8 Questions With Chicago Sommelier Belinda Chang While Cruising Rome to Barcelona

1) Red or White?

It’s seasonal. In the summer or spring, the warm months, we love to have things that are bright and racy and crisp, so I’m definitely in camp White Wine for that part of the year. And then in the fall and the winter, you know I live in Chicago, where it is freaking cold, so you know Red that kind of hugs you, and feels like the best fur coat (real or faux!). Red is the way to go. I think wine is seasonal, like all the different foods that we love and all the different chefs that we love, you have to transition over time.Culinary_cruise_Windstar

Sommelier Belinda Chang enjoys a beautifully plated cheese plate dessert after The James Beard Foundation Awarded Chef Maxime Billet’s signature dinner service.

2) Old World wines or New World wines?

I’m an OG Som. So I love classically styled everything. I love the classic style in my apartment. I love the classic style in my clothing. So I love it in wine as well. We are exploring all these wine regions where they have been making wine for centuries, and I believe the tried and true is delicious. I certainly love and give merit to people who are experimenting with weird wine and hipster wine, but I certainly gravitate to the Old-World traditions. Lavandou_France_wine_cruise

The vineyards of Provence growing perfect grapes for the famous Rose wine in Le Lavandou, France.

3) Does this carry over into aging too? Do you prefer Oak or Cement?

That’s another great question. I think it depends on how great your fruit is. If your fruit is amazing and has so much natural flavor that it can handle a bit of spice – then go with the oak. But I think the same thing happens in cooking – you might have this vegetable that is so naturally sweet that to do anything to it or to put any sauce on it besides a little salt or some oil and vinegar would really just be a tragedy – so, I think the trend toward doing ‘naked wines’ (wines that don’t use any oak) is really laudable and fantastic, so I like both.

4) You’ve talked about chefs and food. Do you have a favorite food and wine pairing?

I think there is a couple of go-tos for me. First of all, what grows together goes together. If you are in Liguria, and you are eating fritto misto, some of the greatest fried fish and fried herbs and fried vegetables, you are going to want one of those bright, racy high toned Ligurian wines, like a Pigato, is naturally the best thing. Nothing else will marry as beautifully as the local wine. That being said, there are a couple of dishes that I think are so sexy that I just want to die whenever I have them. I love anything with sea urchin. It has such a unique creamy texture and an amazing salinity that I love it with Chablis, from France. I also love it with Chardonnay-based Champagnes. The other thing I really really love is the Uovo Ravioli – with ricotta and a just barely cooked egg yolk. We have been taught all these rules in food and wine pairings, but I’ve learned that if the dish is really balanced and the wine is really balanced, there are almost no barriers. You can find a Red wine that is so pin point balanced that it is just perfect with that oozing streaming yolk. Like a Sangiovese from Tuscany, or even a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. When you find a pairing that elevates both sides, it’s really special.Lamb_cruise_culinary

Perfectly prepared lamb chops. A gorgeous glass of Barolo. Is there a more perfect evening aboard the Wind Surf?

5) What are your thoughts about cuisine options that are from regions that are not necessarily massive wine producers? Like if you are serving Lingua tacos? Could you do something other than tequila?

Yes! When you are putting together these kinds of wine pairings, yes you have to be a little more thoughtful, and sometimes it’s a little more complicated. But there are all kinds of little tricks. There is one that comes from Old School French gastronomy, called ‘liason’ — so a dish that you don’t think is going to go great with a certain wine, you just dump a little bit of that wine into the dish, and then you have this great echo of flavors. It’s a perfect package. This trick is kind of brilliant. So, you just braise that tongue in that wine, and then they go perfectly together at service. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this with a $100 bottle of wine, but perhaps just a splash for the cooking and then the rest poured table side is ideal.Palamos_Spain_wine

It’s always smart to take a sommelier out to lunch – you KNOW you will have the best wine in the restaurant! Palamos, Spain.

6) Speaking of wine pricing – if I am going to shop for wine and I don’t want to spend any more than $20 for a bottle, what is your recommendation for my best option?

So I think the beauty of this day and age, is that we are quite good around the world at producing technically sound wines. So now it’s just up to your palate. I would say that there are certain grape varieties that are extremely difficult to grow and produce great wines with, like Pinot Noir is really cantankerous, so would I buy a bottom shelf Pinot Noir? No. But on the other hand, chardonnay grows like a weed, there is no terroir that it doesn’t love, so if you want to reach for $4.99 Chardonnay, you will probably be fine. And if it’s not that great, throw a little fruit in it, some Grand Marnier, and make yourself a quick Sangria! You really just have to learn your palate, find the wines that you love at any price point, and then when you find those wines you love, drink them and don’t worry about what anyone thinks about them!Belinda_chaing_wine_cruise_windstar

Gathering supplies for a deck side late afternoon picnic with The James Beard Foundation Awarded Sommelier Belinda Chang. Palamos, Spain.

7) You talk about listening to other people – as a home wine enthusiast, where should I get my information about wine? Is there a magazine you recommend? Or a writer? Who should I value these days?

It’s a scary moment – we also have too much information out there – you have to find your trusted advisor. It could be a website or one of those 800-page tomes. I would say that most of my peers started with a book called the Sothebys Wine Encyclopedia. That is the one that has all the maps, all the appellations, all the laws. That is how I personally learned – I would choose a chapter and learn everything I could about that region and then go to my local wine shop and buy whatever I could from that region to sample. I think it’s dangerous on the internet because there are so many people that write about wine, and not all of them are terribly qualified. I do think you need to be very careful about who you trust. The other side of this – while we have a lot of massive wine retailers out there, I like to support my local wine shop. It’s the same way I like to buy clothes and shoes. You know, I like to find a person who has a shop that’s curated to my taste, and who I trust, and who can always steer me towards the best options. It’s always worth your time to create a relationship with someone at a local shop you trust who can guide you and help you learn.Tapas_lunch_culinary_cruise_spain

Tapas lunch is the ideal way to spend a few mid-day hours in Palamos Spain.

8) Finally, what bottle is still on your bucket list?

People often ask me what is the most memorable bottle I have ever had. And usually it’s not because the bottle was the rarest, or the most expensive, but usually, it was because it was a bottle that was shared. I think that is what is so wonderful about wine – it becomes a part of your life, it becomes a great memory because maybe it’s the bottle of champagne you used to christen your new boat, or it’s the bottle of Bordeaux you were drinking when you got proposed to, right? All these things are tremendous memories and celebrations with these great bottles, and they can enhance all these great experiences.

Words and Images created by Collier Lumpkin

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