Stimulating Wine and Food Pairings
wine pixies

Stimulating Wine and Food Pairings

Wine and food pairing advice seems a limitless subject sometimes, but I attempt to narrow it down to two basic categories: those food suggestions I actually eat and those I can never reach, usually because I cannot afford the ingredients. Tell me to pair a certain wine with Beluga caviar and I simply will not. Russian was the language of my infancy. I continue to dream in it. If I ever do dedicate half a month’s rent to caviar, there is only one beverage with which I will match it. If I find myself springing for foie gras you can be certain I…well, the key is, expensive food demands expensive wine. I agree to the combination, wholeheartedly in fact, as long as somebody else pays!

Back here in the real world in which the wallet that opens is my own, I find myself extremely refreshed by the latest pairing ideas from Master of Wine Sheri Sauter Morano. Sheri (a good vinous name, don’t you think) chooses six wines imported and distributed by Winebow, none of which exceed $20 at retail, from six different countries. She pairs the wines with various international dishes, explaining her rationale in detail, and she gives recipes for some. I dislike the word “accessible” when it is applied to wine, but these parings are just that: the kind of interesting dishes you can actually make, impressing your friends, and leaving smiles on all faces, your own included. Add the wine, and you have…big word…synergy.

Let us take a look at a seemingly incongruous pairing, the 2010 Lois Grüner Veltliner from Austria which Sheri matches with Mexican Chicken Tacos. Before you object that no connection exists between Austria and Mexico, allow me to remind you that between 1864 and 1867 the Archduke Maximilian of Austria was Emperor of Mexico. His reign ended rather badly. I once tasted thirty Grüner Veltliners. That too, ended badly. My main memory is of acidity. With this wine from Kamptal, however, the acidity is sprightly and delightful, the wine is citrusy and floral on the nose, just the match for the Ancho Chicken Tacos with Cilantro Slaw and Avocado Cream recipe from Cooking Light. As Sheri writes, “The Grüner Veltliner, with its peppery, citrusy, green apple character proved an excellent partner for the cilantro and the limey flavors of the shredded cabbage. The acidity of the Grüner Veltliner also balanced the creamy, richness of the avocado mixture.” We tend to drink beer with our Mexican, and maybe Sauvignon Blanc. The Grüner gives us a super alternative.

I adore Albariño, in this case the 2010 Licia Albariño from Rias Baixas in Spanish Galicia. I live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where many people are of Galician (Gallego) descent, but rather than pair this wine with our distinct sopaipillas and posole, Sheri crosses the Mason-Dixon Line and chooses Shrimp and Grits. Albariño always gives me layers, some floral, some mineral, with restrained fruit that has at the same time some staying power. Sheri postulates that the Albariño matches the shrimp and grits as it would a Spanish paella, with acidity to counter the fat, and appropriate body to match the weight of the dish. “This wine” she writes “would also be delicious paired with other Southern foods such as fried chicken or fried green tomatoes.” As an Albariño fan of some enthusiasm, I would suggest this wine as a good match for a New England clam chowder, for many of the same reasons. Why restrict the pairings to the south?

We next have a 2007 Castello di Bossi Chianti Classico paired not with the obvious, Italian food, but with Hamburger topped with Mozzarella and Roasted Red Peppers (all right, quasi-Italian). I cannot admit to being a Chianti fan. It was the first wine I ever drank as a teenager, and the result was not pretty. There is something about the acidity in a Chianti, even a hundred dollar bottle (this one is $20), that ignites certain synapses I wish I no longer retained. That said, I put this 100% Sangiovese Chianti through its paces and I do admire it. It is nicely balanced, with mainstream Chianti cherry and forest floor, some clove and nutmeg spice and some tannin to stand up to the acidity. I could age this one. I love burgers, but consider ketchup an over-sweet abomination. In Sheri’s recipe, the roasted red pepper replaces the ketchup. Her analysis: “The earthy, tannic notes of the wine paired beautifully with the burger with the protein and fat in the meat helping to soften the tannic aftertaste of the wine. The notes of earth, cherries and spice in the wine also worked well with the mild flavor of the cheese and the sweet finish of the red peppers.” Score another victory for wine, and another defeat for beer.

I am never sure exactly how many accents belong in the spelling of Carmenere (so I will opt here for none). The grape is French, but now thrives in Chile where for many years Carmenere vines were wrongly labeled Merlot. Researchers and careful vineyard management have now largely cleared the confusion up. The result is the rebirth of Carmenere as a distinctive Chilean wine with much to offer and plenty of style. The 2009 TerraNoble Gran Reserva Carmenere is hardly a shy wine, an affair of deep dark fruit, spice, cocoa, mocha and vanilla with nice body and plush tannins. So why not pair this wine with a dish inspired by India: Grilled Curried Lamb Kebabs? The key to the pairing is the wine’s rich, ripe fruit, carried along by soft tannins. This combination of textures complements the physical punch of the spice in the dish, while the spicy aspects of the wine match the spicy flavors in the food. Insight, indeed. Carmenere in its Chilean configuration seems like just the right non-Cabernet to pull this pairing off. Chile makes great Cabernets, but these wines might do battle with the spice-encased proteins. The Carmenere offers much better accord.

Hopping over the Andes from Chile to Argentina, the 2010 Tilia Torrontés comes from the northern province of Salta, where high-altitude compensates for low-latitude, producing what is essentially a cool climate white wine. Acidity is respectable in this wine, but ripe fruit is the main show, primarily lime with some orange, white floral notes, and some nose-tickling spice. And, of course, Sheri continues to surprise by pairing this wine with Quiche Lorraine. The floral notes of the wine balance the bacon of the quiche, while the acidity complements the custard. Her recipe uses Gruyere cheese which, “with its slight earthy character blends well with the note of white flowers on the Torrontés.” I am famous for my own quiche, cheese-less if you must know, yet I see Torrontés as a match for many foods, none too spicy, yet foods of good weight and richness. Sheri’s mention of a Lobster Bisque seems promising.

So far on this interesting list, the Chianti Classico is perhaps the only wine type we could not consider “up and coming” rather than “established.” Even then, Sangiovese, although it shows the promise, is not considered an “international” grape variety. That distinction among this batch of wines is held by the 2010 Clean Slate Riesling from Germany’s Mosel. Sheri pairs this wine with Vietnamese Shrimp Summer Rolls and Thai yellow curry. The maps do not match, but this Riesling, like many others, balances a dollop of sweet with the grape’s characteristic high acidity. Southeast Asian foods tend to contrast flavor elements like sweet and sour in a similar manner. The Riesling’s sweet edge balances the food’s spice, while the “mix of different aromatic, savory and spicy aromas and flavors all work well with Riesling's unique combination of minerality and fruit, acidity and sweetness.” Good call. Riesling might qualify as an international grape variety in all the wine reference books, but I always feel it needs a little public relations help. I am happy to oblige, and Sheri’s food matching acumen helps in the effort.

All the dishes discussed here qualify as comfort food, but for total comfort, they need to mesh with the right beverage. If you found these plates on a restaurant menu, and the restaurant had a wine list limited to the usual, tried and true international varietal wines, you might have a difficult time finding a match. You could turn to the beer listing (and be correct in doing so). The wines here give some alternatives to compete not only with the suds, but with the usual wine list standbys. It all proves that there is no need for a wine lover to settle. My only suggestion for improvement: next time around, include a Barbera.

Verdict: Mind Expanding

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Beer ought to be running scared with these suggested pairings. Bravo!

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award


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