To judge from numerous magazine and newspaper articles, especially the Q&A features, I’d guess that about the most nerve-wracking decision many people face is choosing a wine to go with their dinner. Or a dinner to go with their wine: Which should get priority is often part of the agonizing. Needless to say, if that’s your major worry, your life is in pretty good shape. No such decision is life-threatening, and most are not really difficult. Common sense will carry you a long way: Zinfandel can be fine with steak, but white Zinfandel ought to be a no-no for any but the most pepsicolated palate.
Not that there can’t be intricacies involved in your choices, especially in a restaurant situation where, for instance, you find yourself having to select a single wine to accompany four different entrees chosen by four distinct palates. And it’s not all that obvious either if what you’re looking for isn’t simply a comfortable match of wine and food but a really live mating, where the wine will enhance the food and the food make the wine sing. I long ago tried to deal in fairly elaborate ways with those kinds of complications in The Right Wine, a book I think still has a lot of good information and some even better theory. (By the time I’d written it twice, I’d finally learned enough to start it.) But in most everyday situations, wine and food matchings can come pretty close to no-brainers.
Here’s a case in point: Diane and I recently joined six other curious friends for a wine and dim sum lunch at Oriental Garden on Elizabeth Street. Each person brought a bottle of wine, and we all tasted all the wines with a procession of dim sum.
Here are the wines:
- 2006 Leeuwin Estate Riesling, Margaret River, Australia
- 2005 Bott-Geyl Pinot d’Alsace, France
- 2004 Chateau Carbonnieux Blanc, Bordeaux
- 2009 Anthony Road Finger Lakes Dry Rosé of Cabernet franc, NY State
- 2000 Logan Monterey Pinot Noir, Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, California
- 2006 Tramonti Rosso Costa d’Amalfi, Giuseppe Apicella, Italy
- 1989 Pothier-Rieusset Pommard Premier Cru, Burgundy
- 1994 Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Auslese, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany
That’s a pretty eclectic group of kinds and vintages, with a fairly evident leaning toward older, more mature wines. Despite what you might think, the dim sum were less varied. They presented us with non-western spicings and flavors, to be sure, but for the most part they showed a substantial core of similarities. Except for one interlude of chicken feet, insisted on by some of us eat-the-whole-animal types, most of the dim sum consisted of minced vegetables with shrimp or pork or chicken in noodle dough wrappers, a few of them fried but most steamed. Condiments were simple, chiefly a sharp mustard and a lively chili paste. For all the apparent variety of the food, each succeeding dumpling presented almost exactly the same set of flavors as the ones that preceded it: mild Asian spicing carried by an equally mild forcemeat and noodle dough vehicle.
The wines responded to that combination pretty much as even a rudimentary familiarity with their different kinds would lead you to expect. The three youngest whites – the Australian Riesling, the Alsace blend of white Pinots, the white Graves (Sauvignon and some Semillon) – all worked well with the whole battery of dim sum, with no marked differences in interaction with any. This was because all the wines possessed a good amount of acidity, in addition to fairly assertive fruit and mineral flavors, so they weren’t cowed by any of the spices, nor – being nicely balanced – did they overpower any of the subtler flavors.
The New York rosé interacted very well indeed – perhaps the best of all the wines – with the various dishes, showing the greatest responsiveness to their differences. Rosés are rarely among my favorite wines, but this one, with its nice Cabernet franc fruit and its good Finger Lakes acidity, performed quite handsomely. The combination of slightly more intense flavor from the red grapes and the high acidity from the cool climate made it a fine companion to the near-assertiveness of the Chinese flavors.
The reds, almost predictably, did not do as well. The California Pinot noir and the Amalfi red didn’t seem very interesting in this context – just palatal lubricants, not integral parts of the meal. That was partially true too of the 20-year-old Pommard: it had as little as possible to do with the dishes, standing apart from them in its elegance – a bit light-bodied, perhaps beginning to fade a bit, but a lovely wine in a setting that neither enhanced it nor detracted from it. The now-fading fad for red wines with fish usually focused on Pinot noir as the acceptable match, but I’ve always felt that was a shotgun wedding, and this dim sum/red wine stand-off seems the same sort of marriage.
The surprise to me, in the whole lunch, was how well the 15-year-old Mosel behaved with everything. Normally, because of its sweetness I would serve an auslese with or as dessert, and I wasn’t sure how it would match with these dishes. No need to worry: Most of the dim sum activated its acidity, making it taste younger and fresher than its age, and when they were generously laced with the chili paste, its still abundant fruit-and-mineral flavors came quite delightfully to the fore. It is simply amazing how enough acidity can make the most improbable wines work with the most unlikely dishes.
So the first and most important thing to think about when matching food and wine is whether the wines you’re considering have enough acidity for the job before them. Heavily tannic wines won’t cut it with dim sum or anything like them; the tannins will make the wine seem coarse and even flabby. Acidity, on the other hand, keeps them live and supple, able to adapt to different components of the food.
The second important thing is that you understand exactly what the food is. Don’t be put off by apparent exoticism or elaborate menu prose, especially in these days of californicated cooking: Shallots and cilantro and two colors of peppercorn in a goat-cheese mornay sauce over a shell steak are still going to leave you dealing with the basic, dominant flavor of good beef (unless something has gone very, very wrong in the kitchen – in which case, why are you eating there anyhow?). Once you understand the basic “color range” of the foods, that will point you to at least the broad kinds of wines you want to work with.
I’ll talk more about wine and food matching from time to time in future posts.