Over the past couple of months we’ve expounded on the strange tradition of naming wine characteristics after body parts, an odd bit of anthropomorphism. It may have come about because making wine is a peculiar combination of agriculture, chemistry, and art; and also because the wine changes with time, not only as it ages in the bottle, but over the relatively short time it’s in your glass. At its best, wine seems almost alive, and while we can’t exactly say it has a face, it definitely has a personality, perhaps more than certain dinner companions
We’ve gone over the nose and the legs so far. This week we’ve got another body part for you, the spine or backbone. It seems odd that an otherwise amorphous liquid would be described as having a spine. It’s not a real backbone, but a quality of liveliness. Actually, it’s easier to describe when it’s not there – the wine tastes kind of dull and flat (again, think of those particular dinner companions). The difference between a flat wine and a livelier wine is acidity.
Wines don’t contain much acid, less than 1% by weight, and white wines contain more than reds (red wines also contain tannins, which contribute to “structure” in a somewhat similar way). But acids are very important to wine production, preventing the growth of unwanted microbes during fermentation, and helping to preserve wine in the bottle. Their major impact comes in flavor and perception of the wine seeming more alive and having more “backbone.” (While some wine guides say that the tannins in red wine provide backbone, acidity really is the backbone of reds and whites.) Without enough acidity, white wine has less flavor, and the sweetness, no matter how little, is exaggerated. They also won’t stand up to food as well, particularly rich food. Red wines that don’t contain enough acidity may taste more bitter because of the tannins. Too much acid, though, and you’ll feel it unpleasantly in your mouth. The trick for the winemaker comes in balancing acidity with sugar, tannins, and aroma and flavor compounds. (Speaking of anatomical designations, white wines with too little acidity are sometimes called “flaccid,” which is definitely a trait to avoid, since those little blue pills don’t work here).
The growing climate has a lot to do with the acidity of particular grapes – the warmer the growing season, the less acid and more sugar in the grape, since the acids actually vaporize from the grapes on the vine. White wines from Northern France, where it’s cooler, will have more backbone than Southern French whites. Chablis, which is made from Chardonnay grapes, is one of the most acidic wines around, but a white from Burgundy, which is mostly Chardonnay as well, will be rounder and smoother. White wines made in hotter climates will sometimes have a small bit of acid added during fermentation to enhance the flavor and vivacity (although they won’t necessarily tell you that on the label).
You can be the chiropractor and adjust the backbone of your wine by controlling the serving temperature. (Sadly, this probably doesn’t work on your guests). Chilling wine to around 45 degrees F enhances the wine spine and decreases the sensation of sweetness. So a properly-chilled white wine or rosé will taste drier and livelier than one that has sat in your glass for a while. Red wines served slightly cooler than room temperature (say 60 – 65 degrees F) can also taste a bit livelier. While you might not want to keep your white or rosé in a bucket of ice during dinner, don’t be afraid to put the open bottle back in the fridge if it needs it. And if your red wine seems too warm and a little dull, don’t be afraid to chill it a bit to restore it.
In the end, you should pick your wines as you would your dinner companions, and remember that a little spinal fortitude is a good thing, both for your wine and for conversation at the table!
This week we’re making Shrimp with White Beans, adapted from one of Michael Chiarello’s recipes. It’s a perfect fall night feast that is dressy enough for company. Everything except cooking the shrimp can be done ahead, which makes it easy to serve. What we’ve changed is the way the beans get cooked, because it’s difficult to find high-quality dried cannellini beans here (at least in DC). Michael cooks his in water with some sage and garlic, and serves them with a drizzle of good olive oil, which works in Tuscany, or maybe in California where you can get great beans that aren’t too old. But if you’re substituting great northern beans or some questionably old cannellinis, simply cooking them in water and serving them with olive oil just doesn’t give them enough flavor. Cooking them in stock – unless you can find good sodium-free both – can toughen the beans by adding salt too early in the process. So what we do is to soak and then start cooking them in water, and add some concentrated vegetable stock after 20 minutes of cooking to infuse the beans with more flavor. We’ve also added a little imported tomato paste from a tube to the shrimp for a jolt of flavor along with the diced tomato because it’s hard to find a good fresh tomato in late fall, and although diced canned tomatoes can have reasonably good flavor, they’re a little too mushy for the finished dish.
We like to pair the shrimp with Château Milon Bordeaux Blanc, made from Muscadelle, Semillon, and Sauvignon Blanc. It has a perfect balance of fruitiness (citrus and apricot flavors) and acidity, and a crisp finish with a hint of oak, while having enough body to enjoy on a chilly evening. Well-prepared shrimp have a slightly sweet flavor, and the Bordeaux captures it beautifully. No spinal adjustments required!
Shrimp with White Beans
2 cups dried cannellini or great northern beans
2 cups good vegetable stock or broth (we use Kitchen Basics)
4 large sage leaves
2 cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half
1 teaspoon salt
Rinse the beans and discard any obviously ancient ones or stones that you see. Put them in a pot and cover with cold water by at least two inches. Bring the pot to a boil, then turn off the heat, cover, and let soak for an hour. In the meantime, bring the stock to a boil in another pot, lower the heat, and boil to reduce the volume to less than a cup, which may take 20 minutes or more. (It’s OK to reduce it more, but make sure you don’t have more liquid than a cup). Drain the beans, and then return them to the cooking pot. Add the sage and garlic, and just enough water so that the beans are just barely covered. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Then add the reduced stock and the salt, plus enough water (if necessary) so the beans are barely covered again. Continue to cook until the beans are just tender, which can take 30 minutes or more. Check the liquid level while the beans are cooking, and don’t let it get too low, but don’t add very much at a time. You should end up with a liquid level just below the top layer of beans when the beans are done. Taste for salt and add more if you’d like. Cover the beans and set aside, or refrigerate if you’re doing them ahead.
7 tablespoons good extra-virgin olive oil
One and a half pounds of very large shrimp (sized about 20 per pound), peeled and deveined (leave the tails on if you like)
2 small serrano chilis, ribs and seeds removed, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons sliced peeled garlic
One-half teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
2 cups seeded and diced tomato
1 tablespoon imported Italian tomato paste (from a tube, if you have it – it keeps for a long time in the fridge, so it’s a great ingredient to have on hand)
1 cup fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Extra-special olive oil for drizzling.
Cooked beans and their liquid
Reheat the beans with two tablespoons of the olive oil and keep them warm. Heat 5 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add the shrimp, season with salt, and cook for about a minute, stirring or tossing frequently. They should be just pink. Remove them to a plate with a slotted spoon. Lower the heat to medium, and add the chili, pepper flakes, and garlic to the skillet. Stir and cook until the garlic just starts to color. Add the tomato, tomato paste, and lemon juice. Cook for a minute, then add the shrimp and toss for a minute more to finish cooking them. Taste for salt.
Spoon the beans onto dinner plates, making sure they have some liquid with them. Drizzle the beans with your special olive oil, then top with the shrimp and serve immediately.