Food and Wine: Learning to Challenge Paradigms

Beyond being an ideal accompaniment for a meal, a bottle of wine can set the mood of a room. Just as music and soft, ambient lighting are essential to a calm and lovely repast, a bottle of wine can add a narrative arc to an evening…contributing history, humanity and nature to the stories shared around the table. I think about these things when considering what wine to pair with a meal.

In recent years, I have had the privilege to work with Areni, the principal indigenous black grape variety of Armenia. In 2011, a team of archaeologists discovered a 6,000-year-old winery while excavating the Areni-1 cave (named for the neighboring village of Areni) in the southeast Vayots Dzor province.  DNA tests performed on amphorae found inside the cave match the DNA of the Areni variety we are working with now, just miles from this ancient site. It is a grape that pre-dates the civilized world, which says something for its stamina and appeal.

It is, however, outside the scope of varieties I have, over the years, paired with food. Though I still have much to learn about the Areni grape, both how it likes to be farmed and how it is best interpreted in the cellar, I have come to learn that it possesses several emblematic characteristics, or what one might refer to as “typicity.” When it is balanced and thoughtfully made, Areni possesses a bracing natural acidity. For a red wine, it is light on the palate, yet has tantalizingly fresh flavors. It can at times be reminiscent of grenache grown in sand, demonstrating a bright, citrus appeal.

Working with Areni has rejuvenated my interest in food and wine pairing and transformed dinner preparation at home into a creative undertaking.

How am I learning what foods pair well with Areni? The most sensible approach has also proven to be the most pleasurable and interesting. I have turned to the diverse culinary norms of the Armenian people to learn what pairs best with this wonderfully appealing variety. Alas, it turns out that traditional Armenian dishes—from dolmas (lentils, tomatoes, parsley, red onions, coriander and other fresh ingredients wrapped in grape leaves) or harissa (a savory porridge of wheat grits prepared with lamb or chicken and seasoned with fragrant herbs), to basturma (cured beef seasoned with paprika, cumin and black pepper, among other spices) or a whole fish baked in lavash—pair seamlessly with the invigorating texture and flavors present in Areni. Yogurt and eggplant are also prominent ingredients at the Armenian table, and both are enlivened by the natural acidity of this variety.

Working with Areni has rejuvenated my interest in food and wine pairing and transformed dinner preparation at home into a creative undertaking. Other elements I give thought to now include what music we ought to have on in the background?  What color shall the plates be? How can the table be a true oasis for our guests, where the wine and food served will inspire conversation from everyone around the table? Those of us who work in wine can become rather myopic in our dinner table conversations. It isn’t unusual to attend a dinner of wine industry professionals during which everyone working in wine speaks non-stop about the business, but does little to engage spouses and partners around the table with careers in other fields and perhaps other interests. An unpredictable food and wine pairing, a little-known grape variety steeped in history and a thoughtfully set table can be the means by which a dinner unfolds in an inclusive manner…and shouldn’t wine, by its very nature, be expansive and civilizing?