For years I’ve included various, subtle licorice-flavored ingredients in my cooking, with the thought that, somehow, they brought out the best in whatever wines were being served with my food. So when Teresa called to ask if I’d help her put together a wine tasting that would pair various wines with her favorite licorice candy, I suggested we broaden the scope to include the whole family of licorice-flavored foods. She said, “sure” and a very interesting and fun tasting was the result.
Our plan was to prepare a number of dishes all flavored with an ingredient tasting of licorice, starting with the most delicate: chervil, and progressing through fennel, tarragon and fennel seeds to the most assertive: licorice candy. The wines were chosen for maximum variety: different grapes, old world and new world, from France, California and Texas. We even threw in a Sake to see what would happen.
The tasting started with Turbot Poached in Star Anise with a Tomato-Black Olive-Chervil Tapenade, paired with a 2006 René Muré Pinot Blanc from Alsace, France. Alone, the wine was pleasant, straightforward, well balanced and slightly fruity. Paired with the turbot and chervil, the consensus was that the wine became much more cohesive and even, with fewer flavors and sensations “sticking out.” The fruit flavors became more distinct and identifiable, with tasters picking out lemon mint and sassafras, as opposed to “fruit.” One taster commented that the food, “makes this wine totally delicious.”
The next pairing was Sautéed Shrimp with Roasted Fennel and Garlic with a 2009 Domaine Manciat-Poncet, Mâcon-Charnay Les Chênes from Burgundy, France. Alone, the wine came across as the crisp, no-oak Chardonnay that it is. With the shrimp and fennel, the biggest difference was in the wine’s finish. Suddenly the wine had a much longer, more complicated and evolving finish. One taster commented, “The high-acid bite is totally gone.”
We then moved on to Ham & Swiss with Tarragon Mustard paired with a 2006 Cambria Pinot Noir, Julia’s Vineyard from Santa Maria Valley, California. Alone, the wine was a very pleasant, clean interpretation of Pinot Noir, with loads of fresh raspberries. When paired with the ham and tarragon, comments included, “the food makes the wine’s fruit more three-dimensional and warm,” “the fruit’s more mature with the food; more jammy than jelly,” “the food makes the wine more complicated in a good way, with more interesting things popping up.”
Next up was Grilled Rib-Eye with Roasted Peppers, Onions and Fennel Seeds paired with a 2007 Becker Vineyards Raven, 80% Malbec – 20% Petit Verdot, from the Texas Hill Country. Alone, the wine reminded everyone of a young Bordeaux, being redolent of, “a brand-new saddle” and having generous tannins. With the beef and fennel seeds (which sort of came across as very high-end Italian sausage with peppers and onions), the wine’s youthful ragged edges were smoothed out, and the overall effect was a more rounded, integrated wine that was totally enjoyable and ready to drink with no further ageing.
Our final pairing was Black Licorice with a May 2010 Rihaku Nigori Sake, “Dreamy Clouds” from Japan. From many years of pairing licorice flavors with various wines, I was pretty sure the earlier pairings would work (you get out of drinking what you put into it.) I didn’t know what to expect by bringing sake (not a wine at all) into the equation, but thought it would be interesting. Alone, everyone commented on the fact that the sake had much more going on in the nose than on the palate, having a nice, sweet yeasty aroma. Paired with the licorice, the sake’s taste, formerly subdued, intensified to match its aroma. After tasting the licorice, the sake’s flavor started out sweet and focused, and then finished dry, with an appealing yeastiness throughout.
At the end of the tasting, one of the participants made the comment that we should all carry licorice with us as an antidote to any bad wine we’re served. Whether or not we take up that practice, it was interesting to see that even subtle flavorings we’re only barely aware of in food can have very noticeable effects on how we perceive what’s in our glasses