It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Food and wine's balancing act

If you are particular about selecting and/or preparing the food on your dinner plate—main entrée and the accompanying side items—then it is my modest proposal that you should be equally discriminating in the selection of an appropriate wine.  Of the several ways to achieve that goal, I tend to favor the “modern update” of the “Red wine with red meat  . . .” axiom. 

That advice suggests that you should look beyond the primary ingredient (chicken, beef, sea food, etc.) and focus on the recipe’s most dominant and expressive flavors; that is, how it looks, smells and tastes.  Those defining and expressive flavors are provided by herbs and spices, sauces and gravies, rubs, marinades, oils, and a host of other flavor inducing options.  They are the delivery system for texture, aroma and flavor.

Within that context, it is also worthwhile to note that there are certain types of wines and related styles of foods that have natural affinities for each other.  What underlies the authenticity of those affinities is the notion of “balance.”  Just as a wine’s structural elements must be in balance, so too is balance at the heart of successful food and wine pairings.  As such, the food should not overwhelm the wine, and conversely, the wine should not obliterate the savory nuances of the food. Each should complement the other, and ideally, a delicious synergism results.

One way to ensure this equilibrium is your being aware of, and attentive to, the relative weight and intensity of each and how they compare or differ.  For example, consider linguini con vongole (steamed clams over pasta), which is one of our family favorites.

This recipe is simple and straightforward and the light weight (mouth-feel) and intensity (depth of flavor) of the preparation virtually begs for an inexpensive, crisp, oak-free, light to medium bodied white wine that refreshes and cleanses your palate between bites of the garlicky, oil-gilded linguini.

Going ethnic with Soave, Vermentino, Vernaccia or Pinot Grigio would beautifully confirm that affinity.  Most red wines, especially large scaled ones, would seldom be a satisfying match, because they would overpower the delicate aromas and flavors of the preparation.  This example would apply equally to lightly seasoned and sautéed fish filets, chicken breasts, pork tenderloins, as well as some basic risottos.  Balance these gentle preparations with an equivalent white or a crisp, light bodied red of similar scale.  

For heavier weight and more intense recipes, how about those wintertime stews and ragouts that bubble away on your cook top?   Such soul-satisfying, earthy recipes contain a wide variety of ingredients.  Beef or lamb stew—bathed in an amalgam of onions, garlic, stewed tomatoes, red wine and herbs—calls for a wine of similar texture, weight and intensity.  Savory and spicy reds like Zinfandel, Syrah or Cabernets make for ideal accompaniments; they embrace the underlying spirit of the recipe. 

Depending on the ingredients, Rioja Crianzas, Chianti Clasicos, and basic Cote du Rhones would nail down the ethnic-affinity aspect. Clearly, most white wines, except possibly some heavy-hitting Rhone Valley whites, would be noticeably out of balance.  Also, the above would apply equally to hearty pastas, highly seasoned sautés and outdoor grilled food.  Balance them with a spirited, spicy, full bodied red that rises to the challenge.

Lastly, food/wine pairings can also be guided by other aspects such as a wine’s maturity, the specific cooking method and whether the wine or the food is getting center stage.  And while one can certainly drink whatever one wants (even if its beer!), there are many recipes and modes of cooking that beg for particular styles of wine.  Keeping them in balance is the route to a more enhanced dining pleasure.

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