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Matching Food & Wine (June 2, 2004)

The best food and wine match I ever tasted was in Alsace. A small village restaurant served a warm slice of Münster cheese in phyllo pastry with a glass of chilled Gewürztraminer. Separately each would have tasted great but together the combination was pure gastronomic magic.

A well chosen wine does make food taste better, and I don't mean a slavish application of the "red wine with meat; white wine with fish" homily. Red wine, if it has good acidity – such as a red Burgundy or Ontario Pinot Noir – is delicious with grilled salmon or tuna; and if you suffer red wine headaches this doesn't mean you have to forego wine when you order a steak: you can pair it with a full-bodied Chilean Chardonnay. Trust me, if you try either of these matches, Dionysus will not suddenly appear at your dinner table and set about you with a vine stalk.

The Italians and the Portuguese, I have noticed, drink red wines with everything and they have a wine culture that goes back for millennia. Drinking red wine with everything is okay, but by throwing away all the rules you could be missing out on that Alsace experience I mentioned.

While there are no hard and fast rules about wine and food matching, there some principles to keep in mind. Always match the wine to the strongest flavour on your plate. Consider the wine and the food as a boxing match. The contestants have to be the same weight and strength, otherwise one will easily overpower the other. The weight and power of a wine depend upon its alcohol content and fruit character. A wine that weighs in at 13 per cent alcohol will be full-bodied whether it's red, white or rosé. Wines from hot growing regions such as the Rhône Valley, California and Australia will generally be high in alcohol and have concentrated fruit extract. By comparison, the wines of northern Europe, especially dry German wines, will be lighter, more delicate and have higher acidity. So consider the weight of the dish when deciding on the wine style.

The most critical aspect when it comes to food and wine pairing is the acidity of the wine. Acidity cleans the palate and refreshes the taste buds as well as prolonging the flavour of the wine. (Apart from the pleasure of the taste combination, wine helps us anatomically. The pH (total acidity) of most dry wines is similar to the pH of our stomach acids, which break down the foods we consume and allow us to digest them.) Wines that you might find too dry for your palate if taken by themselves will marry well with salty, oily or smoky dishes. Try Muscadet from the Loire Valley with oysters or smoked salmon or fino sherry with olives, for example. Both of these wines might be too "sour" for many people if consumed as an aperitif.

If I was shipwrecked on a desert island and I could take only one red and one white wine with me, I would choose Beaujolais (one of the named villages) and a Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire, such as Sancerre. Beaujolais because you can drink it lightly chilled (for fish dishes) or at room temperature (for meat and fowl); Sancerre because of its crisp acidity that goes with green vegetables and seafood. But if I was allowed only one wine I would opt for champagne, because of all wines it's the most versatile. You can drink it for breakfast and people won't look sideways at you; you can take it as an aperitif or consume it with fish or meat or cheese – at any hour of the day or night. I am, of course, assuming that my desert island has a refrigerator.

You will have probably noted that all my desert island wines come from Europe rather than the New World. This is because I find that the acid balance in the wines of France, Italy and Germany makes them more food friendly than the highly extracted Cabernets and Chardonnays from California, Australia, Chile, etc. The only dish you could match with some of those concentrated California Cabs and Zinfandels is dinosaur tartar. Such wines are fine for the first glass but they can overwhelm the palate with their power.

The current restaurant trend for fusion recipes makes wine selection trickier. When you introduce rich spices like anise, cloves, cardamom, ginger, soy sauce and sesame oil, you're going to overwhelm the delicate flavours of most dry wines, especially if there are hot peppers involved. For highly spiced and hot foods you need some residual sweetness in the wine. You might turn your nose up a White Zinfandel, but it makes a great partner for light curried dishes, Thai cuisine or Mexican food.

For spicy dishes I usually turn to Riesling in an off-dry style (like Vineland Estates Semi-Dry or a German Riesling Spätlese), a Muscat from Alsace or that workhorse grape for weird and wonderful dishes, Gewürztraminer. Which leads me to another confession: the one wine region that can offer a range of styles and flavours to match the cuisine of the world is Alsace. Think of their Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Gewürztraminer as well as their light-bodied Pinot Noir. It is perhaps no accident that Alsace has more Michelin-starred restaurants per square mile than anywhere else in the world.

Perhaps the happiest marriage of all is wine and cheese. Cheese flatters wine. Bordeaux wine merchants have an expression – "Sell on apples and buy on cheese." Apples, because of their acidity, will make wine taste sour; if a wine has enough sweet fruit it will compensate for the apple's tartness. Cheese, on the other hand, coats the tongue with fat and, like cosmetics, covers up a wine's flaws. But certain wines go better with some cheeses than others. A rough rule of thumb here is that runny cheeses are better with dry white wine, hard cheeses with red; and for blue cheeses a wine with some sweetness (think port and Stilton). If you like goat's cheese, go for Sauvignon Blanc.

When it comes to desserts, there is only one principle to keep in mind: the wine has to be sweeter than the dessert. If the dessert is sweeter (think meringue or chocolate), it will make the wine taste sharp. Sweet wines, such as Icewine and Late Harvest Vidals and Rieslings, go best with desserts that have some acidity and that means fruit-based – apple, pear, peach or berries.




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