Buyer’s Guide to Vintages March 16 Release

The Anxiety of Food and Wine Pairing; Opus One Special Release

By John Szabo MS, with notes from Michael Godel and Megha Jandhyala

The Tyranny of Food and Wine

How much do you fuss about wine and food matching? I’m guessing not very much. You probably think it’s something you should think about, that you should be consulting with, say, an expert wine friend before opening a special bottle, lest it be spoiled by the wrong food. But it all seems so complicated, with so many variables to consider, like working out an algebra problem. Not a fun way to start a meal.

The real risk is that deliberations become so onerous that the experience is ruined before you’ve even sat down and pulled a cork. I’m sure many of you fall back in despair upon some vague advice you heard somewhere, like red wine with red meat and white wine with fish, and hope for the best. And you know what? Start with good food and good wine, and things will probably work out. Most of the time. I’ve reached this conclusion from many years of experimentation. I even wrote a book on Pairing Food and Wine (for Dummies) some years back. I’ll tell you; it was hard to fill the contracted 360 pages.

John explains how we select the wines for our Exchange cases.

The reality about pairing food and wine is that it’s rarely a total disaster. Most pairings result in shades of gray on the pleasure scale: various degrees of decent, good, better or best. A lot of pairings, I’d say even the majority of food and wine combinations, are benign, when neither the food nor the wine is dramatically changed. There’s no real synergy or antagonism. These pairings are neither memorably good nor bad, and probably you’ll just carry on with the meal and conversation without paying too much attention to food and drink. No harm done.

But every once in a while, food and wine meet and the result is highly unpleasant. It’s like a natural disaster — when both the food and the wine were in the wrong place at the wrong time and combine to taste worse than either did on its own. Because of people’s varying sensitivities to taste sensations and personal preferences, universal natural disasters are few and far between. But here are just a few things to consider, not a complex algebra equation, that result in good times, or at least neutral times.

It’s the Iron, Silly!

The pairings that most often end in predictable tragedy (albeit a first world–type of tragedy) often include seafood and shellfish. The oils in fatty fish like mackerel or black cod, or the sweet, umami-rich taste of scallops, for example, are generally bad news for big, tannic red wines by most people’s accounts. Together they taste like you’re licking a can of tomatoes: metallic, bitter, and sour — with a strong fishy aftertaste. I think you’ll agree that that doesn’t sounds terribly nice. The culprit, by the way, is not the tannins, as one would assume, but rather iron, as researchers at the beverage division of Mercian Corp. in Fujisawa, Japan, discovered. I’ve had tannic red wines with oysters that resulted in deliciousness. But since iron comes mainly from grape skins, which are rarely used in white wine production, red wines have shorter odds of being iron rich, and thus bad for seafood. Hence the dictum white wine with fish.

Runny Cheeses, Shades of Green

Other notoriously challenging foods with a high probability of causing natural disasters are really strong runny cheeses (on the verge of ammonia, which will kill anything (try eau-de-vie instead). Also consider those proverbial greens: asparagus, Brussels sprouts, and artichokes . Asparagus (the green variety) gets its bad rap from methionine, a sulfur-containing amino acid that when cooked turns into a compound that smells like rotten cabbage. Mix that with most wines, especially red, oak-aged and tannic, and you get a metallic, unpleasantly green taste. But cooking method matters; steamed or boiled asparagus is the worst form, while grilled asparagus is considerably less troublesome. Temper the bite of boiled asparagus with a rich hollandaise sauce, for example, and serve with a crisp, high-acid white. I find grüner veltliner or sauvignon blanc work particularly well, even with steamed or boiled asparagus.

Brussels sprouts are also problematic; thanks to phenylthiocarbamide, which makes most wines unpleasantly bitter. Again, high-acid, crisp, and dry whites are your best bet, because the acid neutralizes the sprouts’ bitterness.

Artichokes are every sommelier’s textbook bad boy. The malefactor is cynarin, a curious little acid that makes everything you taste afterwards seems objectionably sweet and flabby. But knowing this, you can save that unbearably acidic wine from the drain: serve it up with artichokes and presto, your tart little wine is suddenly soft, sweet and fruity.

Back to Basic Taste Sensations

Knowing how each of the basic taste sensations — sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami — modify wine gives you some useful insight into what taste combinations will likely work. You can make an average wine that much better by enhancing its good side, or reducing its bad side, with the right food.


Wines served with acidic foods, say a very lemony sauce, will taste sweeter and less acidic, creating a milder, softer texture. This change isn’t surprising, because pretty much anything you put into your mouth after biting into a lemon seems sweeter and lower in acidity by comparison. Most people like this change. The exception may be a wine that is already very sweet on its own — it might become too sweet or cloying after high acid foods.


Wine with sweet foods gives you the reverse effect of acidity — sweet foods make wines taste more sour (higher acid), bitter and astringent. If a wine is slightly sweet to begin with, the sweet food makes the wine taste drier — take that off-dry, slightly flabby gewürztraminer, for example, and serve it with a dish with some sugar (many Chinese and South Asian foods incorporate sweetness), and the wine shapes up immediately. But sweet food makes tannic red wine taste even more astringent, sour and bitter. Have you ever seen dry reds paired with dessert? Most people dislike this change, though a small percentage of the population enjoys the heightened sour-bitter sensation, especially those individuals used to bitter things, like black coffee, tea or cruciferous vegetables.


Salt, like acidity, softens the texture of wine. It makes fruity flavors more pronounced and sweeter in all wines and takes the bite out of tannins in reds (makes the wine seem smoother). Judicious salt addition to the right foods is the best way to soften the texture of young, robust red wines, which is a good change.


Bitter/astringent food makes wine taste more bitter and astringent. If there is already bitterness in the wine (from tannins, barrel ageing) you’ll notice a cumulative, additive affect. White wines, which are generally not bitter, are thus often better matches. High acid white wines can also make food less bitter — think of squeezing lemon on your rapini or other bitter greens — so it’s a win-win match.


Like sweet and bitter/astringent foods, umami intensifies the taste of wine. Bitterness, astringency and acidity become more pronounced. Oak-aged wines seem ever oakier, maybe too oaky with savory foods. Umami also has an additive effect in both food and wine: umami + umami = more umami flavor. This is a good thing because people like savory tastes, like grating parmigiano on your tomato-sauced pasta, or adding anchovies to your pizza. This is why umami-rich dishes work well with fully mature, savory, umami-rich wines, whose tannins have softened over time and texture has turned silky smooth, with no hard edges to intensify.


Although spiciness isn’t one of the five main tastes (it’s technically a tactile sensation), it’s nonetheless an important consideration. The burn of spicy foods actually causes a minor, temporary inflammation of the mucus membranes and taste buds in your mouth. This effect initially heightens the sensation of other irritants, such as astringent tannins or high acidity. Oak seems more pronounced, and fruit is diminished. But in time, as your palate becomes desensitized, this effect is reversed, reducing the impact of taste sensations on the taste buds to the point where the wine seems to have very little taste or flavor. In other words, spicy foods are a killer for wine. When spicy food hits the table, save your best wines for another time.

The bottom line is, avoid extremes, and food and wine will work harmoniously, most of the time. In the end, what’s the worst that can happen?

Opus One

As the story goes, when Baron Philip de Rothschild, owner of First Growth Bordeaux Château Mouton Rothschild, married an American in the early 1970s, he began spending a lot of time in California. His keen eye and palate spotted much potential, particularly in the Napa Valley, and his various inquiries about the important players in the region at the time led him inexorably to one name: Robert Mondavi.

So it was that the Baron invited Mondavi to Bordeaux to discuss a business idea. Mondavi arrived in Pauillac in 1978 ready to talk, but the Baron wined and dined him for two days without a single word of business. It was perplexing to the eager American entrepreneur unaccustomed to the French way of doing business. Finally on the last day, the Baron finally invited Mondavi to his bed chambers, where he had always made his biggest decisions, much like the Kings of France. The Baron proposed that he and Mondavi should make wine together in the Napa Valley. Naturally, he agreed.

Bottles of Opus One

At first, the joint venture was to be a selection of Mondavi’s best barrels. The Baron sent his winemaker to the Napa Valley in 1979 to select wines alongside Mondavi in a style that matched what both men had in mind (with some back and forth for ego management). It took three days to decide which barrels would compose the first wine, the opus number one. This first vintage didn’t reach markets until 1984, and production was so small that it was sold in a mixed case along with the 1980 vintage (note to fraud-weary collectors, there was no 1979 Opus One in original wooden cases of six).

The Baron passed away in 1988, and in his place the Baroness Philippine stepped in. She got along well with Mondavi but urged him to consider making Opus One from a dedicated vineyard, in order to make the best wine possible and to control their own production. So the company purchased two parcels of Mondavi’s famous To Kalon vineyard along with the land where the Opus winery now sits. The first vintage made at the new facility was 1991.

Today, Opus one owns 69 hectares, of which 55 are planted to about 80 percent cabernet sauvignon, with cabernet franc, petit verdot and 1 to 2 percent malbec. There are four parcels, two around to the winery, as well as two in To Kalon.

Distribution of Opus was shifted to La Place de Bordeaux in 2004, the unique system of négociants that handles the sales of most top Bordeaux château along with an increasing array of top wines from around the world. As Opus sales director Laurent Delassus recalls of that time: “100 euros for an American wine? How are we supposed to sell that?” As it turns out, that first vintage on La Place was sent almost exclusively to Japan, the only market that would absorb the wine at the price.

John with Laurent Delassus at Barberian’s Steakhouse

Today, Opus One is sold in 90 countries.

With Delassus I tasted the 2019, 2018, 2016, 2014 and 2012. See my review for the 2019, then click on the other vintages. From my experience, the best window for enjoying Opus is between about 8- and 15-years old, depending of course on specifics of the vintage, though the wines are remarkably consistent.

And see the latest LCBO offer of multiple vintages.

If the prices are out of reach (as they are to most), you might consider Opus One as an investment. As Delassus tells me, pricing is more consistent than the big Bordeaux château, increasing incrementally each vintage rather than swinging widely up and down like many château from year to year, making it fairly stable as an investment.

And a look at recent trading of Opus on fine wine trading platform Liv-Ex shows that Opus is one of the most desirable and highly traded new world wines: “Napa Valley’s Opus One that took the spotlight this week [one year ago]. The wine’s 2015 vintage claimed the top spot as the most active wine this week. It’s last trade price of £3,750 per 12×75 represented a 38.9% increase on its release price (£2,700 per case). The wine also traded at an all-time high this week of £3,800 per 12×75. Opus One 2019 was also among the top five and last traded at £3,302 per 12×75 — another all-time high trade. “

Trading price of Opus One over the last ten years. (source)

Something to consider.

Buyer’s Guide March 16: White

Beauvignac Picpoul De Pinet 2022, Midi, France
$16.95, Grape Expectations Wine Agency
Megha Jandhyala – This refreshing, fruity, inexpensive white from the Languedoc should make for a fun and interesting addition to your bar this summer. Made with picpoul blanc, Le Jade is fresh, light, and citrusy. Try pairing it with light seafood, especially oysters.

Henry Of Pelham The Dry River Riesling 2022, Ontario, Canada
$19.95, Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery
Michael Godel –  Comes across relatively dry or at least smartly hides its residual sugar in the way quality riesling can be made in Ontario. Tart and quenching with dry tannins and plenary resources to service up a good and plentiful Escarpment riesling.
John Szabo – The recently rebranded “Dry River” riesling is made from estate fruit on the Short Hills Bench, including some of the original vines planted in the mid-eighties – and the 2022 is a beauty. I love the purity of fruit and driving force across the palate, all quite impressive for a sub-$20 wine.

Demorgenzon Dmz Sauvignon Blanc 2022, Stellenbosch, South Africa
$18.95, Noble Estates Wines & Spirits Inc.
John Szabo – Lovely value sauvignon from DeMorgenzon in Stellenbosch, offering density and complexity above the mean for the price category, crafted in an oak-free, mid-citrus/tropical style. Ready to drink or hold 2-4 years – the pleasure is nigh, I feel.

Pierre Sparr Grande Réserve Pinot Gris 2021, Alsace, France
$20.95, Profile Wine Group (Du Chasse)
John Szabo – I like the richness allied to balance on this 2021 Grande Réserve from Pierre Sparr, a little sharper and more finely-hewn I’d say than many recent vintages, here with a good dose of stony flavour to add interest. Serve over the next 2-4 years with roast pork or chicken, or miso-glazed Alaskan cod, or lobster… many options. 

Pieropan Soave Classico 2022, Veneto, Italy
$20.95, Vonterra
John Szabo – 2022 is a ripe and rich vintage for Pieropan’s estate Soave Classico, a wine of depth and richness beyond its modest price tag, reaffirming my belief that the best of Soave remains one of the top white wine values in Italy, and beyond. Drink or hold a surprising length of time, up to 6-8 years, as previous experience has shown.

Buyer’s Guide March 16: Red

Mas De Daumas Gassac Moulin De Gassac Guilhem 2022, Languedoc, France
$15.95, Nicholas Pearce Wines Inc.
Michael Godel – A true country table wine, easy and yet still grippy with fruit at the fore, core and finish. Nothing complicated for aubergines in ratatouille or caponata.
John Szabo – From the Guibert family, who brings us the celebrated Mas de Daumas Gassac, one of the original “super-Languedoc” wines, this is a more approachable wine in terms of price and style, a delightfully juicy and fruity, easy-drinking blend of syrah, grenache and carignan, yet with noted regional character.
Megha Jandhyala – This very well-priced, certified organic red blend is delicious, balanced, and cheerful. I really like the vivid notes of ripe red berries and dark cherries, and subtle, pleasing undertones of garrigue and violets. Ready to enjoy now, this is an excellent “house wine” to have on hand for low-key, relaxed evenings.

Château Des Tours Brouilly 2021, Beaujolais, France
$20.95, Woodman Wines & Spirits
John Szabo – 2021 is an excellent vintage for the historic Chateau des Tours’ Brouilly, made in the “Burgundian” fashion, with no obvious carbonic character. I find the balance impeccable, at once firm but yielding, while flavours span a wide range beyond the expected crunchy red and black fruit and peppery spice. Classy, quality wine, sharp value. Ready to enjoy or hold 3-5 years.

Ramón Bilbao Reserva 2016, Rioja, Spain
$22.95, Christopher Stewart Wine & Spirits
Michael Godel – Ultra classic Rioja aromatics befitting its Reserva appellation. What a steal for the complexity on hand.
John Szabo – A spicy, maturing, complex Rioja Reserva, showing very well at the moment, with its smoldering, cedary red fruit, resinous herbs, and evergreen and pine needle flavours. Classic stuff.

Perez Cruz Piedra Seca Cabernet Sauvignon 2021, Maipo Valley, Chile
$22.95, Charton Hobbs
John Szabo – Piedra Seca – “dry stone” – is a more premium cabernet sauvignon from the ever-reliable Perez Cruz, made from estate fruit in the foothills of the Andes in the Maipo Valley. It’s an approachable, widely appealing, substantial and rewarding wine, ready to enjoy, or hold up to a half dozen years for a fully mature experience.

Cloudsley Cellars Pinot Noir 2019, Ontario, Canada
$34.95, Noble Estates Wines & Spirits Inc.
Michael Godel – Quantifiable varietal character for the Twenty Mile Bench, of sweet and savoury fruit plus a refined rusticity that screams cool climate. Grape, vintage and winemaker all heed the call.
Megha Jandhyala – Subtly savoury and spicy, with notes of tart berries and cherries, and a firm, silky palate, this delicate, pale garnet Bench pinot noir is a great choice for lovers of classic cool-climate expressions of the variety.

Descendientes De J. Palacios Pétalos 2021, Galicia, Spain
$28.95, Woodman Wines & Spirits
Michael Godel – Always a perfectly mid-weight and pleasing mencía from Bierzo, never overarching, with mild structure and sweet acidity. All parts tethered and consistently delivered to an uncomplicated end.
John Szabo – A serial star on my best buys list, Pétalos is also surprisingly age-worthy – a recently tasted 2016 was absolutely singing, for example. Even with the price creeping up, I can still happily recommend this old vine mencía from Bierzo, gnarly old things farmed in tiny plots and rendered into wine using a sensible, sensitive winemaking approach, quietly confident, true to type.
Megha Jandhyala – Supple, fresh, and full of unaffected charm, this biodynamically grown mencía is ready to enjoy now and should appeal to a broad range of tastes. I love the notes of black pepper, pressed violet petals, and garrigue preceding delicious flavours of perfectly ripe, tender fruit, including plums and dark cherries.

Le Pas De Montmirail 2020, Rhône, France
$38.95, Noble Estates Wines & Spirits Inc.
Megha Jandhyala – Equal parts fruity, herbal, and mineral, with pleasant spikes of peppery warmth, this is a riveting Gigondas. I love how full and comforting, yet balanced the palate feels. I would buy a bottle or two of this to cellar for next winter.

Farina Le Pezze Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico 2020, Veneto, Italy
$40.95, Majestic Wine Cellars
Megha Jandhyala – This is an Amarone of freshness and balance. The palate is full, concentrated, and delicately sweet, yet neither languid nor heavy. Ripe, plush red plums and dark cherries add to the ripe-but-fresh ambience of this wine, accompanied by subtle spice and dried herb notes.

Barossa Valley Estate E&E Black Pepper Shiraz 2020, South Australia, Australia
$96.95, Delegat Canada Ltd.
Michael Godel – Big, bold, handsome and cracker shiraz with all the necessary tools of the vintage ready, willing and able to make a very good wine. Full and substantial, dark fruit matched by mineral and tannins as fine as they are long.

That’s all for this report, see round the next bottle. 

John Szabo, MS

Use these quick links for access to all of our Top Picks in the New Release. Non-Premium members can select from all release dates 30 days prior.
Megha’s Picks
Szabo’s Smart Buys
Michael’s Mix

Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram for the latest WineAlign recommendations, tips and other interesting wine information.