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Food and Wine Pairing

(excerpt from "The Good Life Guide to Enjoying Wine" by Ray Johnson)

Six
Beyond Food
and Wine Pairing

I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food.
— W.C. Fields

Hospitality

The doorbell rings and your guests enter knowing they’re in store for another great evening. Why do they love to come to your home? Is it your collection of first-growth Bordeaux, your penchant for serving the latest in wine-drinking trends, or the fact that you lecture them on the vintages and vineyards of the wines you serve? Likely none of these answers hits the mark. It’s hospitality that makes the difference. If people of diverse backgrounds enjoy themselves and feel welcomed into your home, they’ll return eagerly, regardless of your wine knowledge.

One of the tips I learned early in the restaurant business was to let the guests leave feeling they were denied nothing. We think nothing of brewing a pot of tea for one friend out of six at the table that doesn’t share our love of coffee, but how often do we try to make one choice of wine please everyone. If you’re not serving aperitifs, open the bottles for dinner, more than one, before or as your guests arrive. Let them see that the choices are plentiful by opening something dry and something sweet.

How often I’ve heard people say, “Let’s open this one and see how it goes.” Ultimately it goes poorly for a polite friend who won’t say a word about their preference for dry over sweet or vice versa. Likewise when we ask our guests what they would like to drink, they often remark that whatever you have open is fine. Many feel it’s an imposition upon your hospitality to have a bottle opened especially for them, saying politely, “Don’t open that just for me.” If the choices are already open, this hurdle is handled. This also gives your adventurous guests a chance to try more than one wine. And if you serve the same wines at dinner, they’ll have a preview of what they’ll enjoy and hate before they’re seated.

Serving many different wines doesn’t mean getting our friends plowed. They have to be able to drive home safely if taking to the road after dinner, and today we’re blessed with some great beverages sans alcohol. Navarro Vineyards in California’s Anderson Valley is one example of a winery bottling some first-rate grape juice. Sonoma Sparkler, also from California, is a refreshing 100 percent sparkling juice with Champagne qualities and a light, crisp taste. A glass or two of these before dinner could be just what the designated driver needs to moderate their wine intake over the course of an evening. The other great moderator is water—having plenty available expands the choices for your guests and keeps them hydrated.

Wine and food pairing is great fun and makes for lively discussions when your friends are game and open to all kinds of wine. But if Mom only likes White Zinfandel, let her be and don’t try to educate her on the principles of food and wine pairing.

Yin and Yang of Food and Wine

This brings us to the yin and yang of food and wine pairing and three simple approaches to think about when putting your menu together.

  1. Reflective Properties. In the arena of reflecting tastes, rich food like a chicken breast with cream sauce would pair nicely with a rich and buttery Chardonnay. A sweet dessert like crème caramel would be reflected by a very sweet white dessert wine like Sauternes. A highly acidic dish like spaghetti with a marinara sauce shines when paired with a highly acidic wine like Barbera from Italy’s Piedmont. The Barbera also benefits by tasting a bit softer when paired with such a dish; just as a piece of goat cheese takes off the acidic edge of a zippy Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre in France’s Loire Valley. A wine that is low in acid will taste correspondingly flat when up against the zip of a highly acidic dish.
  • Rich Food Reflects Rich Wine
  • Acidic Food Reflects Acidic Wine
  1. Counterpoint. From this point of view, a foil to the richness rather than a reflection of it would enhance the chicken breast and cream sauce. An acidic and concentrated Pinot Grigio from the northeast of Italy, would do the job of cutting through the fatty, rich dish. Likewise, a Russian River Pinot Noir, with an acidic backbone, would provide the counterpoint to a grilled salmon and white butter sauce.
  • Rich Food Sliced by Acidic Wine
  1. Complete the Palate. Enhance the dining experience by adding to the palate a different flavor or sensation with the wine. Think about lemonade and its zest of acidity that is balanced by the sweetness of sugar, making a more complete and enjoyable range of flavors. Or, prosciutto and melon—on its own, there is a great balance of fruity sweetness and a salty tang. Some combinations of food do this dance so well they seem to make the choice of wine irrelevant. Nevertheless, a salty piece of ham tastes even better with a lightly sweet Riesling. A sweet Chenin Blanc cools the heat of a spicy Thai shrimp dish. Salty potato chips shine with dry Champagne.
  • Salty Food + Sweet Wine
  • Salty Food + Acidic Wine
  • Spicy Food + Sweet Wine

All three of these approaches seek a balance and harmony between the food and the wine. There are so many workable combinations that you needn’t chase the elusive dream of creating the perfect match of wine and food. And honestly, it’s more likely than not that your choice of wine and food will work well together. I’ve had so many enjoyable meals with whatever wine I was in the mood for.

Many of the specific dictums about wine and food pairing break down because a particular wine can have so many different styles. For instance some Cabernets are very tough and tannic and others are light and fruity. It’s almost impossible to say without exception that Cabernet Sauvignon goes well with ________ (You fill in the blank). Yes, as you study wine, you start to see generalities emerge about the different wine grapes. But you really can’t be sure how a specific wine will taste until you open a bottle or talk to someone who recently has. Likewise, you won’t know how your beurre blanc is going to taste until you’ve made it. Sometimes mine is a little more acidic, sometimes less.

A Few Pitfalls

What’s easier to say with certainty is that there are a few pitfalls to avoid in the realm of food and wine pairing, and it’s quicker to say what not to do than the other way around.

  1. A green salad with a classic French or Italian vinaigrette is tough to pair with wine because of the acidity of the dressing and the amount of water in some lettuces. A soft, plush Chardonnay will get wiped out, while a highly acidic, dry sparkling wine or a zippy Sauvignon Blanc are better candidates. In my days working in a traditional French restaurant, we often took a different tack, advising guests to take a break from the wine for one course. Alcohol is dehydrating, and if you’re reading this book, you’re unlikely to be drinking water with your next lobster. Water with your salad provides some balance in your menu and for your liver.

    If you’re having salad as a main course and aren’t giving up wine, Sonoma chef Mary Evely suggests making your vinaigrette with a 4:1 ratio of oil to vinegar, to ensure that the dressing won’t be overly acidic.
     
  2. Spicy food is hard on wine and the burning fire can multiply exponentially with a dry, tannic, or high-alcohol wine. Some folks really enjoy acidic white wines, like Sauvignon Blanc, with spicy seafood. For me, though, the best bet is to pair lightly sweet white wines with your next curried prawns or sushi, especially if you’re one to pile on the wasabi. If you’re a die-hard red wine drinker, however, we have found some workable pairings with spicy cuisine. Best bets are California Zinfandel, Australian Grenache, and Shiraz from either country, where the wine is ripe and jammy, almost a sweet expression of fruit, while at the same time, low in tannin and not burning with the taste of alcohol. These wines can really complement spicy meat dishes.
     
  3. Save your older, trophy bottles for simply prepared dishes that won’t overwhelm the wine. If, however, your young and tannic, prized Cabernet is beckoning to be opened, serve it with some heavier, protein-rich food like a steak or English Cheddar. These foods will soften the hard edges of an infant bottle.
     
  4. Beware of dry wine with sweet food. When serving a wine with dessert, it is essential to the marriage that the wine be at least as sweet as the dessert, if not more so. And many desserts are hugely sweet.

    The one exception to this last idea is the phenomenon of chocolate and dry red wine. While many enjoy their after-dinner chocolate with sweet red wines like Port or Banyuls from the south of France, a contrary movement has swept California’s tasting rooms: namely, chocolate, especially bittersweet, with Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel. Food experts disagree about the combination, while others lap it up.

 

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