Columns by John

John Brown has been a wine and food columnist in West Virginia since the 1980’s. His regular columns appear in the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail under the title Vines & Vittles and in The State Journal - a statewide business weekly

Pairing wine and food

Boy have I been sipping some excellent wines this summer.  I’ve also been pairing them up with some yummy culinary treats – which is the equivalent of a gustatory double whammy!  I’ve also found that cooking the family meal is a great way to get out of yard work, and that’s reason enough for me to do my sweating in the kitchen.

I’ll be the first to admit that finding the appropriate food and wine match can be tricky. But I have acquired a lot of experience over the years, mainly through trial and error, and I’ve come up with some pairings that work for me and just might work for you too. 

Like all rules in wine appreciation, there are really no rules. In other words, if you enjoy filet mignon with Uncle Fred’s Rhubarb Red, then go for it. However, the overwhelming school of thought when it comes to finding the best food and wine pairing is to pick flavors that are complimentary. There are times, though, when it is best to find wine that has some contrasting elements  to the edibles.

And just like a good old West Virginia ward healer, I can go in either direction - depending on the circumstances, the mood or which way the wind is blowing. Okay, so here are some common sense principles to follow.

Lighter-bodied foods go best with lighter style wines while heavier flavored foods are best paired with fuller-flavored wines.  For instance, a poached white fish would go best with a lighter styled white wine such as a white Bordeaux or Albarino from Spain. Conversely, a well-marbled strip steak would be a great match with a robust red wine such as cabernet sauvignon or zinfandel.

The addition of sauces or spices to a dish can add a flavor dimension that can affect the wine you pick.  For example, sauvignon blanc is an excellent choice with poached salmon in a dill sauce, but grilled salmon that has been dusted with cumin, black pepper and chili powder needs a medium-bodied red such as pinot noir.

Textures also play a role in determining the best matches and this is where “contrasting” comes into play. Say you have a rich, fatty piece of beef, the ideal wine is probably a young tannic red, not only from a complimentary flavor standpoint, but also because the astringency of the tannin in the wine provides a contrast and serves to cleanse the palate.

To be successful in finding that perfect match, you need to consider flavor, texture and weight of the food and wine pairing. You wouldn’t logically pair a full-flavored red wine with a delicate broiled seafood dish such as Dover sole. Think about it. The flavors, textures and weight are all out of balance. Try a delicate Chablis, an Italian pinot grigio or a Washington State semillon.   

Here’s the closest to an absolute wine and food no-no: vinaigrette salad with any wine. Why? The vinegar based dressing clashes with the acid in wine destroying the flavors of both the salad and wine. Creamy or cheese dressings work fine with sauvignon blanc, riesling or viognier, but nothing works with vinaigrette. Well, maybe an inexpensive sparkler with lots of fizz. 

Try   pinot noir, Chianti, or even Beaujolais with grilled salmon, tuna or chicken. Zinfandel, rose’ and shiraz also pair wellwith spicy foods, particularly Southwestern  (US) fare. Ditto, slightly sweet gewürztraminer or riesling. Both go well with oriental dishes, especially Thai food.Roasted turkey can handle just about any dry wine, but I particularly like red Rhone wines, Alsatian pinot gris and merlot-based Bordeaux.    
As I have stated for the record many times before, chocolate desserts love cabernet sauvignon. Ices and sorbets are great with muscat and sweet sparkling wines. Try blue cheese with port and zinfandel. Sweet late harvest riesling and Sauterne with, believe it or not, liver pates are also odd couple pairings.
 I could go on and on, but there are also some other resources you can use.  Try this website “Food and Wine Pairing” at http://www.foodandwinepairing.org. 
And Natalie MacLean, creator of Nat Decants, the wine web site at www.nataliemaclean.com, has teamed up with the software developer bitHeads to create an application that works on your iPhone, iPod Touch, BlackBerry Bold and BlackBerry Curve.  
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