Pairing 101

Fish and wineI’ll begin by saying: drink what you like, like what you drink. You are the only person that needs pleasing. Secondly, know that these “rules” are more of a set of guideline to enhance your dining experience by pairing the flavors of both the food and wine so they accentuate each other. I’d like to keep it simple and give you two ways to pair, with a few examples to check out next time you aren’t sure what wine you need for your dinner party.

Rule 1:

Pair like with like, or a more accurate way to phrase this is weight with weight. People always say white wine with fish and red wine with meat, and they are not wrong. Say you have a piece of fresh swordfish on the grill, and you’re only using simple flavors of lemon to let the ingredients shine. Channel white wine like a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, more specifically Jules Taylor Sauvignon Blanc ($17), with its flavors of lemon-lime zest and gooseberry. Say you’ve decided to sauté the swordfish with full garlic butter sauce. You’ve probably chosen a nice Chardonnay (perhaps something like our own Jackie Chardonnay ($20) from Russian River Valley). Here you would pair with both the meatier fish and that garlic butter sauce, as Jackie complements with crisp pear, citrus and a mild oak to finish. Two uniquely different wines paired correspondingly well to two slightly different main dishes give you the thumbs up from your guests.

Just remember the side note for this difference:  If you have a sauce, pair to the sauce first. Your twist to this rule is Pinot Noir. If we take that same swordfish, maybe top it with sautéed spinach, bacon crumbles and blue cheese, you get a whole different animal that harkens a red—nothing heavy, but something with a nice acidity. For this, run and find a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, such as Cornerstone ($48). I like to think of this as a “wow” wine with its dark berry/tart cherry nuances that finish with a nice balance of currant. I would take this twist any night of the week!

When thinking red meat, how can you ever go wrong filet mignon? A medium-rare steak goes well with just about anything with medium or higher tannin:  I’d keep it simple with Cabernet Sauvignon, preferably Twenty Bench ($24) from Napa Valley. This wine opens with cassis, cigar box and spice, finishing with firm tannin—that simple filet will sing with those finishing tannins. Now again, as before, take that same steak and make it something special like au poivre. Where do you go with the wine? I would have nothing but Durand Cornas les Empreintes Syrah ($40). A classic dish deserves a classic wine. Just make sure to open at least 20 minutes before pouring to awaken all the layers. This wine, with its intense anise, black pepper, and blackberry notes, will buddy up with the au poivre for a pairing that’s hard to beat.

For those friends who don’t love red wine and tannins with their dinner, try Whitehall Lane Chardonnay ($26), a full-bodied and weighty white that can keep up with red meat. It comes with rich texture, notes of fig and a toasty finish.

Rule 2:

Pair opposites. Opposites attract, right? Nowhere else does this ring truer than the love affair of spicy Thai and German Riesling. Those that know it in all its glory think of Riesling a bit differently than just sweet. These wines can age longer than some of us are alive. The complexity of the flavor changes with where in the country it is grown. For Thai cuisine, I would choose Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese ($25). This particular German second harvest is a nice, low alcohol wine at 11% and showcases flavors of fresh apple and lemongrass with a hint of honey. Pour this wine when you are serving traditional pad Thai, complete with spicy sauce that harbors subtle chili heat. Not only will the soft sugar from the wine cool down the spice and get you ready for the next bit, but its low alcohol means the heat from the alcohol won’t compete for the attention.

Please remember these two simple rules:  weight with weight and opposites complement. Learn them, love them, then learn to love to break them.

Read more about wine and food in our most current issue of Wine Journal

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