In my WSET wine classes, I often point out that acidity is the wine lover’s friend. A wine with crisp acidity pairs with many more foods than a lower acid wine because so many foods also contain an acid component. Acid in food makes a wine taste less acidic and in giving us the perception our wine is less acidic, we also feel it is fruitier, which in my wine book is a pretty neat trick.
In addition, crisp acidity cuts through fat in food and balances salt. In fact, salt helps reduce the sensation of acidity in wine as well as reducing bitterness in food such as tannin - the end result is that in reducing the perception of acidity, salt can often make a wine appear to be fruitier. So, acid is our friend and after a recent level two course in New York with a great group of students who asked a lot of questions about wine and food pairing, I decided to put the teaching to the test.
Our New York City classes were until recently held at City Winery in SoHo, a location that unfortunately has been sold and is forcing City Winery to relocate. The former location is just a short walk from a wonderful restaurant called The Clam. I had heard about the restaurant and was eager to try it, and I’m happy to say it exceeded my already high expectations. The Clam is a neighborhood seafood bar, a sort of upscale bistro that has a small wine list filled with interesting selections.
If there is one classic wine I turn to frequently in class to demonstrate food and wine pairing it is Chablis, the quintessential un-oaked chardonnay from close to the fringe of Europe’s grape growing zone. Chablis is bone dry, has high acidity and, generally, no new oak at all to bring tannin into the mix. Seeing a Chablis on the list at The Clam, I asked for a taste. It was a very well made village-level Chablis from the husband and wife winemaking team of Nathalie and Gilles Fèvre. Surprisingly, they softened the acidity of this wine slightly by letting it go through malolactic fermentation, but it lost none of its sunny crispness, nor did it have unwelcome dairy notes or unnecessary weight. It was a charming wine on its own, but how would it fare with the classic pairing of oysters?
Chablis and oyster are a marriage made in wine heaven and clearly blessed by Bacchus. The flinty, steely nature of a good Chablis like this one from the Fèvres accentuated the salinity and minerality of the oysters. Most wines would interfere with such simple, pure flavors, but not Chablis, and this one was a champ. But I had more tests in mind.
A special at The Clam the night I visited was a ceviche made with razor clams, so a light dish of thinly sliced clams, radish and shallots “cooked” by mixing with mild citrus juice for a few minutes. Here the challenge to the Chablis was to stand up to the acidity of the ceviche, and it did so without flinching – as the theory tells us to expect, the acidity in the ceviche balanced that of the Chablis, making the wine appear fruitier without detracting from its lovely minerality.
Finally, I couldn’t help myself – I had to test the Chablis with salt so I ordered some of The Clam’s exceptionally good French fries – thin, crisp, a little bit of fat clinging to them and doused with a salty seasoning. That may have actually been my favorite pairing because the fries tasted fresher thanks to the cleansing acidity of the wine, and the salt help keep the wine from seeming overly acidic.
All in all, it was a triumphant experiment. I’ll tell you another time what I did with the red wine!
If you want to go, here are the restaurant’s details (you can book a table on their website or, in the US and Canada, on the Open Table app):
420 Hudson Street
New York, NY 10014