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Dining with Wine (September 9, 2004)

A great modern philosopher once wrote, "Men are like fine wine... They start out as grapes, and it's up to women to stomp the crap out of them until they turn into something acceptable to have dinner with."

No, this article is not about personal relationships. It's about "something acceptable to have dinner with."

More and more Toronto restaurants are getting into the food & wine thing. That is, recommending wines on their list for specific dishes, especially with tasting menus that feature multiple courses. "Wine by the glass" programs in most rest aunts make it simpler for everyone to have the wine that best complements their dish rather than to compromise with a bottle of rosé for the table when fish and meat are ordered.

Not that you have to stick slavishly to the red-wine-with-meat, white-wine-with-fish homily. What do those who suffer red wine headaches do when they order rack of lamb? Do without wine? No need. You can have a white wine as long as it has the weight to match the dish – that means a flavourful, high-alcohol wine with lots of extraction. An Aussie Chardonnay with rack of lamb goes very well. The trick is to treat food and wine as a boxing match: put unequal contestants together and one will overpower the other at first bite (with apologies to Mike Tyson).

There is a modicum of sense to the white-wine-with-fish concept. The oils in some fish, especially salmon, make some reds taste tinny. The acid in white wines cleanses and refreshes the palate. But there are reds that go beautifully with salmon and tuna because of their high acidity – Ontario Gamay and Pinot Noir, red Burgundy and Beaujolais, for instance.

Champagne is the wine equivalent of the little black dress. A no-brainer choice that is suitable for every occasion – from soup to nuts. But champagne, the real stuff, is expensive, so most of us have to consult the list.

Wine lists should not be a chess problem. If you want to simplify your wine choices and don't want to spend a half hour working out the combinations, zero in on a single red and white that go with just about everything on any Toronto restaurant's menu – except perhaps Susur Lee's: Beaujolais-Villages, especially the village-named wines (Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, St. Amour, Brouilly, Julienas, etc., etc.) or a Sauvignon Blanc (either from new Zealand or from the Loire – Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé). These two wine styles will see you through virtually any dish with no problem. With fish all you have to do is ask the waiter to chill the Beaujolais. That will bring out the acidity. With meat, drink the Beaujolais at cellar temperature.

A note for red wine headache sufferers: what you are reacting to is red wine is tannin. Tannin releases histamines in your system. If you're allergic to histamines you will get a headache. Try taking an aspirin before you take a glass of red. Or try a red with as little tannin as possible – reds made by a process called carbonic maceration, such as Beaujolais. Think of Beaujolais Nouveau: you can drink it at six weeks old because of its low levels of tannin.

Tannin has its uses, though, when matching food. If you like your meat cooked rare, order a young red wine that has tannin on the finish (tannin leaves a dry sensation on the roof of the mouth and a flavour like overly-strong tea). The tannin will soften the taste of iron inherent in the blood of meat. If, on the other hand, you like your meat well-done, choose a mature red that is soft on the palate (generally speaking, this would mean New World reds from warm growing regions, such as California, Chile or Australia).

The best food and wine match I have ever experienced was in Alsace. At a small country restaurant I ordered the local Münster cheese that had been prepared in phyllo pastry. It was served warm as a wedge of cake with a glass of chilled Gewürztraminer. It was sublime.

Basically, there are two ways to match food and wine. You either complement the flavours – Sauvignon and goat's cheese, for example – or you contrast them – Port and Stilton. The main thing is to recognize the balance between the solid and the liquid (back to the boxing analogy again). A wine can taste magnificent by itself but it can completely obliterate the taste of a delicate food. An Australian Shiraz will swamp a veal chop but goes a treat with pepper steak.

When it comes to desserts, the only principle to keep in mind is that the dessert wine has to be sweeter than the dessert. Otherwise the dessert will make the wine taste acidic. The best matches for Icewine and Ontario Late Harvest wines, for example, are fruit-based desserts, especially apple, pear, peach, apricot and berries.

But using the "contrasting taste" idea, try serving an Icewine with foie or duck pâté.

In a word, be adventuresome when it comes to matching wine and food and remember that a wine you may not like by itself is changed in combination by the food. A Muscadet might be too sharp on the palate for you, but try it with oysters and see what it does. You might turn up your nose at White Zinfandel, but with a lightly curried Thai dish it's delish.




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