Blind dates between wine and food
Uncorked by Thor Iverson
It used to be so simple. Want some wine with steak and mashed potatoes? Go with
a cabernet sauvignon. Lobster with melted butter? Chardonnay's the thing.
Getting fancy with a duck breast? Only
red Burgundy will do.
And then they had to go and ruin everything.
You know who they are. Those energetic young chefs who throw out all the old
rules and appear to pick their ingredients at random from a dartboard. Whether
you call it New American or fusion cuisine, culinary innovation is a fact of
It is also a problem for wine drinkers. Though it's easy to pick a wine for a
big slab of beef in a mushroom sauce (red pretty much covers it), few of
us have much experience matching wine with -- to take an actual dish I once
encountered -- "New York waterfowl on a vanilla-nutmeg-scented root-vegetable
salad with caramelized cabernet sauce."
But there's a step-by-step process to wine-food matching that can conquer
complex dishes like this one. And while it doesn't hurt to know a little about
a lot of different wines, all you really need is an understanding of how the
dish tastes (no harder than reading the ingredient list) and a basic knowledge
of how the major taste components of wine --
tannin, and so forth --
interact with food. If you're unsure, and there's no wine steward or
knowledgeable waiter around to help, don't be afraid to experiment; even a
failure is more information for the next time. (You can always refer to
for a sort of wine prep course.)
Here's a demonstration, using that New York waterfowl dish. First, don't
overlook the obvious: the sauce is cabernet sauvignon reduced to a thick
"essence" of wine, and so cabernet sauvignon is going to pair very well with
the sauce. But cabernet from where? A
and austere young Bordeaux? A
rich, spicy, long-aging super-Tuscan? A massive, fruit-driven California or
For answers, we have to delve deeper. The main ingredient is New York
waterfowl, but don't be misled by the fancy name; what we're talking about here
is a bird. Not an ultrawhite farm-raised flavorless thing like domestic
chicken, but fairly light and slightly gamy meat similar in taste to duck,
squab, or guinea hen. Birds of this type can handle a full, rich, spicy white
-- like Meursault -- but go better with a light red with its own
which is why red Burgundy is a traditional choice. But there
are other outstanding options: Rioja, Chianti, Valpolicella, pinot noir from
just about anywhere, or lighter Rhône wines like St-Joseph or
Côte-Rôtie. Blockbuster cabs from the New World will bury this
bird, as will tough-skinned Bordeaux, unless there's something that tames their
hugeness and their tannin.
Let's return to that cabernet sauce for a moment. Caramelizing the sauce
introduces an element of burnt sweetness. Since the sweetness in the sauce will
cancel out sweetness in a wine,
we need a wine that has a certain "fruit
sweetness" (as opposed to sugar sweetness). This eliminates Bordeaux from
consideration, as its austerity and rigid structure will seem bitter and
disjointed in the presence of sweetness. But everything else on our list works,
as would more serious merlots, dolcetto from Italy, and a lot of the
I wrote about a few weeks ago.
The root-vegetable salad is also important, because it suggests that a wine
with earthy characteristics would also work with this dish. Most of the wines
in our shortlist of reds have this quality, though some (Rioja, Chianti, pinot
noir and red Burgundy,
and the Rhônes) have more of it. Root vegetables
also possess strong tastes that help support the delicate waterfowl against
reasonably sturdy wines.
Finally, there's what appears to be the least significant element of the whole
dish, the "vanilla-nutmeg scent." Most people would gloss right over this,
focusing on the meat and the sauce to make their wine choice. But given the
information we already have, this is the deal-breaker. Why? As red wines
mature, they develop highly complex aromas and flavors, often including some
fairly prominent spice characteristics. These flavors in the food might be lost
with a huge young wine, just as the flavors of a mature wine can be buried by
too-intense food. But together, the spiciness of a delicate dish and the
elegance and subtlety
of an older wine make a truly heavenly match.
So what we're looking for is an older red low on the
tannins and high on the
complexity, or a lighter
young wine that mirrors those characteristics. And
we're also looking for a wine that's earthy, perhaps a little gamy, and still
has some fruity sweetness.
If I wanted a mature wine, I'd be looking for an older red Burgundy (perhaps
something relatively affordable from Lafon or Drouhin), a
5-to-10-year-old pinot noir from a good California or Oregon producer (someone
like Calera, Eyrie, or Ponzi), Chianti from the '80s or
earlier (when anything is available, it's usually Badia a Coltibuono Chianti
Classico Riserva), or a Rioja with at least five years of bottle age from a
top-notch producer like Marques de Murrieta, Remelluri, or
CUNE. With young wines, a Rioja would still be an excellent choice, as
would St-Joseph (look for Jaboulet and Chapoutier bottlings),
Côte-Rôtie (Guigal Côtes Brune et Blonde is a fine and
relatively inexpensive choice, young or old), or a young
Portuguese red from
the Dão (try the Caves Messias or something from José
Maria da Fonseca).
Thor Iverson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Uncorked archive