Fearless Food & Wine Pairing

By Lenora Dannelke~

In recent times, Americans have been freed from some once-popular notions: We know that Bernie Madoff won’t make you rich, one size does not fit all, and you don’t have to drink white wine with chicken. Unfortunately, not everyone got the memo on that last item. Outdated and oversimplified, the red-with-meat, white-with-poultry-or-seafood edict is giving way to a more thoughtful – not to mention fun and adventurous – approach to food and wine pairing.

Vine Dining at Home

Putting a focus on not only the protein, but its preparation, creates a whole new match game. “Take your cue from the seasonings or the sauce used in a dish,” suggests Fietta Jones, regional wine coordinator for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s Wine & Spirits stores. For example, a gently poached salmon steak partners well with a white such as Pouilly-Fumé, while a pepper-crusted salmon filet can take on a red like Pinot Noir. “Stroganoff could go with either Merlot or an oaky Chardonnay,” Jones says. “Spicy Thai food is usually paired with Gewurztraminer, but I wouldn’t hesitate to serve an old vine Zinfandel. The most important thing is to drink something you enjoy.” While taste preferences are both unique and subjective, poorly matched components can alter flavors to the point where neither the food nor the wine is enjoyable. “The goal is to achieve balance,” Jones says. “Wines, like food, have weight, and should be consistent with the dish.” A heavyweight like grilled steak requires a big, full-bodied red – which has sufficient tannins to cut through the fat. Take the classic route with Cabernet, or try an Argentine Malbec, a wildly popular newcomer. However, when the fat content of a dish is embodied in a creamy, cheesy or buttery sauce – think fettucine Alfredo or salmon with Hollandaise sauce – crisply acidic white wines like Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio bring a cleansing balance to the palate-coating richness.

The most important thing is to drink something you enjoy. Wine does not have to be reserved for formal occasions

Dessert pairings can go either red or white, according to Jones. “Just keep them at the same level of sweetness,” she notes. Chocolate presents a spectrum of options, with Cabernet complementing bittersweet treats, and lighter, more sugary varieties benefiting from the honeyed character of a late harvest Sauvignon Blanc. Fruit finales, such as baked Asian pears spiced with cinnamon, become memorable indulgences when served with champagne.

And keep in mind that wine does not have to be reserved for formal occasions. Instead of reaching for a beer, Jones recommends marrying casual fare favorites with a flavor-enhancing wine. Top choices include hot wings with Riesling or old vine Zinfandel, hamburgers with Shiraz, tacos with Viognier, nachos and tomato salsa with Beaujolais,

and traditional pizza with Malbec. (Hawaiian pizza with pineapple and ham plays best with an un-oaked Chardonnay.)

Thirsting for Knowledge

Fine dining restaurants with carefully chosen, menu-coordinated wine lists present exceptional learning opportunities for budding oenophiles. “I always like to ask people what they drink at home, then make recommendations that expand a little beyond that comfort zone. If they like Shiraz, I might do a Shiraz-Grenache blend, which will have a little different flavor component without being too off-base,” says Rebecca Pichetto, a certified sommelier who co-owns Vintage

Restaurant, located at The Club at Morgan Hill in Easton, with her husband, Executive Chef Mike Pichetto. Ordering wines by the glass, or half-bottles for groups of two to four, broadens the tasting experience and ensures harmonious pairings throughout diverse courses. Jotting down impressions for future reference is recommended.

As you build a base of successful pairings, expect to encounter exceptions. “There are times when contrasting the wine to the food is what enhances the full flavor combination, like Sauterne with foie gras, which is a classic combination,” Pichetto says. “Sauterne is a dessert wine, very sweet and acidic, and the sugar and acid structure of the wine cuts through the fattiness of the foie gras.”

Even as a seasoned professional, Pichetto still encounters deliciously inspired surprises. “I had a baked raclette cheese with a Champagne. Although I never would have paired it myself, it was amazing,” Pichetto continues. “The cheese was heavy and pungent, almost oily, and the Champagne made it a lot lighter and more palatable.”

For dessert, Pichetto’s personal favorite is a tawny Port. “They’re nutty and caramel-y and just delicious with nuts or cheeses.” Consider grappa as an alternate ending to a meal. “I call it ‘Italian hooch’ – it’s a liqueur distilled from the by-products from making the wine.”

Think Globally, Drink Locally

For Mary Sorrenti, president of Cherry Valley Vineyards in Saylorsburg, the season plays a vital role in spirited partnering. “If you’re pairing in the cold part of the year, people are eating more comfort foods,” she says. “And sometimes we want to tone down things that are overly sharp – fresh garlic, for example, hot peppers, blue cheese or a heavy fish like a bluefish or mackerel. You’d want to pair those with a slightly German-style, off-dry wine. The little bit of sugar in the wine coats your palate and tones down that sharp effect.”

For vegetarian dishes, as well as Latin and Mexican cuisines, Sorrenti recommends going with a lighter red. “Something that’s not heavy on the tannins – not grapey at all – but more of a Beaujolais Nouveau-style finish that won’t overwhelm the food.”

Fruit wines crafted at this family-operated winery lend themselves well to dessert. “We do a hot mulled apple wine that’s great with gingerbread cookies,” Sorrenti says. “The raspberry spumante is bubbly, but not dry like Champagne, and that seems to bond really, really well with dark chocolate. Raspberry and chocolate – those two together are killer good!”

Devout locavores should consult the Lehigh Valley Wine Trail Cookbook, available at the nine participating wineries (see www.lehighvalleywinetrail.com for locations), which pairs recipes with locally produced wines. Lehigh Valley wine enthusiasts are sure to have grape expectations.

Lenora Dannelke, a freelance writer and author based in Old Allentown, covers food, spirits and travel for Pennsylvania Wine-Spirits Quarterly, Pursuits, Frommer’s and other publications. She has a warm place in her heart for ice wine.

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