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.


What can’t Riesling do? (With recipe for Maine squash and cabbage)

February 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Whatever it is, I don’t — or don’t need to — know. I’m still buzzing from my latest experience with the Leitz Dragonstone 2008, from the Rheingau. I wrote about it this week in my Portland Press Herald wine column (or see below). Cottony soft, yet with perfect electricity to cut through the fat of winter meals.

Last night was a simple one-pot prep of  sautéed onion and red cabbage with roasted kabocha squash, finished with smoked paprika and Bisson raw cream. On the side was buttermilkcornbread. All the bold-faced ingredients in the preceding paragraph are local Maine foods (not to mention the Kate’s butterMaine cornmealStraw’s eggs I used), proving that eating locally here, in mid-February, is easily done and joyful.

So, all the sweetness of the cooked cabbage, onions and squash was picked up by that Riesling, but then the circus act of the wine’s counterbalancing acidity sliced through the thickness of the squash and pure-fat of the cream. The Dragonstone has a cornmeal flavor element as well, which meshed with the cornbread and did a joyful tango with the smoke of the paprika. After the main course there was a small piece of blue cheese lying around, and darned if the Riesling didn’t match perfectly with that too!

Perhaps the best part was that I could drink as much of this wine as I wanted, given its thrillingly low alcohol level of 8%. I rose from the table invigorated rather than teetering and heading south, and had a perfect blend of calm and focus so I could write. I slept well, too.

Wine pairing 101.5: Tofu, Monastrell, Pasta, Riesling…what else?

February 16, 2011 § 1 Comment

From Portland Press Herald, February 15, 2011

Kind of about tofu, but not really. More about how to pair, with creativity and joy. Part One of…more

An exchange I had recently with a customer at Rosemont Market sticks with me, as often happens when moments don’t go right. I keep replaying the conversation in my mind, amending as I go, wishing I’d said this but not that, etc.

She was glancing at a bottle of Castano Monastrell 2009 ($9, Central), a rear-legs-kicking, gnarly desert-n-tanglewood Spanish red I happen to love (and so will you, if you love peppery, spirited red wines that don’t take no for an answer). At the same time, I was stocking shelves with a different Monastrell, the Atope 2008 ($13, Wicked) – less ornery, playing in a higher key with mint and blueberry prominent, a favorite of mine these days.

We recognized this shared moment with a somewhat uncommon grape, and got to talking. Turns out she’d lived in Almansa, the Atope’s home region, and had happy tales of quaffing Monastrell daily from the village urn at about $3 a bottle. She also had a bag of tofu in her hands, and as she grabbed a bottle of the Atope, I asked how she was planning to cook it to match with that wine.

She literally laughed. “I have no idea. You can’t drink wine with tofu.” With that, she was off to pay, and I started to say, Yes-Wait-Yes, but she laughed again and was gone.

This was what’s known as a teachable moment, and although I missed the opportunity then, I’ll try to re-seize it now. First of all, you can and should drink wine with tofu! There’s wine for everything.

Second, eat lamb, lentils or sausage and hearty greens with either of those Monastrells, and see what happens. Use the flavors and associations of a wine you know to suggest food matches, rather than just putting the wine next to food you happened to cook and crossing your fingers.

Third, the question of what to drink with tofu is as broad as what to drink with pasta. Both, plain, present almost completely neutral flavor profiles, and so what’s important is your preparation, other ingredients and sauces. (Therefore, any wine’s back label that says it’s a “great match for pastas” should be regarded skeptically.)

Simple red wines with a mix of sweet cherry and tongue-tingling acidity – like the Il Morino Sangiovese 2009 ($10, Central) or Capestrano Rosso Piceno 2009 ($10, Pine State) – are perfect if you’re covering pasta with tomato sauce, but with rabbit rag?ou need to drive deeper: Vietti Barbera D’Asti Tre Vigne 2008 ($15, Wicked) is amazing, at once gamey – chewy even – and bright. Pasta with a mushroom-cream sauce would get wrecked by that Sangiovese, but would be exalted by an earthy Pinot Noir or a nutty southern Rhone white that blends Marsanne and Rousanne. Everything, always, depends on the details.

This returns me to the tofu. If you’re beholden to that Monastrell, make your meal conform to it, and do one of these things: rub firm tofu generously with a Cajun spice mix and blacken it; or crust the tofu with ground walnuts and currants before frying; or make a sauce using roasted garlic; or add chipotles; or add bacon.

Best, though, is don’t be beholden to the Monastrell! Find additional wines to love. There’s comfort food and there’s paralysis; recognize the difference. If you prefer your tofu in Thai style, using coconut milk, ginger and lemongrass, a boisterous red wine is ridiculous. Rather, the Leitz Dragonstone 2008 ($17, SoPo), is super vigorous, lusty and open, surefooted and stony, with just enough polenta-y sweetness to offset your tofu’s heat.

But say you’re creating a different kind of Asian heat, more of a Chinese style with star anise, peppercorns and soy? For that, you want something more succulent and plunging. Try the best red wines you’re not drinking, Cru Beaujolais (I’ve written on these before; see my blog for the archive if you want specific suggestions), or the extravagantly terroir-yIndependent Producers Merlot 2008 ($11, Nappi) from Washington state, deep like an Oaxacan mole with cocoa, pumpkin seeds and innumerable other stealthy spices and dried fruits.

Pairing food with wine is endlessly fascinating, and you can do it in a playful, experimental way rather than anything grim and academic. There’s much more to discuss along these lines, but for some reason The Press Herald editors don’t hand me the entire Wednesday paper to play around in (something about world, national and local news, apparently).

For that reason, let’s consider this column Part One of an extended investigation into what wine and food actually have to do with each other. Next installment to come soon, and I’ll try to incorporate any comments and/or questions posted here. Thanks!

Terry Theise interview on Riesling, Grower Champagne and more

December 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Couldn’t quite embed the video interview with Terry on this blog, but check it out on my Facebook profile. Seventeen minutes of pure inspiration and instruction.

Terry Theise, the only wine guy you need to know about

November 29, 2010 § 5 Comments

Terry Theise, lemme count the frickin’ ways.

Please, y’all, remember that Terry Theise will be in Portland, Maine on December 7, signing copies of his book at Rabelais from 3-5 p.m., and then hosting a wine dinner at Bar Lola at 6:30 p.m.

From Portland Press Herald, December 1, 2010

This is simultaneously the hardest and easiest column for me to write. Easy because it concerns Terry Theise, my personal wine hero (and writing hero, and life hero), and I have waited a long time for the opportunity to write publicly about him. Hard because the stakes are so high: If I fail to convince you to form a long-term relationship with Theise’s work, then I wonder why I speak about wine at all.

If you love wine for its particulars but also for its metaphors; if you cherish delicacy, beauty, clarity and harmony over bravado and impact; if you agree at least partially that wine is ultimately not really about wine but is rather just one particularly useful pathway to the transcendent, then you too may come to view Theise as your Guide.

It’s due to Theise more than any other single person – his crystalline palate; his unyielding devotion to his winemakers as humans; his passionate, rambunctious, irreverent essays in his own wine catalogs and now in a book, Reading Between the Wines – that most of us know the first thing about German and Austrian wines, not to mention have come to appreciate Riesling as the most beautiful and complex grape on Earth. Theise has also exposed the corporate culture of the international Champagne market and pointed the way to grower-made Champagne (or as he calls it, “farmer fizz”).

He represents, powerfully, for the sensitive sensualist in all of us: “There aren’t a lot of emotional introverts getting the word out,” he told me. “It’s important to applaud that quiet, delicate temperament and encourage that sort of person – to say, ‘Your perspective is incredibly important.’” This from a guy who says he’s “most of the time thinking about sex, baseball and rock-n-roll.” Most of us who read Theise (as you can online, or by buying his book) adopt a kind of WWTTD-bracelet approach to life.

Although he has one of the finer palates in the world, he’s unconcerned with analyzing wines to death. “Most people think only what they’re supposed to think about wine,” he told me. “They treat wine like their life, as something that needs to be wrestled to the ground. We’re constantly being showered with beauty, but we affect an indifference to it that takes greater effort than would be required to just let it in.”

Worse even than indifference is adherence to preconceptions, which afflicts so many wine consumers when they encounter sweetness. Some Rieslings are perfectly dry (like the outrageous value Leitz Einz Zwei Dry “3”, $15), but a misconception persists that a touch of sweetness is anything other than life- and food-affirming. How to dispel this? “It’s hard, but my only real advice is to make yourself into a pure, blank receiver.” His wines beg us to meet them with our full array of sensual receptivity in the moment, rather than a scorecard.

“I approach this as an aesthete,” he said, but he’s an earthy one. His wines can be pounding-your-hands-on-the-steering-wheel-pop-song like the Gysler Silvaner 2009 ($14 liter) or quietly majestic like Dönnhoff Oberhauser Leistenberg Riesling Kabinett 2009 ($25). They can be lusty, waxy and lipsmacking like the Gysler Scheurebe 2009 ($17 liter), or spacious, oxygenated and spicy like the Darting Dürkheimer Nonnengarten Riesling Kabinett 2009 ($17 liter).

They can educate: Berger Zweigelt 2009 ($14 liter) shows the significance of integrity over concentration, as it combines dense red fruit and prosciutto without any squeeze-in-there-guys cloying or whump. Or they can seduce and sizzle: Messmer Spatburgunder ($19 liter) shows why so many of us are hooked on German Pinot Noir, wrapped as this is in silk, smoke and sand.

For Thanksgiving I provided an array of the above wines as well as some others from Theise. I didn’t push it or gush over the wines unless someone asked, and they were there among other bottles people had brought: California Pinots costing twice as much, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Burgundy. The Theise wines disappeared the fastest. For all their soul, all their distinctiveness, all the care that went into their making and their selection, they’re above all delicious and approachable. “Not every wine needs to rock our world,” Theise told me after a long conversation about world-rocking wines. “Just laugh when you’re tickled and let it all be fun.”

All Theise wines are distributed in Maine by SoPo Wine Company. Some are tremendous bargains (note the liter bottles above), others are quite pricey and lead to Theise’s palace of wisdom. For access to these, he suggests drinking less (more attentively): “If you spend $45 a week on three bottles, try spending that on two. Or sometimes, one.”

Wines for Thanksgiving? Go young, young man, and go Riesling

November 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

From Portland Press Herald, November 17, 2010

Most conversations about Thanksgiving wines are unrealistic. They presuppose a coven of wine geeks sitting quietly around a table parsing the nuances of how this or that Gewurztraminer pairs with someone’s aunt’s candied sweet potatoes.

Probably quite well, but in reality there are a lot of people in the house and most of them are just pounding (wine, if you’re lucky). And their plates are filled with so many competing flavors that trying to match the wine to the meal is folly.

Just provide many different wines and let guests choose for themselves. The wines should be inexpensive, since, let’s face it, you’re going to die a thousand deaths if you have to watch someone guzzle something pricey with heedless abandon.

When there’s variety and no sequence instructions (“Drink the Cava with the pigs-in-blankets, Mom!”), folks experiment more, and better spontaneous conversations arise.

With a lots-of-different-bottles approach, adhere to some general principles:

Have a mix of white, rosé, sparkling and red. More of the first three, less of the latter.

Emphasize freshness, brightness, minerality and vitality rather than seriousness, age, earth and heft. You’re going to be in a warm house for many hours, eating and drinking a lot. You don’t (I’m guessing) want to pass out or even spend the day oblivious. You don’t want to slaughter the food with wines better suited for red meats and aged cheeses.

Therefore, choose low-alcohol wines. Twelve percent or less.

No oak. Wines aged in oak, generally, are heftier and more egotistical, and so require more care in pairing. They also happen to match poorly with traditional Thanksgiving foods.

The traditional foods have a good deal of sweetness, which will be set off nicely by wines that have bright fruit, and a little sweetness themselves married to substantial acidity. (Acidity is what will cut the copious fat, viscosity and “oomph” of gravy, stuffing and potatoes. Along with young-wine fruit, quenching acidity will also compensate for overly dry turkey.) The sweetness is key: bone-dry wines will inject a sour, unthankful quality you don’t want anywhere near these foods or this day.

The above principles favor certain grapes. For whites: Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot blanc, Pinot gris, Grüner Veltliner, Chenin Blanc, Sylvaner, Scheurebe and sparkling wines such as Prosecco and Cava. For reds, Gamay (Beaujolais or not), Pinot noir, Zweigelt, young Barbera and St. Laurent.

Pardon the brevity of the descriptions. I hope they’re enough to pique curiosity; the wines are all spectacular.

Off-dry whites: Wallace Brook Pinot Gris ($9, National), fragrant, sharp, multifaceted; HighDef Riesling ($11, SoPo), friendly, succulent, racy; Darting Riesling Kabinett ($17 liter, SoPo), spicy, gingery; Turckheim Pinot Blanc d’Alsace ($13, Nappi), luscious, floral, focused. St. Urbans-Hof Rieslings are terrific, slate-y and dialed-in values as well (Central). Wanna splurge? Leitz Magdalenenkreuz Riesling Spätlese ($22, SoPo). (Other Leitz wines are also amazing, some lower-priced).

Exotic whites: Thomas Halby Gewürztraminer ($9, Wicked) or Robertson Gewürztraminer ($9, Davine); both are tropical and all-directions, slightly spicy and plain ol’ fun. Going big: Abbazia di Novacella Gewürztraminer ($26, Pine State), an otherworldly, joyously complicated but balanced-on-rails Gewurz.

Chenin Blanc, perfect. Dry Creek ($9, Pine State) is Californian but actually tastes like Chenin (bright, touch of earth, honey). La Craie Vouvray ($15, Central) is revelatory: chalky, grippy and singsong, with more of that honey that’s right on for herbed turkey and stuffing.

Reds: Several of my favorites are wines I’ve written about previously: Sa Ra Da ($10, Wicked) is zesty, medium-bodied and full of young fruit. Chaponne Morgon ($15, Pine State) is Cru Beaujolais leaping with berries. Zweigelt is a no-brainer grape for Thanksgiving. Some of the best around are the Huber ($15 listed, though cheaper at most places right now, SoPo) and Berger ($14 liter, SoPo).

Pinot noir is great, although often thin at lower prices. Domaine des Remparts ($16, Nappi) is 3-D, with cherries on top. Try German and Austrian Pinots wherever you find them; the combination of cherries, cranberries and fat screams for turkey and game, nowhere better than in Messmer Spätburgunder ($19, SoPo). Shakespeare drank Spätburgunder (really).

Sparkling wines are happy, clear-eyed accompaniments to the Thanksgiving table. Juve y Camps Reserva Cava ($14, National) is clean, frank and rounded, with perfect effervescence. You already have a favorite Prosecco; go with it. Louis de Grenelle Corail Rosé ($20, Central) is the dry, extrapolated essence of Thanksgiving-food-friendly Cabernet Franc. Von Schleinitz Sekt ($30, SoPo) is sparkling Riesling, two of the greatest words in any language, from a spectacular winemaker (who also makes cheaper, wonderful still wines).

Awww, isn’t that sweet?

October 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

Bestill my heart, Eric Asimov’s wine column in this week’s New York Times is about Spätlese Rieslings. There’s not much for me to add to it here; just read the damn thing. His central point is the one we’re all sick and tired of repeating: People are unreasonably afraid of sweetness in wine, holding wine to a foolish double standard they don’t apply to their food (duck? squash? scallops? root veggies?), soda, beer or even wine (California Pinot noir, anyone? Viognier?). When sweetness is balanced as well with such braced, taut acidity as is well-made German Riesling, there is no more transcendent experience in wine. Serious.

Also, note that about half of the wines Asimov and crew recommend are imported by one of my all-time heroes (not wine heroes: life heroes), Terry Theise. Terry will grace our fair city (Portland, Maine) in December, signing copies of his crucial new book, Reading Between the Vines, at Rabelais, and hosting a dinner at Bar Lola.

If you plan on celebrating Thanksgiving this year, that’s all the more reason for you to get into Rieslings. A couple of years ago I wrote a still-relevant “manifesto” of sorts, about Riesling, that has proven helpful for some people. Let me know if you want a copy.

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