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Food and Wine Pairing: The Nice and the Nasty

Wheels of Cheese and Wine

Many self-claimed wine aficionados insist on drinking robust reds with all dishes. Others think all Chardonnay is oaky or all Riesling is sweet. (Neither is the case). Still others refuse to drink white wine at all.

Fish on beautiful plate

Red wine with fish? It can work with the right wine.

It’s fine to have preferences. But stubborn imbibers are in for some nasty food and wine mismatches. The chemistry simply doesn’t work.

For instance, quaffing a burly shiraz with sole amandine rather than, say, a crisp Sauvignon Blanc is asking for trouble. Don’t get me wrong. Red wine with fish can work very well. Pinot Noir and salmon can trip the light fantastic. And I’m a big of seared pepper-crusted tuna and Cabernet Franc. A fruity Spanish red loves garlicky mussels and spicy chorizo. But delicate white fish wither beneath red wine’s furry tannins and may taste as though you just swallowed a mouthful of iron filings.

Some Tough Characters

Artichokes, asparagus, spinach and mint are unruly characters that can play havoc with red or white wine. These ingredients just need a little taming — a squeeze of lemon, perhaps, or a splash of cream, or a sprinkle of cheese. After all, it’s much nicer to anoint early spring’s bounty with wine rather than water.

Asparagus from Italy

Asparagus can be one of those difficult-to-pair foods — unless you tame it with lemon, cream, or perhaps cheese.

Pair tender asparagus omelets with an off-dry riesling, the most misunderstood, food-friendly varietal. Riesling’s restrained alcohol, fruitiness, and zesty acidity cut through mouth-coating butter and egg while flattering the asparagus. (Riesling loves salmon, ham, pork, chicken, and Asian spices, too).

Artichokes, on the other hand, fool the palate into thinking all liquids, even water, are sweet. A splash of lemon juice in your dish will encourage the thistle to make nice with zippy white wines. Try an unpretentious Bardolino; a red wine so pale and non-tannic it’s nearly rose. Or go Greek retsyna with sharp lemon-pine character.

Mint and spinach match well with lighter style Cabernet Sauvignon or a gentler red blend. The eucalyptus notes often found in California or Aussie Cabs also fare well with roast lamb (but go easy on the mint sauce!).

A cold lamb, spinach and sweet onion salad napped with a creamy lemon dressing is simply marvelous with a buttery chardonnay.

Artichokes from Italy

Lemon can help artichokes pair well with white wine.

A Lesson from Italy

Italians mix and match acid-laden wines, red or white, with tomato tossed pastas. For a quick economical meal, pop a Chianti or Valpolicella in the fridge for 20 minutes or so before serving, or put the chill on a Soave or Pinot Grigio. Chop one or two juicy tomatoes. Chiffonade a few basil leaves. Mince a clove or three of fresh garlic. Toss with pasta cooked al dente and a douse of good olive oil. Serve with a simple green salad and the wine(s).

Red tomatoes from Italy

Italians have something to teach us about pairing wines with tomato-based pastas.

Red wine with cheese? Nope, unless it is old cheddar or other aged hard cheeses (Parmegiano, Asiago, Manchego or Aged Gouda). Otherwise your best bet is to stick with non-oaky whites. By the way, Sauvignon Blance with soft goat cheese (chevre) is divine.

These are just a few ideas to get you started experimenting with pairing foods with different wines. Experiment. See what you like. If you really want to get the skinny on food and wine pairing, the following books are must-haves. (Although published in the 1990’s, the information in them is timeless and you’ll likely find them in a used book store at a great price).

Wine With Foodir?t=realfoodtrave 20&l=as2&o=1&a=1840001798&camp=217145&creative=399373 - Food and Wine Pairing: The Nice and the Nasty(Joanna Simon, Simon & Schuster 1996), The Wine Lover’s Cookbook: Great Recipes for the Perfect Glass of Wineir?t=realfoodtrave 20&l=as2&o=1&a=0811820718&camp=217145&creative=399381 - Food and Wine Pairing: The Nice and the Nasty(Sid Goldstein,  Chronicle Books 1999) and The Right Wine: A User’s Manualir?t=realfoodtrave 20&l=as2&o=1&a=0802132979&camp=217145&creative=399381 - Food and Wine Pairing: The Nice and the Nasty(Tom Maresca, Grove Press 1994). Available through
— by Julie Pegg

Wheel of cheese with slice taken out

Aged cheeses can go well with red wines.

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Julie Pegg, RFT Contributor

Julie Pegg has been writing about food, wine, and spirits for 15 years. She was a product consultant for 14 of her 24 years working for the British Columbia Liquor Board in Vancouver. She still keeps her hand in (and elbow firmly bent) at Dundarave Wine Cellars in West Vancouver, British Columbia. Julie is also a keen amateur cook who loves culinary travel. Farmers’ markets and wine shops are always her first stop.