Best food pairings for everyday wines (Frenched lambchops need not apply)

March 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

From Portland Press Herald, 2 March 2011

Two weeks ago I began a conversation about pairing wine with food, a conversation I’d like to continue today. It’s a conversation, not a set of rules, because as with everything the only real rule is: It depends. We realized long ago, for instance, that the petty fascist who dreamt up “no red wine with fish” must have been so soused on Bordeaux that he never savored the pleasures of Blauburgunder with salmon, Beaujolais with halibut, Blaufrankisch with tuna, or Bourgeuil with tomato-herb fish stew.

So let’s do this calmly, with no pressure and nothing hard-and-fast. There are some general guidelines we might form consensus around, or at least have lively discussions about, recognizing this as the only absolute: Wine is historically an agricultural product, made by people who love food, to accompany their meals and their lives. It’s fine to drink the same wine you know with every meal, but it’s a lot more fun to play around with the possible relationships. Moreover, that’s what wine was made for.

Questions like, “What’s a good red wine for the lamb I’m cooking tonight?” are too easy. Lamb is so earthy, profound and succulent that a better question is which red wine would not go well with it. More casual — and common — meals raise more challenging questions. What if we’re stir-frying a bunch of different vegetables and finishing with dollops of sauce we bought at the Asian market last month, or it’s taco night and everyone at the table has slightly different fillings, or there are chicken breasts or split pea soup or you got take-out?

In all such situations, the best wines are relatively light-bodied and low in alcohol because those are the most flexible, and often with less well-known grapes because those usually come from farmer-based cultures that value simple food just as you do. Below are a couple of principles with a few suggestions. Beyond that, read alcohol levels, don’t fear unfamiliar grape names, and shop wine where you can talk food with a merchant you trust. And tune in for my next column.

Hearty foods want hearty reds…kind of. Beans, braises, sausage, dark sauces have brawny flavors, but two brawns don’t make it right. Non-special-occasion brawn matches best with something persistent yet humble. The best pairings will pick up the big flavors but provide counterpoint in the body and mouthfeel, avoiding murkiness, imbalance and one-dimensionality.
Castello di Meleto Rosso Toscano 2007 ($13, Pine State), mostly Sangiovese with a touch of Merlot, is very earthy, even a little stinky, but terrifically elegant too — a tribute to diligent winemaking that emphasizes low kiloliter-to-vine yields and stainless-steel fermentation.
Don Manuel Villafané Malbec 2008 ($13, Crush) is, um, Malbec for adults. It’s a civilized style, harmonious and restrained, with intense cocoa and baking-spices notes.
Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva 2006 ($13-14, Pine State), from Sardinia’s indigenous Cannonau varietal, is rustic, equine and briary but surprisingly light-bodied so it stays refreshing.
Ermita San Felices Rioja Crianza 2006 ($13, Devenish) is lively, lighter-style Rioja, with vivid but delicate fruit and unusually food-friendly.

A little sweetness is almost always helpful. I’ve already permanently damaged my larynx screaming about this, but seriously: almost no one truly likes a perfectly dry wine. Wine comes from fruit! Sweetness cuts the heat of spice, complements the sugars elicited by cooking vegetables, usually accompanies lower alcohol levels to befriend more foods, and makes people happy. You just need the sweetness to be offset by acidity, which in well-made wines like these is perfectly done.
Licia Albariño 2007 ($14-15, National). Galicia, Spain’s native varietal is just as aromatic as you want a white to be, but no more so. Classic Albariño oily texture, with big dried-apricot flavor and a fresh-dough sweetness, cut clean by slamming citrus. Very fresh and open-armed, very versatile: Try it with anything heavy in garlic and olive oil, herbs and green veggies.
Fruitière Muscadet “Petit M” 2009 ($12, Central). Muscadet is known as a bracing, rocky and bone-dry white. “Petit M” covers those bases, but adds splendidly integrated sphericity and a bit of fat, which broadens its potential gustatory mates past white fish: baked or fried potatoes, cannelinis, all kinds of salads.
Montinore Borealis Northern White 2008 ($10-11, Nappi), is what Oregon talks about when it talks about yum. A my-kind-of blend of organically grown Müller-Thurgau, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Riesling, this is irresistible, a kind of gateway drug to more complex German and Austrian whites. Crisp but with subtle sweetness and rose petals, this is a great match for coconut curries, Indian dals, spring rolls, sriracha.

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