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Matching Food with Wine

From Pocket Wine Guide: enemies and friends of wine

Marriage of Wine with Food

There are no written rules about matching wine with food.  In "high gastronomy" it is usually the sommelier who chooses the wines to be served with each course.  On the other hand, it is not uncommon for the chef to create a dish to match a particular wine.  Opinions as to a perfect fusion between food and wine differ and therefore we should not be afraid to experiment.

When entertaining at home, attention should be paid to all elements that enhance the appearance of a well dressed table.  The colour of the tablecloth, napkins, types of accessories and decorations used, floral arrangement, the presentation of the food and the colour of the wines.  A wine has to be chosen for its characteristics and personality:  colour, aroma, alcoholic strength, low or high acidity, tannins, its body and structure.  All this is taken into consideration when selecting the right wine to accompany any particular dish.

In order to get maximum pleasure from the art of matching wine with food, which can be a fascinating as well as complex subject, there are two schools of thought:  (1) matching like with like (for example goose liver  foie gras with a lush and opulent Gewurztraminer Vendange Tardive or Sauternes); or (2) providing contrast (rich fatty pork dishes can be cut by the acidity of a light, fruity style of wine (a typical example can be an Italian Lambrusco di Sorbara of  DOC category whose normal marriage is with the Bolognese cuisine of Emilia-Romagna in Italy).  Both can be a success.  Try to avoid serving powerful full-bodied wines to delicately prepared food or neutral wines to hearty and spicy casseroles.  They have to complement, not overwhelm one another.

The following are some classic basic rules for finding perfect harmony between wine and food:

  • Fruitiness, freshness and higher acidity of a young wine will go well with fish and seafood, especially if the same wine was used in the cooking.
  • Red meat can be successfully combined with red wine rich in tannins that withstand the richness of the texture of the meat.
  • Wines should be somewhat more refined than the accompanying food.  Rich and spicy meat can find a partner in any good red of an older vintage, but for example a duck a l'orange will need a somewhat more delicate and fruity red.
  • As a general rule, white wine should be served before rosé, which, in turn, should precede red, dry should come before sweet and young before old.
  • Always serve the oldest vintage last.

Of course, rules are made to be broken and there are several exceptions with which we will  acquaint ourselves later.  Let us therefore start from the beginning, with the aperitif.

Avoid serving peanuts with an aperitif.  Apart from their ability to make you scoff the entire bowl, they completely destroy the taste of fine wine.  Olives are also a little dangerous, apart from their natural partnership with Retsina, Fino Sherry and Dry Martini.  Choose between almonds, pistachios and other nuts or water biscuits to accompany welcome drinks.

Canapés topped with garlicky spreads or croűtons dunked in Aďoli sauce require thirst quenchers, such as a fruity dry rosé, whilst smoked salmon which combines saltiness and smokiness calls for a bone dry yet intense white wine.  Perhaps a Pinot Gris, Riesling or better still, vodka, aquavit and similar.

Cold meat and cheese platters are best with young fresh and slightly chilled red wine of the Beaujolais type.  Local Blauer Portugieser (Modrý Portugal) or Zweigeltrebe Rosé are also good.

Salads dressed with vinaigrette, mayonnaise, lemon and other dressings can also ruin a good wine.  I use Italian Aceto Balsamico from Modena, which is delicious and not so harsh.  With salad as a starter, a zesty white or a more substantial rosé or even a light chilled red wine can work.  With salad served after the main course no wine is recommended.

Champagne and caviar - myth number one:  It is true that caviar, whether it is Beluga, Sevruga, Oscietra, Malosol, Russian or Iranian, Keta or trout-egg caviar and colourful black or red lumpfish eggs will destroy most fine wines, therefore it is best to serve it with well chilled vodka.  If you insist on bubbles, then perhaps only the more corpulent Krug (if you can afford it!) or Vintage Taittinger can stand up to it.

Soups are usually unsuitable partners for wine.  However light consommés can be matched by fuller whites or dry Sherry or Madeira.  Otherwise young and fresh whites can cope with cream soups and light reds with tomato and minestrone.

Fish must swim and therefore it has to be accompanied by white wine - myth number two:  Our grandmothers’ old adage is applied more or less as a general rule for serving crisp dry white wine with fish and seafood, however, it is possible to enjoy fish with red wine.  A typical example is Lamproie (lamprey) a la Bordelaise, which comes from the Gironde estuary in the region of Bordeaux, and is perfect with a five-year-old Saint Emilion or Fronsac, according to Hugh Johnson.  Similarly, sandre (zander) poached in red Sancerre, a recipe from the Loire Valley where this river fish is abundant, accompanied by the same wine is a marriage made in heaven.

Notwithstanding the above, one has naturally to be careful  not to offer with oysters and caviar an older vintage from Burgundy or a Bordeaux or indeed any other full-bodied reds which have additionally matured in barrique, as tannins and sea salt are mutual enemies.

Stronger tasting fish, such as tuna, can withstand fuller whites or even light reds.  Delicate fish, however, demands a dry, gently flavoured wine, such as Sylvaner or Riesling.

Seafood, especially oysters, mussles and sea-urchins, all go well with dry, forward white wines.  One of these examples is Muscadet from near the Atlantic coast in the Loire region made from the eponymous grape variety (syn: Melon de Bourgogne).  Local wines with high acidity, especially those made using interspecific varieties, also work well, which was confirmed by the French during a tasting of Moravian wines undertaken in the Muscadet region itself!

Rice and pasta are often the basic accompaniments for meat, poultry, as well as fish dishes, mainly in  Mediterranean Europe, and wines should therefore be chosen according to the ingredients found in them.  Lasagne, cannelloni and other types of pasta respond well to rosé and light reds, whilst for a risotto with seafood and white meat the ideal companion will certainly be a crisp young white.

With poultry the choice of wine depends largely on the method of preparation.  Again, if wine has been used in the cooking, the same wine should accompany the dish.  For chicken poached in white wine, the same wine is a must, whilst for, say, coq ŕ la bourguignonne it is recommended to have one bottle of red Burgundy in the casserole and one on the table!  Roast turkey and other white meats like rabbit and veal can be matched with either white or red wine.  Pork can also provide enough latitude for either white or red, depending on the method of preparation.  However, to wash down the traditional Czech roast pork with sauerkraut and dumplings, pick a pint of the local brew, such as Budweiser (Budvar) or Pilsner, although a similar dish in Alsace called choucroutte is ideally accompanied by their local Riesling, in which this is often cooked.

As stated above, red meats will generally be paired with red wines and the permutations presenting themselves here are endless.  One of the traditional classic marriages made is between lamb or beef and Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.

Game and hearty meat casseroles should be served with full-bodied reds - myth number 3:   Although venison cooked in red-wine sauce accompanied by the same red wine that was used in the cooking is an ideal partnership, try to experiment  with a full-bodied Riesling or Pinot Blanc of the Prädikat category.  One of the most significant ambassadors and promoters of German wines, the late Graf Erwein Matuschka-Greiffenclau, 28th generation at the renowned Schloss Vollrads and its winery, and proprietor of the Michelin-starred restaurant Graues Haus in the Rheingau's village Oestrich-Winkel, was a successful propagator of using German white wines in gastronomy.  From his booklet entitled "Harmony Between Wine and Food"  I quote:  "Duck in orange sauce according to Escoffier can be partnered by a Riesling Spätlese, whilst hare, pheasant and partridge are ideal with Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc or Ruländer (Pinot Gris).  For a contrast, try venison steaks and casseroles with Riesling Auslese."

Cheese and wine can be friends as well as foes.  This carries through to such an extent that a cheese can either compliment or overwhelm a wine.  All but the mildest cheese could be a problem, therefore it is best to select a youthful, fruity red of medium body rather than a fine rare vintage.  On the other hand, lusciously sweet whites such as Sauternes or Beerenauslese can make a good match for salty, strong blue cheese like Roquefort or Gorgonzola, whilst Port and Stilton or Cheddar have traditionally been ideal partners since as far back as memory goes.

Sweet wine should be served with desserts - myth number 4:  The truth is that desserts represent a great danger to wine and the term dessert wine is a bit of a misnomer.  If in any doubt, you can play safe by sticking (excuse the pun) to demi-sec sparkling white or rosé.  Amongst the pudding wines tried and tested and available in this country are the fortified Muscats (Rivesaltes of France, Samos of Greece), Moscatel (from Setúbal, Portugal or Castillo de Líria, Spain), Marsala from Sicily,  Mavrodaphne of Patras, Greece or port-style wines.  With chocolate it is difficult to find any match in wine, so one can try Spanish Brandy or aromatised or cream liqueurs (Tia Maria, Baileys...).  Local specialities, such as the delicate varietal wines with special attributes made from Tramín, Moravian Muscat, Chardonnay or Sauvignon will be completely destroyed by sweetmeats, especially when chocolate is one of the ingredients.  What a pity to spend more than a 1,000 crowns for a 0.375 litre bottle of ice-wine or straw-wine and then ruin it at the table.  "Château Baker" abides by two elementary rules:  (1) fine wines in the high-residual-sugar category, such as ice-wine, straw-wine or the Sélection des Grains Nobles botrytised wines offer a perfect aperitif;  (2) richer styles like Amarone, Tokaj or Vintage Port, when indulged in, are best drunk for meditative purposes only, once everything has been cleared away from the table.

Enemies of Wine:  Apart from obvious pitfalls like chocolate, smoked mackerel, rollmops, there is a whole host of innocent foods that can pose a problem.  Watercress, which produces formic acid, clashes with the wines and certain types of vegetables (spinach and artichokes) react in such a way as to make them taste metallic.  Asparagus can probably only find a successful match with a more aromatic and full-bodied white or perhaps Sherry.  Eggs and egg dishes have a viscous structure which dulls the palate and spoils the taste of a finer wine.  A nice cup of tea works best, otherwise everyday wine of unexceptional quality of any colour will do.  Onion, garlic, tomato-sauce-flavoured dishes with herbs such as basil or oregano demand youthful reds or rosé, whilst the exotic flavours of Chinese or Indian cuisine are possible to marry with slightly more aromatic whites like Traminer or even such an outsider as Muscadet.  If you come across a Hibernal, Malverina, Orion, Savilon or Freiminer or some other of the local interspecific crosses, that may also be worth a try.

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