By Jess Helfand
As more and more Georgian amber wine becomes available in the US, Jess Helfand offers three simple guidelines for pairing these tea-like whites with food.
Skin-contact white wine, also known as orange wine, is all the rage, cropping up on wine lists and wine shop shelves worldwide. But the technique of fermenting white grapes with their skins is far from new. In fact, the origins of skin-contact white wine can be traced back thousands of years (to 6,000 BC!) to the Republic of Georgia, where they are known more poetically as amber wines.
Much of Georgia’s amber wine production today is made just as it was throughout history: in qvevri. White grapes are gently crushed and their juice, skins, seeds, and stems are added to the qvevri—an egg-shaped clay vessel. This mix of grape juice and grape solids ferments for a few weeks, and then the qvevri is sealed for three to six months. The resulting wine resembles a strongly flavored white with the color of a pale tea, imbued with complex tannins and textures.
With imports of Georgian wines into the US growing an average of 30% year-over-year for the last six years, it’s possible you have encountered a bottle of Georgian amber wine from time to time. And did you feel bold enough to try something new? Or were you perhaps unsure of how best to enjoy the wine?
Amber wines are incredibly food friendly and can be perfect for many occasions—especially if you follow three simple guidelines:
Match intensities: Amber wines are intensely flavored. Be sure that your food is equally as flavorful so that the dish doesn’t get lost in the wine, or the wine be overshadowed by the dish.
Beware of bitter: Bitterness in a dish will accentuate the tannins in an amber wine. Unless you’re in the market for an extra tannic white wine, look for dishes with less bitterness.
Stick to savory: Sweet foods are a hard match with amber wines, which are inherently savory themselves. Avoid confections in favor of salty and spicy.
Of course, Georgian gastronomy is a logical pairing for amber wines. If your neighborhood doesn’t have a Georgian restaurant just yet, you can explore the cuisine in your own kitchen (I highly recommend this cookbook!) Here are some classic Georgian dishes, all at home on your table with amber wines:
Eggplant Rolls (Nigvziani Badrijani): Nuts play a large role in Georgian cuisine and are an excellent complement to the nutty flavors found in amber wines. Here, gently fried eggplant strips are wrapped around savory walnut paste. Not only does this bring out the nutty flavors in the wine, but the slight fattiness in the dish also softens the wine’s tannins.
Soup Dumplings (Khinkali): These spiced meat and broth-filled dumplings are a Georgian staple. The coriander, garlic, and chili inside bring out the spice character of the wine.
Beans with Walnuts and Spices (Lobio): These beans include an unexpected ingredient: ground marigold petals. This additional citrusy flavor accentuates the citrusy flavors found in an amber wine.
Adjarian Khachapuri (Adjaruli Khachapuri): This boat-shaped, cheese-filled bread is pure decadence on a plate. Topped with raw egg yolk and butter, the diner mixes the toppings into the cheesy goodness (making it even richer) and uses the dough to scoop up the filling. The tannins in the amber wine are tamed by the richness of the khachapuri, and the acid in the wine cuts through the weight of the khachapuri. A perfect pairing!
Not in the mood to test your culinary chops with new recipes? These more familiar options are also fantastic complements to amber wines:
Deep Dish Pizza: What is pizza really but the western version of Khachapuri? The same principles apply, where an amber wine will cut through the richness of the pizza. Just skip any sweet toppings (no pineapple, please!), and you’ll be in business.
Cobb Salad: That slight funk of blue cheese and the meatiness of bacon will bring out those earthy, savory notes in the amber wine.
Gumbo: While gumbo doesn’t call for crushed marigold leaves like Lobio, it does require gumbo filé, a powder made from ground sassafras leaves. This floral and earthy element, combined with the thick nature of the soup, is perfect for the intense flavors and rich texture of amber wine.