Daring Pairing #2: Movie Theater Popcorn/German Riesling
Why we think it will work:
Lauren: A good quality, slightly off-dry riesling is a great match for rich, buttery foods (think crab cakes, roasted foul in cream sauce, or french toast smeared with mascarpone). The bright acidity and slight sweetness of a typical spätlese German riesling should cut right through the butter and give us a nice salty/sweet combo.
Branden: We all know that popcorn goes great with Coca-Cola (it’s a fact, it is known)—and that it is essentially liquid candy—so something with a little sweetness seems like a given. We also need something with enough racy acidity to cut through all that fake butter. Enter German riesling, which—due to a cooler climate and comparatively shorter growing season—typically retains a good deal more of the grape’s natural acidity than do its yankee counterparts (though Washington state is admittedly not far off). This acidity is often balanced with a little residual sugar. Did I just repeat what Lauren said?
Our Conclusion: 2/5
This was not awesome—not unpalatable, but not awesome. We did a lot of soul searching (and a lot of thinking about Coke) after this and think we have isolated a few of our mistaken assumptions:
1. Popcorn “butter” is not butter—not even close. It doesn’t behave like butter, or have the same mouthfeel as butter, or even really taste all that much like real, genuine, churned-from-animal-products, butter. It’s flavored oil—and very low quality flavored oil at that. Assuming that what goes well with butter will also go well with artificial butter-flavored spray tan was mistake numero uno.
2. The dominant flavor of movie theater popcorn is not butter—or even “butter”—but salt. We assumed that if we paired with butter—and threw the salt a little sugar for good measure—that everyone would go home alive and happy. Unfortunately for us the amount of salt that lives inside the crevices of your standard flick popcorn will never be satisfied by the ineffectual 10-12g/L residual sugar content of a typical spätlese riesling (Coke, for instance, clocks in at 108g/L!). We treated salinity as an easily-appeased afterthought when in reality that’s the dish. That’s a deuce of mistakes if you’re still counting.
3. Here’s where it gets interesting: the thing about Coke that makes it a slayer counterpart to theater popcorn isn’t really the sweetness or the acidity (they help but on their own you might as well be drinking cheap liquor store German riesling). The golden ticket is the effervescence. That's what we were missing and Coke has it in spades.* Without that bracing effervescence our insipid vino was powerless against the oil-laden salt licks we were cramming into our kissers by the fistful. The bubbles are a palate cleanser—a reset button that allows you to inhale your RDI of sodium in one bite, get the subsequent salt-junkie high, and then wash it all away in preparation for the next hit—leaving nothing behind but a little lingering sweetness. All that sugar neutralizes all that salt and all those bubbles lift and rinse away all that…oil. Fizzy sugar water is the tool for the job. Who knew? Well, apparently everyone.
Some Notes on German Wine Terms
German wine is ridiculously well categorized. This litany of categorizations however can be confusing—if not downright crazy-making—to the uninitiated. Even to the those familiar with the technical definitions, the classifications can still leave important information unstated or even be misleading. Don’t let it turn you off to German wine. No matter how you (mis)pronounce it, it’s often quite good and in some cases absolutely magical. Riesling is the fair country's flagship wine grape, and for good reason.
Trocken: A dry wine, containing not more than 9g/L residual sugar in the finished wine.
Halbtrocken: Trans. “half-dry”; a wine containing between 9g/L and 12g/L residual sugar in the finished wine.
Feinherb: An unofficial term designating a wine that is just slightly sweeter than halbtrocken.
Leiblich: A semi-sweet wine with up to 45g/L residual sugar.
Süß: A sweet wine with a residual sugar content in excess of 45g/L.
The following terms denote the “ripeness” or sugar content of the grapes used to make the wine rather than the RS of the finished product. The designations typically, but not as a rule, reflect correspondingly to the finished product in terms of final (comparative) sweetness.
Kabinett: A typically light, often dry wine made with grapes with a sugar content between 148-188g/L.
Spätlese: Trans. “late picked”; a wine made from fruit that contains between 172-209g/L sugar content. Finished product is typically off-dry though dry versions are not uncommon. Spätlese wines will have more body and greater capacity for alcohol than Kabinett wines.
Auslese: These wines, typically off-dry to sweet, are made from very-ripe grape clusters—often botrytis-infected—with a sugar content between 191-260g/L. They have a great capacity for aging and may be just as welcome paired with rich, savory dishes as they are with dessert.
Beerenauslese: Trans. “berry-selected”; a wine that is made entirely from hand-separated botrytis-infected grapes with a sugar content in excess of 260g/L. The resulting wine is sweet, redolent of ripe fruit, and quite expensive. Capable of aging upwards of 50 years.
Trockenbeerenauslese: Trans. “dry-berry-selected”; a wine made entirely from hand-separated botrytis-infected grapes that have fully raisinated (dried-out thus concentrating their sugars). Even sweeter and more luxurious than it’s slightly less exclusive brother, the “trocken” here is not in reference to the finished wine but of the condition of the grapes used to make the wine.
Eiswein: Trans. “Ice wine”; made from frozen grapes that are at least as ripe as beerenauslese (260g+/L) and that have frozen on the vine, thus concentrating their sugars. These grapes are often pressed in the middle of the night to prevent them from thawing in the sun. The resulting wine is typically sweet and viscous but balanced by a bracing acidity. Dry styles, however, are not unheard of.
I will say in our defense that, despite being the most expensive bottle we could find at Tipsy’s Liquor Store in Milledgeville, GA (maybe $200? I don't remember, who’s asking? Definitely more than $14.99) this riesling was pretty bad** It was flabby, dull, and surprisingly lacking in acidity. The sweetness, restrained as it was, still felt cloying since it was really the only clearly perceptible character of the wine. The pairing would have, no doubt, been improved by a higher quality riesling.
That being said, the improvement would not—in our estimation—have been so considerable as to change Our Conclusion™. A modest increase in character and acidity, welcome as it would have been, would still have done little to counteract the Harkonnen proportions of salt and butter© for which the popcorn was only a vehicle. For that we needed bubbles. Lots and lots of bubbles.
In hindsight, we should’ve went with a demi-sec Champagne or a lush sparkling rosé (we think that Coke’s relative bitterness and rough-around-the-edges texture also play a part e.g., why it’s a better match than Sprite for instance—a matter of some disagreement in our home but an interesting argument on behalf of tannins) or even, dare we suggest, a Cuba Libre? If you want to get really sexy bring a flask of kirsch^ and make your own “cherry Coke.” Damn, now there’s an idea.
Fantastic Beasts was great.
*Coca-Cola is one of the most aggressively carbonated colas on the market today. This is why it’s so hard to chug a Coke, but so comparatively easy to kick back, say, a Pepsi. Remember being a kid? Or yesterday I guess?
**Its online reviews, while very few in number, are surprisingly positive so I’d be willing to give it another chance when I don’t have a gob full of popcorn. That being said, I don’t generally pay much mind to online reviews, professional or otherwise (the ones I’m referring to here are definitely “otherwise”), and neither should you. In fact, stop reading this and go drink some wine and form you own damn opinions.
^I’m sure some of you are thinking “why buy a bottle of somewhat hard to find and comparatively expensive kirsch when I could just buy a bottle of cherry-flavored vodka?” While I admit that you might make a perfectly acceptable “cherry Coke” with a splash of flavored vodka, it’s what you do (or rather don’t do) afterwards that is the problem. Stuck with a nearly-full bottle of artificial candy swill, your options (options that I can recommend anyway) are quite limited. On the other hand, with a nearly-full bottle of kirsch and an open mind you will have in your possession two key ingredients for a better life. Also, I can give you recipes for kirsch—cocktail and otherwise—until you’re dead. That’s why not vodka. Think ahead, ya know?