Sunday, September 02, 2007

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

OK, after like four consecutive columns appealing to the “low-end” wine drinker I'm starting to get some flak that maybe I need to bring things up a notch. Of course, I'm also getting comments to the effect that my problem is that I just don't know how to pick the good wines at Big Lots. I can't even imagine arguing with that.

But I'm tired of tasting cheap, bad wine, so this week, I'm not going to taste a thing – I'm just going to pontificate. I mean, what's the point of being a highly trained wine connoisseur if you can't randomly pontificate about obscure wines that no one has ever heard of?

Well, you're lucky, because I'm not in the mood to expound on the virtues of 1996 Montrachet, even though it really was a fantastic vintage.

Last week's burger and fries tasting got me thinking about wine and food pairings. Pairing wine and food used to be simple: red wine with red meat, white wine with white meat. In a way, that hasn't really changed, but today it's a lot more nuanced – to the point where there is no way I can do justice to the subject in one measly column.

The main thing to remember is to try to match the weight of the wine with the food. Just as Ali vs. Twiggy wouldn't be a good match, neither would steak and sauvignon blanc. Like Ali, the steak would overwhelm such a light wine, crushing it under the assault of big juicy flavors.

We might as well start at the top. A good steak has big flavors and a lot of juicy fat in it, so you need a big wine to stand up to it. The classic pairing of cabernet sauvignon with a steak is still the best. Why? A good, balanced cabernet is going to have a lot of dark fruit flavors that will stand up to the big flavors of a juicy steak. And the fat in a good steak will tame the astringent tannins typical in cabernets. It's a match made in heaven.

Lamb isn't all that dissimilar from a steak, so of course a cab should go well, but personally I prefer syrah/shiraz-based wines with lamb. Why? Syrah-based wines tend to have smoother, less noticeable tannins than cabernet, while often having even greater richness in flavor. To me, this makes a better match with lamb dishes.

As you might expect, chicken is something of a chameleon when it comes to wine. Lemon-herb chicken might pair well with a nice sauvignon blanc. Chicken parmesan would go well with a Chianti or maybe a merlot. Chicken (particularly with some sort of cream sauce) is one of the few dishes that chardonnay actually goes well with.

Pasta (Red Sauce)

Pasta (and Italian food in general) was made for wine. Red pasta sauce has a lot of strong flavors. There's probably oregano and garlic, not to mention acidic tomatoes and olive oil. Pasta sauce needs a pretty big wine to stand up to it and shout over all those loud Italian flavors. The classic match, of course, is Chianti, but cheap Chianti tends to be weak and flabby and not near up to the task. I prefer something with a bit more backbone like a Barolo or a Barbaresco. These wines can be virtually undrinkable on their own, but a good pasta sauce can transform their fierce tannins into a heavenly match. In a pinch, a good cabernet will do the job as well.

The classic wine match for pizza is a cheap California zinfandel. And as much as I dislike most zins, I have to admit that this is a nearly perfect match.

Asian Food
The conventional wisdom is that wine and Asian food don't match, but nothing could be further from the truth. The problem is that the dark fruit and tannins in red wine don't go with the typically lighter flavors of Asian food. So pick a light white wine with good acidity instead. With curry (and Indian or Thai food in general), nothing beats a good Riesling or Gewürztraminer. Chinese food is a bit more complicated, but again Riesling and Gewürztraminer are good bets. With Japanese food, go with sake (duh). Lacking any of those, a light sauvignon blanc or even Champagne would be good backup players. Avoid heavily oaked chardonnays like the plague.

Most fish, like Asian food, can't handle the heaviness of red wine, though a few heavier fish (particularly salmon) can. In fact, my personal favorite with salmon is a good pinot noir. Lighter fish demand a more delicate wine. You almost can't go wrong with a pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc, but you might want to try a white burgundy (a '96 Montrachet would be good) or Riesling for a change of pace.

Mexican Food
I love Mexican food. I crave it. I lust for it. But let's face it, despite what anyone may tell you, wine and Mexican food just don't match. It breaks my heart to say that, but it's true. I think it's the cilantro, but honestly, I'm not sure. So what does go with Mexican food? Can you say “cervesa”?

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