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Food and Wine

Guidelines to Steer Your Instincts

Itís not that the old guidelines, red with red meat and white with fish and chicken, are no longer useful or are outdated, its simply acknowledged that the truth is a great deal more complex than we once would admit.  At the same time, however, even the most snobbish of gourmands are acknowledging that if you like a wine and it tastes nice with a dish youíve prepared, well then you have your answer!  The rules have become simply guidelines, but with more and more innovations in both cuisine and winemaking, the guidelines are more numerous than ever! 

It is true that wine and food can either enhance or diminish each other. A hearty, spicy meal can completely eclipse a bright, delicate white wine, for example.  Or a warm-hearted and toasty red wine with lots of texture can make a delicate fish develop a definite inferiority complex in the mouth.  There are also wine/food combinations that can create an unexpected dining disaster.  Experts seem to agree that artichokes, asparagus, spinach, vinegars, and even chocolate can flatten the taste of wine.  Others warn that oily fish such as kippers or mackerel can give wine an unpleasant metallic taste and texture.  Still, there are no hard and fast rules.  Some seasoned hosts would never pair a salad course with wine, while others think a crisp white or even a little vial of bubbly champagne go nicely during this course.

Since the old, simple rules have become somewhat discredited, many experts have gone to great lengths to create new systems to guide the uncertain through the process of wine selection for meals.  For most of us however, having to consult a chart with a spinning wheel in the middle and then do a comprehensive study of the elements of both the wine and the menu is a little bit daunting and unnecessary.  For the casual host, itís best to have some general guidelines at hand, anticipate some pleasant surprises, and over time your instincts will become quite accurate. 

Here are some useful general guidelines for a start: 

  1. When in doubt, simply make the red/white judgment and then choose a wine that goes well with a wide variety of foods.  In the red category, New World Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots are a safe bet.  As for whites, you usually canít go wrong with a Sauvignon Blanc or a Chardonnay. 
  2. For savory courses, in most cases, the drier choice will be more appropriate, since dry wines donít muffle the taste of food in the same way that sweeter ones do.  This is especially true if you are serving mild or delicately flavored foods that can easily become overwhelmed. 
  3. When matching wines to a menu, donít try to take into account every dish.  Simply consider the dominant character of the main dish.  Is it hearty and rustic?  Spicy and rich?  Delicate and piquant?  Creamy and mild?  This is the character that you will want to complement with your wine selection. 
  4. The heartier the meal, the more texture you want in your wine.  Texture is created by tannins (that come from the skins, stems and pips of the grape), so choose a wine higher in tannins for your hearty beef stew or roast beef feast. A Bordeaux would be a suitable choice. 
  5. There are times when you want to match wine and food characteristics and other times when you want to create a contrast.  Most of the time, you are in search of a match.  For example:
    • You generally want to match sweet with sweet.  Dry reds and whites go badly with most sweet foods.
    • A strongly flavored dish should be accompanied by a strongly flavored wine, and this usually indicates a red. Try an Aussie Shiraz or a Cabernet Sauvignon.
    • Highly aromatic wines go well with complex dishes with Asian spices.  A perfumey GewŁrztraminer is a good choice. 
    • The more intensely textured whites with a mild, nutty flavor will go well with creamy, buttery-sauced dishes.  Whites aged in an oak barrel will be a good choice.  Try a subtle White Burgundy.
    • If your main dish has a fruit component, such as grapes or citrus, bring this flavor out with a fruity wine like a Sauterne or a Chardonnay.
    • Tomato dishes are sometimes hard to match.  Try a green, tangy white such a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc; the note of gooseberry will resonate nicely with the acidity of the tomato. 

    Sometimes, however, a contrast will draw attention to the character of the food.  For example:
    • A tart, delicate wine might offset the heaviness of a mild sauce.  Try a selection from Provence and Navarra.
    • Very dry and neutral wines go well with very spicy dishes as they donít compete for attention and simply let the spice shine through.  They also have a cooling effect on the tongue. A Muscadet or a Verdicchio are good choices.

Probably the most helpful rule of thumb is simply to think of the dichotomy of delicate and powerful.  If you want to taste your food, you donít want your wine to overpower it.  If you want to enjoy your wine, you donít want the flavor of the wine to get drowned in a heavy texture and flavor.  Through the process of discovery, however, you will also find that sometimes wine and food can sometimes add elements to one another that were present in neither before they were consumed. Over time, you will discover wine and food pairings that delight you and you can repeat the theme over and over, without ever consulting a rulebook to see if your pairing was sanctioned by experts. Of course, you can always consult with your wine merchant for a recommendation and recipes also sometimes offer wine recommendations.  Above all, donít let yourself become anxious about what is supposed to be a component of your leisure time.  Remember that taste and enjoyment are paramount.


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