Wine WITH REAL Food
PICKING THE RIGHT WINES TO ACCOMPANY THE FOODS AMERICANS REALLY EAT.
BY DAN BERGER
Pairing wine with food is not rocket science, but there really is no perfect, singular solution to the problem. For me, the match-ups that are most appropriate are really fairly easy to understand if one follows this basic rule: never allow a wine to be stronger than the food it’s going to accompany, and never allow strong food to overwhelm the wine.
However, do you notice how it always seems a lot worse than it really is? People are always making suggestions that make this sound like it’s equivalent to calculus. Imagine the following text if it had been written by one of this nation’s wine writers:
“This wine will go perfectly with braised loin of muskrat in a juniper and mandrake root kumquat sauce.”
Wine writers come up with these odd suggestions (this one was made up) for the most mundane of wines usually not out of thin air. Often it happens that they (I included) are invited to attend some wine function, at which a chef has prepared a piece de resistance, a dish of magnificent proportions.
And often these dishes do, alas, include a variety of ingredients that are next to impossible to find. And, yes, the wine he or she is writing about probably did taste great with this dish. However, to recommend that everyday Americans pick up some obscure food on the way home from work is ludicrous.
The real point is, the food we eat every day also calls for wine, and by everyday food I am referring to things like hamburgers, spaghetti, fried chicken, baked ham and macaroni and cheese. Things like that.
So what, you may ask, are the wines that go best with real food, the food we usually eat? Retailers can use these ideas to help their consumers in choosing their wines.
Hamburgers or meat loaf
Numerous wines work here, including beaujolais, with its light tannins and juicy fruit. This works especially well with burgers that have catsup added. The sweetness of the wine works with the sweet, tomato taste.
I also like zinfandel with hamburgers, but zinfandel has recently become too powerful, too alcoholic. So I have come up with the perfect alternative: Syrah (or Australian Shiraz). This plummy-scented wine often is gutsy enough to go with onions, raw or caramelized, mustard, and all the other condiments we use to doctor our burgers.
One to seek out is Rosemount Shiraz-Cabernet (about $10), a stylish, deeply flavored import from Australia.
For starters, forget the chichi primavera versions with garlic-scented olive oil, basil, and pine nuts. We’re talkin’ about spaghetti with meat sauce from a jar here, and for this I simply go for the obvious, chianti. If there is tomato sauce in the dish, I need the tartness of chianti to balance the tartness of the sauce. And one of the best values is Antinori’s marvelously structured Santa Cristina, a $10 wine that is all sangiovese.
If the sauce is a bit sweeter, try a California sangiovese, such as Atlas Peak ($15) or Vino Noceto ($13).
And of course, if the pasta is of a more radical nature, call an audible:
- * If it’s Fettuccine Alfredo, go with a rich, buttery chardonnay.
- * For pasta with wild mushrooms, try a syrah or a Rhone blend.
- * For dishes with lots of spice, go back to beaujolais.
Fried chicken or fish sticks
Mildly flavored foods like this (even if the chicken has pepper, it’s still not usually assertively flavored with herbs) require a light, clean, refreshing white wine such as sauvignon blanc or a dry chenin blanc. Aim for those that are made without oak aging, since oak and the oils that are in the dishes are not as compatible.
Among the best chenin blancs made today are from Baron Herzog, Dry Creek, Chappellet, and Folie a Deux. The fresh fruit flavors in non-oaked sauvignon blanc offer a nice counterpoint to fried foods as well. Among the best: Geyser Peak ($10) and St. Supery ($12).
As the weather turns warmer and we think of taking the tarp off the kettle barbecue, sausages become a relatively quick dinner item. Paired with a salad, garlic bread and a side dish of fresh corn, you have an easy meal. The wine should be an easy choice, too, but I tend to look at the sausages before picking.
If you have real kielbasa or any other highly seasoned sausages, you may prefer a bottle of sparkling wine, such as Domaine Carneros ($20), Mumm Cuvee Napa Brut ($14) or Domaine Chandon Brut ($14).
For milder sausages, try a lighter zinfandel. If the sausages are chicken or turkey-based and lighter in seasonings, such as a classic chicken-apple sausage, try gewurztraminer or a dry riesling.
Whether you’re having beef, chicken or ribs, this kind of food usually has a slightly sweet sauce on it, or was marinated in it. Thus I prefer the counterpoint of a hearty beer, such as a micro-brewed wheat beer.
However, BBQ is a very personal thing, and so should be the wine chosen to work with the style of the sauce. If the sauce is not sweet, or if the meat was dry-rubbed with spices, try zinfandel or a medium-weight Rhone wine. Ridge makes a number of superb zinfandels that work here. Many California wineries make Rhone blends that are great with barbecue, notably Joseph Phelps’ Vin du Mistral. One wine to look for here is Guigal’s Cote du Rhone, a near-perfect match for barbecued meats.
Tuna casserole, macaroni and
cheese, fondues, or any other
Chardonnay usually works here, but again I prefer to stay away from the heavily oaked versions. Look for something from Mendocino, Monterey or Carneros, three cooler regions of California. Another wonderful melted-cheese accompaniment, if you can find it, is Savennieres, a chenin blanc-based white wine from the Loire Valley. Or try the dry chenin blancs.
Pink wine for pink food! With the flavors in the typical ham coming from clove or pineapple, a slightly sweet rosé wine is a perfect accompaniment. A number of wineries now make rosé, including Joseph Phelps, Geyser Peak, Bouchaine, and even Clos du Val. Many of these are in limited supply, so you may have to contact your distributors, or the wineries, for details. However, one recent import to the U.S. is the exciting new Marques de Caceres Rioja Rose wine, a blend of 80% tempranillo and 20% garnacha. At about $8, it’s a steal.
Chicken fried steak with
This middle America classic is almost never served with wine in the nation’s heartland, but I had one once with a very light cabernet sauvignon and it was fine. One of my favorites: Louis Martini Cabernet ($13). (If you’re in a diner in East Texas, however, and you ask for a Cabernet, expect to be laughed out of the place.)
If you like the flavors in stir-fried foods with soy sauce, ginger, garlic and fresh vegetables, try a gewurztraminer. Indeed, it also works well with the assertiveness of Thai, the delicacy of Japanese, the mildness of Mandarin, or the intensity of Szechuan. Or try a California sparkling wine. German Rieslings also work here, but avoid those that are totally dry (the labels say Trocken) since they will be too tart to compete with the sweetness often found in these dishes.
It’s true that most white wines work better than reds here, but there are subtleties that make this a potential stumbling block. For one thing, if the seafood is grilled and served with little if any sauce, or a citrus sauce, sauvignon blanc or pinot gris is better than chardonnay. The latter is best with seafood in creamed sauces.
Salmon and tuna are usually best with light California or Oregon pinot noir.
Few Americans know of the joys of serving a dash of sherry in soup and a small glass alongside. Sipping a light, well-chilled fino sherry with soup is a treat all too often ignored in the rush to get the food on the table. Try either La Ina or Tio Pepe, two of the top Spanish fino sherries. Even if the soup is from a can, sherry can elevate it into a more sublime experience.
Eggs normally do not work with wine, though when the innards of the dish are hearty and you desire a wine for it, think mainly of the flavors of the dish. If the interior is mainly cheese, seek out one of the wines suggested above for the cheese dishes. If the omelet is seasoned with green herbs and has a salsa on the side, try a sauvignon blanc.
A final thought: if a dish seems to have no perfect accompaniment, think of serving a sparkling blanc de noirs, often a salmon-hued bubbly with ample but delicate flavors. One of my favorites: Gloria Ferrer ($18), a superb, perfectly balanced bubbly, and an all-purpose choice when inspiration fails you.
Dan Berger, wine columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, also publishes a weekly commentary and newsletter on wine, called Vintage Experiences. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (888)662-WINE
NO WINE NEED APPLY
On the truly absurd side of the ledger are dishes that simply don’t work with any wine at all.
I was a judge at a wine competition a couple of decades ago, and one evening the organizers asked all the judges to join them at a pay-your-own-way dinner at a fancy local restaurant.
I agreed, even though the tab was steep, and when I arrived I was “treated” to one of the worst dishes I ever tasted in my life: roasted rolled pork loin stuffed with basil, garlic and pine nuts, which then was sliced and sauteed in jalapeno jelly. We tried six or seven wines, none of which worked. One judge refused to eat the dish. He left and returned with a hamburger from a fast-food joint across the street.