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There are some key principles that make pairing a suitable wine with what you’ve cooked at home very much easier. Square Meal explains, with a little help from California’s vast array of grape varieties and wine styles
In association with the Wine Institute of California (words by Natasha Hughes)
Although wine can be drunk solo, it’s even more enjoyable when it’s matched with good food. And when it comes to finding the perfect wine partner for any dish, California makes an ideal starting point. The state’s patchwork of grapes, climates and soil types means that there’s bound to be a wine to match whatever you want to eat.
10 commandments of food & wine matching
1 Rip up the rule book. Forget everything you were ever told about matching fish with white wine and meat with red. In many cases, the weight, style and flavours of the wine will provide a better guide to a good partnership than colour alone.
2 Harmony or contrast? There are two key styles of food and wine matching. One is to choose a wine whose flavours will harmonise with the dish, for instance pairing an earthy Pinot Noir with a dish flavoured with wild mushrooms. The other is to select a wine whose structure will contrast with the food, like a fresh, unoaked white to cut through a creamy sauce.
3 Balance the intensity and weight of the dish with the intensity and weight of the wine. There’s no point in pairing a rich lobster dish with a subtle Pinot Grigio from Monterey – the wine will just get lost. Equally, don’t overwhelm a simple roast chicken with a powerful Lodi Zinfandel.
4 Some wines are meant for quaffing, others work best with food. Richly fruited wines with low levels of tannin and acidity are often at their best when drunk alone. Wines with high levels of tannin and acidity, on the other hand, tend to come into their own with food. Acidity helps to cut through fatty elements in a dish, tannins help to tame the protein onslaught of red meat, especially when it’s cooked rare.
5 Remember that there are other things on the plate besides the main event. Chicken is seldom just chicken: it might be accompanied by a creamy sauce or one based on tomatoes – in which case look for a wine whose acidity will cut through the cream sauce or stand up to those zesty tomatoes. Or there might be earthy mushrooms (find a wine with earthy flavours of its own to match those of the dish) or Indian spices (the best wines will often have a trace of residual sweetness to help balance the heat of the spices).
6 Look to tradition for clues to the ideal match. As the Burgundians know well, crisp, unoaked Chardonnay from Chablis is a blissful match for oysters as is a crisp Sonoma Chardonnay, while Bordeaux’s Cabernet-based blends – and Napa’s Bordeaux-style wines – work wonders with a hunk of roast lamb. There’s no need to follow such traditions slavishly, but there’s no need to reinvent the wheel either.
7 Asian flavours require a different approach. There’s no tradition of wine drinking in Asia, so wine matching is a creative process. Bear in mind that a bit of sweetness helps to tame the hot spice of Thai and Indian curries, while the zesty flavours of Thai or Vietnamese stir fries cry out for zesty wines such as Sauvignon Blanc, as does sashimi. Sushi, on the other hand, benefits from a weightier white, such as Rhône-style blends from the Central Coast and lightly oaked Chardonnays.
8 Tannin is the enemy of spice. Dishes with high levels, particularly hot spices, strip the fruit out of wines with tannins. Don’t waste your prized Napa Cabernet on a chilli con carne or vindaloo.
9 The sweeter the dish, the sweeter the wine. Sweet desserts can make your wine seem sharp and harsh unless there’s at least as much sugar in the wine as there is in the dessert itself. Sweet wines are also good matches for salty foods.
10 Trust your own judgement. Taste is a very individual matter. If a wine and food combo tastes good to you, then it’s a good match, no matter how many other people round the table might disagree.
Some classic wine & food matches
Seafood calls for a two-pronged approach. The briny flavours of oysters are best teamed with crisp whites, such as a Sonoma Arneis, also a great foil for a seafood platter – or try a sparkling wine to cleanse the palate between each bite. In California these tend to come from the cooler reaches of Napa or from Anderson Valley. The rich, sweet flesh of lobster or scallops, on the other hand, deserves a lush Santa Barbara or Lodi Viognier or an opulent oaked Chardonnay from the Santa Ynez Valley, particularly if the seafood has been grilled or pan-fried with butter.
Try: Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs Brut (£24.50, Noel Young Wines); Au Bon Climat Chardonnay, Sanford & Benedict Vineyard 2006, Santa Ynez (£25, The Wine Society)
Pause for thought before you reach for that bottle of white. Fleshy fish such as tuna or salmon should be thought of as light meats, so often fare best with a light red, such as a Carneros Pinot Noir, or a drier rosé. Remember that firm-fleshed white fish such as monkfish benefit from being paired with the richer flavours of Rhône-style wines, like those from the Central Coast, often blends of Marsanne and Roussanne. The more delicate flavours of a simply grilled Dover sole deserve to be paired with a light, creamy white, such as a lightly oaked Napa Fumé Blanc – anything heavier would drown out the fish’s gentle texture.
Try: Fetzer Vineyards Valley Oaks Syrah Rosé 2009 (£7.49, Ocado); Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2009, Napa (£14.99, Majestic)
Meats such as chicken or pork provide an almost blank canvas against which flavours derived from sauces, cooking techniques and accompaniments are thrown into sharp relief. Simple roasts or grills can be partnered by richer whites, such as Santa Barbara Chardonnays and Central Coast Rhône blends, as well as lighter reds, particularly Russian River Pinots and Monterey Syrahs. Fruity sauces will tip the balance in favour of white options, as their sweetness calls for more fruit in the wine. Mouth-coating creamy sauces call for the acidity of a refreshing Monterey Pinot Gris, while deep spices suggest a vibrantly fruity Sierra Foothills Grenache, which will balance those deep aromatic notes.
Try: Loredona Pinot Grigio 2009, Monterey (£8.75, Bibendum); Au Bon Climat Wild Boy Chardonnay 2008, Santa Barbara (£17.50, Berry Bros & Rudd)
Red meats need big red wines. Napa’s Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots, whether blended or solo, can cope with ease. The younger and more tannic the wine, the better a match it is for rare meat. Well-cooked meat responds better to a bottle with a bit of age. Another alternative is to opt for California’s USP, Zinfandel, especially those from Lodi – their boisterous, ripe flavours match Sunday roast as easily as a summer barbecue.
Try: Robert Mondavi Winery Private Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (£9.49, Tesco); Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel 2008, Lodi (£9.49, Majestic)
Game combines lean meat with intense flavours. Choose reds with equally intense aromatics and a bit of weight. Rhône varieties should do the trick – look for Mourvèdre, Grenache, Carignane and Syrah from the Central Coast, or blends based on these grapes. Fleshy Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley is also good, especially one that’s been allowed to age and develop all those gamey, earthy notes. Younger Pinot Noir from Sonoma is also ideal for duck as its crisp acidity helps cut through the richness and its rich fruit provides a contrast to the duck’s savoury flavours.
Try: Tablas Creek Vineyard Esprit de Beaucastel 2006, Paso Robles (£31.50, Berry Bros & Rudd); DeLoach Pinot Noir Maboroshi Vineyard 2008 (£21, Marks & Spencer).
Salads & veggie dishes
These require a light touch. Anything with a vinaigrette dressing needs to be balanced by wines with high acidity. Factor in the herbaceous flavours of salad leaves and the perfect wine could be a crisp Sauvignon Blanc from Napa’s cooler vineyards. The same Sauvignon will work well with all things tomato as well – with both flavour and acidity, tomatoes call for both acidity and intensity in a wine. The earthy flavours of pulses and mushrooms, on the other hand, need earthy reds: try an aged Monterey Pinot Noir or even a Central Coast Mourvèdre.
Try: Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Napa (£22, The Wine Treasury); Cline Small Berry Mourvèdre 2008, Contra Costa County (£24.99, Oddbins)
Pasta comes coated in all kinds of sauces. Wines with high acidity work for tomato and creamy sauces, although reds fare best with the former and whites with the latter. Examples of Italian varietals such as Sangiovese or Barbera from Sonoma are rare, but are ideal for tomato-based sauces and Bolognese, because of their body. Creamy sauces call for grapes like Chenin Blanc from Clarksburg or a bright, crisp Chardonnay from Monterey – both have enough acidity to cut the richness while being fleshy enough to match the texture of the sauce.
Try: Seghesio Barbera 2008, Sonoma (£28.99, Liberty Wines); Bogle Winery Chenin Blanc 2008, Clarksburg (£10.65, Great Western Wine)
The deep, dark spices of North African lamb tagines and mild Indian meat curries can be partnered with red Rhône grapes and blends from the Central Coast – the gentle tannins of these wines and their spicy aromas combine perfectly with the flavours of these stews. The sometimes intense chilli heat of a Szechuan chicken stir-fry or a Thai seafood salad, on the other hand, partners well with a crisp Napa Sauvignon Blanc, the aromatic traits harmonising perfectly with the dishes.
Try: Bonny Doon Mourvèdre, 2008 (£11.99, Marks & Spencer); Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc, Napa, 2009 (£22, The Wine Treasury)