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Choosing the right wine for a meal can be a tricky process. Natasha Hughes explains the basic rules of food matching and guides you through the popular grape varieties
In association with the Wine Institute of California
The idea that the wine in your glass and the food on your plate should be, at the very least, compatible matches – if not true soul mates – is a pretty basic concept, and one that’s embraced by winemakers in California. But how do you work out which wines go with which foods? There’s a lot of nonsense talked about food and wine matching, prescriptive rules which dictate that red wine and fish is a no-go, for example. But if you bear a few simple principles in mind, you can chuck out the rule book and get the best out of your matches.
Most of us begin thinking about food and wine matching by working out which flavours in the wine might be compatible with flavours in the food – or vice versa. This way madness lies. You could torture yourself forever trying to pick the perfect food pairing for Cabernet Sauvignon’s blackcurrant and pencil shaving flavours. Instead, think about a wine’s structure and weight. You wouldn’t want to swamp the delicate flavours of a simply grilled Dover sole with an unctuous Viognier, while a light-bodied Pinot Noir would be overwhelmed by the flavours of a hearty, meaty stew.
There are two key styles of matches: complementary and contrasting. An example of a complementary match would be one in which a fish dish with a creamy sauce is enhanced by the creamy texture of a rich white aged in oak. A contrasting match would team the same dish with a white high in acidity to help cut through the richness of the sauce. Neither style is better than the other – which you opt for depends on your preference.
If you remember that the main ingredient is seldom served in isolation, this should help narrow down your choice of wine. For example, pork is never just pork. If you’re serving a roast loin with crackling and apple sauce the best match might well be an unoaked Chardonnay. Serve the same roast with apricots rather than apple sauce and your optimal wine could be a Rhône-style blend of Marsanne and Roussanne. The same bit of pork slow-roasted Italian-style with fennel and garlic might be more at home with a Pinot Grigio. But if you’re chucking some marinated pork ribs on the barbie, you’re better off teaming them with a spicy Shiraz or a richly fruited Zinfandel.
When you’re planning a meal, think about how you’re going to progress from one wine to another. You don’t want to follow a rich, hefty wine with something delicate – that’s why full-bodied reds are usually reserved for the main course. If you’re only drinking whites, bring on the oak only after you’re done with lighter styles. You can follow a lightish red with an oaked white, if your menu dictates. And save your unctuous sweeties for puddings –a good rule of thumb here is that the wine should be at least as sweet as the dessert or it will appear to be very dry.
You can get a good clue as to whether a wine will match a dish from local cuisines. If Bordeaux’s reds are considered to be the perfect match for the local lamb, there’s no reason why a Cabernet-Merlot blend from California wouldn’t work just as well. Chablis works brilliantly with oysters – and so does unoaked Chardonnay. However, when it comes to dishes from countries without a wine tradition – Asian cuisines in particular – you need a different approach. By and large, aromatic whites, from Sauvignon Blancs to Viogniers, are a great match for spice. But if you want a red with your curry, remember that tannins and chilli heat are bitter enemies, so go for gentle, fruity reds instead.
Probably the most important rule of all is that you should learn to trust your taste buds. If you don’t enjoy Sauvignon Blanc, for instance, it’s never going to be the perfect match for your Thai seafood salad.Nevertheless, in the same way that roast beef and horseradish always work together to create a flavour that’s more than the sum of its parts, some grape varieties or wine styles have a particular affinity for certain foods. Taking a look at the range of wines produced in California proves the point…
‘Probably the most important rule of all is that you should learn to trust your taste buds’
The crisp freshness of an unoaked Sauvignon Blanc from a cool-climate zone like Mendocino County cuts through goat’s cheese, matches pungent asparagus and makes a perfect partner for a green salad. Richer fumé styles, such as Robert Mondavi’s Fumé Blanc or Duckhorn Vineyards’ Sauvignon Blanc, both from Napa Valley, have the weight and tropical richness to partner Asian stir-fries and salads.
Chardonnay can assume many forms, depending on terroir and winemaking techniques. Unoaked Chardonnay from a cooler climate, such as the Sonoma Coast, will work well with delicate shellfish as well as vegetable risottos. As you go up the scale in oak and ripeness, look for richer foods. Try a medium-weight version, such as Sonoma-Cutrer’s Russian River Ranches Chardonnay, with char-grilled salmon and potato cakes. Rich, full-bodied Chardonnays from Napa or the Central Valley can take on fuller-flavoured seafood, as well as roast chicken.
Pinot Grigio or Gris varies in style from light neutrality to richly textured with ripe flavours of stone fruit and spices. Lighter styles, such as Hendry’s Napa Valley Pinot Gris, work well with fleshy white fish, salads and spaghetti alla vongole. Headier wines, or those with a little residual sugar, such as MacMurray Ranch’s version from Sonoma Coast, fare best when paired with gently spiced Indian curries or Chinese stir fries.
The trio of white Rhône grapes, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne, have found themselves a home from home south of San Francisco Bay. The Central Coast delivers wines whose richness and heady aromatic profile make them terrific matches for Asian dishes ranging from sushi to curries. These grapes, whether alone or as part of a blend, have the weight to tackle richer types of seafood – Viognier and lobster is a must-try match – and white meats.
California produces a huge range of rosés, ranging in style from popular sweet blush Zinfandels to drier wines based on a diverse range of grapes including Merlot and Syrah. The sweeter styles are worth trying with barbecued meats. Off-dry rosés can be wonderful with a range of spicy dishes, while the driest rosés make perfect mouth music with dishes based on salmon and tuna and are useful picnic wines.
Some consider Pinot Noir to be the ultimate food wine – and with good reason. This versatile grape complements a huge range of dishes, from seafood to game. Whether the wine comes from Monterey, Santa Barbara’s Santa Ynez Valley, Sonoma’s Russian River Valley or the Carneros district, younger versions, with all their ripe red berry fruit, match full-flavoured fish, such as tuna, swordfish and salmon, just as easily as they partner roast chicken or duck. As the wines age, they take on earthier nuances that allow them to stand up to all kinds of game, from roast pheasant to venison stew.
Cabernet Sauvignon is king of the Napa Valley, though it is widely planted elsewhere in California. Whether it’s varietal or part of a Bordeaux blend, it makes wines that work well for red meat lovers. Traditional favourites include roast beef or lamb, but Cabernet blends also make great matches
for game – particularly venison.
If Cabernet Sauvignon is king of the Californian vineyards, Syrah is the crown prince. Its increasing popularity is due, in part, to the fact that it is such a pleasant dinner companion. Richer versions from warmer climates, such as the Central Valley, are at home with hearty winter stews, summer barbecues and the Sunday roast, and are particularly good when teamed with meat cooked with fruity sauces. Lighter styles from cool-climate zones such as Santa Barbara can be teamed with zingier flavours – try one with Chinese duck.
Plummy, juicy Zinfandel is king of the barbecue. Its richness and weight makes it the ideal match for caveman-size hunks of red meat charred over an open flame. In winter, try teaming a bottle with a heart-warmingly rich beef stew.
In association with the Wine Institute of California