The ABCs of Pairing Aromatic Whites

These spicy, floral and distinctive white wines are made for summer. But their extroverted personalities require extra care at the table.


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Aromatic whites are known not only for their vibrant fruit flavors—like citrus, apple, pear, apricot and mango—but also for their strong aromas of flowers and spice. Their vibrant scents and flavors are often best showcased by vinification and aging in stainless steel or other neutral vessels.

Some of these grape varieties originated in one part of the world, like Riesling (Germany) or Pinot Gris (France), and are now widely grown throughout both hemispheres. Others remain fairly entrenched in one place, like Torrontés (Argentina) or Fiano (Italy).

Growing conditions vary widely for these grapes. Some thrive in cool climates, while others are nurtured by the warmth of the Mediterranean basin. Some grow in decomposed slate, others in volcanic soils. Regardless of their differences, these varieties share one thing in common, an impressive growth in popularity.

The rise of aromatic whites can be tied to two trends: the increasing popularity of international dishes that combine hot spice and sweet notes, and consumer curiosity about a growing list of wine regions and varieties.

The same qualities that make aromatic whites so desirable to drink, including pronounced floral and spice notes, can make it challenging to pair them with food, especially if one flavor dominates, such as rose petal or Chinese five-spice powder. Balance is the key; whether in dry, off-dry or sweet versions, fruit, flowers and spice must be balanced by acidity and minerality.

“Intense aromatics and flavors can overpower more delicate dishes or clash with a dish’s flavors,” says Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan, a Master of Wine and co-author of Pairing with the Masters (Delmar Cengage Learning, 2012), slated to be released in August. “However, as with most things in life, when there is more risk, that risk can be rewarded. When highly aromatic and flavorful wines are paired with cuisines of equal intensity, they make for quite bold pairings.”

Whatever your choice of food—Asian, Indian, cheese, charcuterie or barbecue—there’s an aromatic white that will make a perfect match.

Chatham Codfish, Fricassee of Purple Potatoes, Shiitake Mushrooms and Toasted ­Fava Beans in a Ginger ­­Aromatic Sauce

Recipe courtesy David Bouley, chef and owner of Bouley Restaurant, New York City

Salt, to taste
12 purple fingerling potatoes
2 tablespoons butter, plus
1 pound butter, softened and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 cup shiitake mushrooms, sliced
Pepper, to taste
1 cup fresh fava beans
2 tablespoons safflower oil
2 teaspoons ketchup
1½ ounces balsamic vinegar
2 ounces soy sauce
3 ounces ginger juice
Juice from ½ of a fresh lime
4 codfish fillets, 6 ounces each
½ cup Wondra flour

In a large pot set over high heat, bring 3 cups salted water to a boil. Add the potatoes and cook until tender. Drain the potatoes using a colander, and when cool, peel and cut into ½-inch-thick slices. Set aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a medium sauté pan and cook the mushrooms until tender. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and set aside.

Toast the fava beans in a medium-hot pan with the oil, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Let the favas brown slightly, then set aside.

In a medium saucepan, heat the ketchup, vinegar, soy sauce and ginger juice. Bring to a simmer and whisk in the remaining  butter bit by bit, or use a handheld blender. Finish with lime juice and set aside. Keep warm.

Heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Season the fish with salt and pepper and dredge lightly in Wondra. Cook the fish skin side down and turn over after a crust forms, about 3–4 minutes. Once turned, allow the fish to cook for another 3 minutes.

Rewarm the vegetables, combine them together and arrange them in the center of a dinner plate. Place the cooked fish on top. Whisk or blend the sauce with a handheld blender until frothy. Spoon the sauce over the fish and serve immediately. Serves 4.

Wine Pairing: Adrien Falcon, Bouley’s wine director, recommends pairing this dish with François Villard’s 2010 Les Terrasses du Palat Condrieu. “The discreet, elegant bouquet has a wonderful expression of spice and floral notes,” he says. “The salinity of the wine pairs well with the codfish, and the acidity of Viognier is a wonderful match for the fava beans.”

Smoked Duck Breast in a Delicate Ginger Leek Bouillon

Recipe courtesy Thomas Lents, executive chef of Sixteen, Chicago

4 cups chicken stock
4 tablespoons fresh ginger, sliced thin, plus 2 tablespoons ginger, cut into small julienne
1 tablespoon lemongrass, sliced thin
4 ounces white mushrooms, sliced
2 unpeeled cloves garlic, crushed
10 black peppercorns    
8 coriander seeds
Salt, to taste
1 smoked duck breast
1 leek, white stalk only, diced small
20 beech mushrooms
2 carrots, peeled and diced small
2 tablespoons chives, finely chopped
1 tablespoon chervil, finely chopped
1 tablespoon parsley, finely chopped
1 tablespoon tarragon, finely chopped

Prepare the bouillon by combining the stock, thinly sliced ginger, lemongrass, mushrooms, garlic, peppercorns, coriander and salt in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and continue to cook for 30 minutes. 

Add the duck to the bouillon pot, cover it and remove it from the heat. Allow the duck to steep for 30 minutes, then remove it from the bouillon and cut the meat into thin slices.
Bring the bouillon back to a simmer, and add the leek, mushrooms and carrots. Cook for 5 ­minutes.

Place a few slices of duck breast in the center of each of four large, flat soup bowls. Divide the vegetables and broth evenly among the bowls and season with the julienned ginger, chives, chervil, parsley and tarragon. Serves 4.

Wine Pairing: Rachel Lowe, former beverage director at Sixteen, pairs this dish with Marcel Deiss's 2002 Engelgarten. "Composed mostly of Riesling and Pinot Gris, this ripe wine fills your nose with notes of apricot, honey, peach skin and beautiful minerality," says Lowe. "The subtle ginger flavors of the wine work well with the delicate broth, while the texture and acidity complement the duck." The current-release 2008 should work nearly as well.

House Honey-Roasted Pumpkin Bruschetta with Fennel ­Salad and Walnut Crostini

Recipe courtesy jW Foster, executive chef of The Fairmont San Francisco

12 tablespoons ricotta cheese
12 slices of walnut bread
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Sea salt, to taste
1 pound fresh pumpkin, peeled and diced small
2 ounces honey
¼ teaspoon freshly grated cinnamon
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 small heads of fennel, thinly sliced
½ small red onion, finely sliced
Juice of 1 lemon

In a large mixing bowl, whip the ricotta until smooth. Refrigerate until ready to assemble. 

Preheat an oven to 375˚F. Lay the slices of bread on a sheet pan, drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Place in the oven until toasted and crisp, then remove and allow to cool.
Lower oven to 350˚F. In a mixing bowl, combine the diced pumpkin, honey, 1 tablespoon olive oil, cinnamon and salt and pepper to taste. Toss well and place on a baking tray. Bake in oven until the pumpkin is tender, approximately 20 minutes. Remove and cool to room temperature.  

Meanwhile, place fennel and red onion in a chilled bowl, drizzle with 3 tablespoons olive oil, lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Toss and set aside.

To serve, spread 1 tablespoon of ricotta cheese on each of the crostini and top with 1 tablespoon of the pumpkin mixture. Place two pumpkin bruschetta on each of six plates and equally divide the fennel salad among them. Serve at room temperature. Serves 6.

Wine Pairing: Executive Chef jW Foster pairs his bruschetta with Inniskillin's Riesling Icewine. "The perfectly balanced sugar and acidity of the wine work great with the creaminess of the cheese and the sweetness of the roasted pumpkin honey."

Common Aromatic Varieties and What to Pair Them With

Flavor Profile: Tropical fruit flavors of pineapple, mango and guava, spiked with bracing minerality    

Food Pairing: Fresh-shucked oysters or clams

Grüner Veltliner

Flavor Profile: Spicy and peppery, with some celery leaf and stone fruit notes.

Food Pairing: Roast pork

Riesling (off-dry)    

Flavor Profile: Lime, lemon and peach, supported by floral and spice notes    

Food Pairing: Caribbean food

Assyrtiko    

Flavor Profile: Notes of citrus punc­tuated by minerality and salinity    

Food Pairing: Grilled fish or tomato dishes

Malvasia Istriana    

Flavor Profile: Apricot, peach and white flower, turning nutty with age    

Food Pairing: Simple fish dishes (young wines) or pasta with truffles (mature wines)

Riesling (sweet)    

Flavor Profile: Lemon custard, apple, light spice and honey, balanced by high acidity    

Food Pairing: Dishes with blue cheese or foie gras

Fiano    

Flavor Profile: Citrus fruits, toasted nuts and mineral flourishes    

Food Pairing: Pork sausage, aged-hard cheeses

Muscat (dry)    

Flavor Profile: Tropical fruit, orange and honeysuckle    

Food Pairing: Lightly battered fried fish

Torrontés    

Flavor Profile: Rose petal, white flower, peach and light spice    

Food Pairing: Charcuterie, cheese

Gewürztraminer    

Flavor Profile: Lychee and rose petal, with a lush mouthfeel    

Food Pairing: Spicy and slightly sweet Thai dishes

Pinot Gris/Grigio (light, dry)

Flavor Profile: Pear, lemon and apple, with light floral notes and crisp minerality    

Food Pairing: Sushi or sashimi

Viognier

Flavor Profile: Perfumed white peach, apricot, honey and soft spice    

Food Pairing: Seafood or pan-Asian cuisine

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