet Potato Puree.

Serve with: Oaky chardonnay—this one is such a no-brainer that I’ll do a little border hopping and suggest a wine which does not receive as much credit is it as due considering that it always manages to compete in reliability, consistency and affordability.

Specifically: Barnard Griffin Chardonnay, Columbia Valley, 2009, about $13:  An alluring nose of tangerine and ripe apple translates into a pretty, well-integrated blend of lime, dried herbs and creamy pineapple.  Finishes crisp, but with a tinge of sweet vanilla.


6)  Ginger with Coconut

Dish: Braised Cod with Gingered Carrot-Coconut Sauce

Serve with:  A sharp, exotic white with fruit and spice layers and an edge of crispness sufficient to slice through the fatty coconut milk.

Specifically: Yves Cuilleron Condrieu, La Petite Côte, 2008, about $60:  Rich (and priced for the rich), this volatile viognier is mellowing with age to become a peach and honeysuckle-scented sensation.  Rounded and Rhône-ish with a supple grip of citrus and white flowers, the wine—unlike many viogniers—sees some oak.  It is half-fermented in older barrels and shows it off with subtle coconut flavors.


7)  Eggplant with Honey & Harissa

Dish: Roasted Eggplant Harissa Bisque with Parmesan Tuiles

Serve With:  An aromatic, off-dry white with a concentrated core of flowers, dried fruit and stone.

Specifically:  Blandys Verdelho Madeira 5 Year Old, about $22:  Honeyed and nutty, this medium-sweet Madeira is saturated with fig and plum pudding, but retains a bite of orange marmalade.  Should offset the pepper punch of the soup while adding a creamy counterpoint to the cream in the bisque.


Way, way, way too many lemons, right?

8)  Meyer Lemon with Lemon Thyme, Limoncello & Lemon Peel

Dish: Meyer Lemon, Lemon Thyme, Limoncello and Lemon Peel Sorbet

Serve with: Who cares?  …There’s so much lemon in this dish that any such complimentary flavors in a wine will likely kill you—and I have no intention of becoming McCormick’s Grim Reaper.

Specifically: Lemon Creek Snow Moon Ice Wine, Lake Michigan Shore, 2008, about $35:  Luscious aromas of caramelized orange peel, apricot and honey melt into a full, sweet and unctuous mid-palate with quince, brown sugar and citrus oil on the finish.

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