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
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
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
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.