Make It Seasonal

Many chefs and cookbook authors are dedicated to the seasonality of cuisine.  They focus on foods that are in season and local, because these foods taste better than foods that are shipped from overseas. However, for many restaurant professionals, wine unfortunately falls into a “set it and forget it” pattern. Too often, novices and professionals alike believe that if a wine is good it can go with any food at any time. But, a static wine list does nothing for seasonal menus.

Wine lists should be just as seasonal and inspired as the seasonality of the cuisine it’s meant to complement. However, simply considering the ingredients on the plate is not enough. It is also important to bear in mind how the preparation of these ingredients influences the pairing. The seasonal cuisine movement in the U.S. first gained notoriety in California, a state also famous for its many wine regions. Naturally, the local, seasonal cuisine in California paired well with California wines. Now about 48 states have vineyards, wine regions and are producing very good wines. If your restaurant is committed to supporting local farms it should also consider supporting local wineries as well. That is not to say that the list should only represent local wines, but it should give a fair nod to them if they work with your menu.

As the weather cools, seasonal menus usually focus on richer flavors that fill and take away the chill. Most chefs braise or roast in the cooler seasons. In the warmer months, they tend to cook lighter and simpler by grilling or sautéing.  This seasonal shift in cooking styles should be reflected in the wines to pair with these dishes. Simply put, the warm months call for simple and fruity wines, while the cooler months require wines with more body and complexity.

In the summer, wine drinkers are drawn toward white wines, like Sauvignon Blancs, Albariños, Muscadets and even Chablis. The summer heat increases thirst for these lighter, tangier wines because their citrus flavors and pronounced acidity satisfy our thirst. These crisp wines fit perfectly with chilled, grilled or sautéed foods of spring and summer as their lighter, more simple fruit profiles stay out of the way of the simpler preparations of the food. When winter comes, a wine list should shift to bigger white wines such as White Burgundy, Alsatian wines, German Riesling and oaky U.S. Chardonnays. They complement the richness of the foods by bringing their own depth of flavors. A deep, complex wine helps to bring harmony to complex, long cooked dishes.

Once the first fall produce appears it is time to break out those big, rich, tannic red wines that have been sitting in storage all summer. Their heaviness makes them almost undrinkable in the hot weather, but their layers of flavors and spices work beautifully with more complex foods of fall and winter. However, that doesn’t mean you have to erase the Red side of your menu. There are several red varietals that can be paired with spring and summer fare, including light reds such as Cru Beaujolais, Côtes du Rhône and California Pinot Noirs, because their crisp acidity and light bodies help highlight the purity of ingredients. These reds should be served with a slight chill, which can be refreshing on a hot July evening during patio service.

Whether the wine is red or white, it should respect the seasonality of your menu. An incorrect pairing can easily ruin the taste of the wine. For instance, a light Pinot Noir should not be paired with an osso bucco because the richness of the dish blows it away. Instead, try pairing the dish with a deep, rich red wine such as an Italian Barolo, Australian Shiraz or a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. A savvy wine consumer looking for a beverage in the middle of summer will appreciate a well-balanced seasonal list that complements his or her farm-fresh entree thereby enhancing the overall dining experience that will remain long after the last bite of food is enjoyed.

About the Author

Tom Finigan is the principal of VineCrush Consulting, an education and consulting service on wine, beer and spirits in the National Capital Region. In addition to wine education and events, VineCrush works with restaurants on list creation and staff training. Visit and follow him on twitter @VineCrush.

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