To make sense of the best wine pairings, it helps to recognize the worst wine pairings, too
Have you ever slaved over a hot stove to make a delicious meal, placed it lovingly on the table for your guests, and then opened a prized bottle-only to find out that the food and the wine got along about as well as a snake and a mongoose? I sure have, memorably during one dinner party that went south as soon as the beefy Cabernet started obliterating the ethereal pork dish. But bad wine matches actually can be useful: They teach us about what does work, and why. Here, five scenarios that highlight the good and the bad of food-and-wine pairing. Note: We picked only stellar bottles (diversely priced from $16 to $85) in our scenarios, and the pairing information should hold true regardless of how much you spend on a bottle.
Sparkling wines are eminently food-friendly. Bubbles wake up the taste buds. And Champagne, specifically, is blended from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and the lesser-known Pinot Meunier, which are all fairly easy to pair on their own, too. Pommery Champagne Brut Royal NV (affordable at $42) is light on its feet, exemplifying the healthy acidity and freshness found in the best bubblies.
Worst Pairing: Chocolate Cake with Buttercream
A frequent wine-pairing mistake: cake and bubbly. The Champagne is relatively tart, the cake is super-sweet, and it's like World War III in your mouth.
Best Pairing: Spicy Asian Noodle and Chicken Salad
Champagne, when light, dry, and acidic, elegantly cuts through the spices in Asian food; dishes with nuts bring out the nutty flavors in the Pommery.
2. CABERNET SAUVIGNON
Big Cabs are the giants of the wine world: Be careful, or they will stomp all over your menu. We love them for their berry-filled exuberance, but we fear their chewy tannins. Brandlin Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($85) has tons of cherry flavor and a powerful thickness in mouthfeel/texture, typical of high-end Cabs that need careful consideration at the dinner table.
Worst Pairing: Pan-Seared Petrale Sole with Winter Vegetables
Filet of sole, like flounder or any white flaky fish, is delicate, and will not only get lost, it will actively sour when it hits Brandlin's dense texture.
Best Pairing: Best Pairing: Rib-Eye Steaks in Red Wine Sauce
Red wine and beef is a classic match, but the addition of soy sauce, which helps soften tannins, makes the match that much better.
3. PINOT NOIR
Ever since the movie Sideways, Pinot Noir has been riding a wave of popularity as the easy-drinking light red. It's hard to find anyone who doesn't like a fruity, lower-tannin wine with a sight hint of earthiness, but that doesn't mean it can go with everything. The Erath Pinot Noir Oregon 2007 ($19) has a nice floral bouquet and an appealing strawberry flavor.
Worst Pairing: Chicken with Tarragon Vinegar Sauce
The herb vinegar in this dish dampens the wine's fruitiness. Like sprinkling tarragon over roses. Dishes with acidic finishes do not pair well with Pinot.
Best Pairing: Chicken Thighs with Squash, Yams, and Apricots
Any recipe with mild, even flavors like this one with fruit and sweet veggies will bring out Erath's essential flavors.
4. SAUVIGNON BLANC
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc wins over fans with its tart brilliance. The Long Boat Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ($20) is a good example of the bold, grapefruit-'n'-grass style that works with many dishes-but not all of them. It's got a long finish, suggesting more serious winemaking than its modest price would indicate.
Worst Pairing: Brussels Sprout, Blue Cheese, and Glazed Pecan Salad
Blue cheese is tough with any wine-and the slightly sweet pecans make the wine taste more tart than it really is. You can't have two bold flavors competing.
Best Pairing: Seared Sea Bass with Fresh Herbs and Lemon
This dish has the same citrus and herb profile as the wine, but complementary (the seared skin bits contrast nicely with the fruit flavors).
Burgundian-style Chardonnay-the classic white grape subtly aged in oak-has taken a public relations hit in recent years. Oak is out. But at its best, as in the Kali Hart Chardonnay Monterey County 2006 ($16), the wood is a fully integrated part of the taste, a frame around the fruit flavors that helps the wine age gracefully.
Worst Pairing: Spicy Lamb and Chorizo Chili
The heaviness of meat and the spice's heat make the wine seem unbearably oaky.
Best Pairing: Sautéed Pork Chop with Sage-Cider Cream Sauce
Cream sauces are a great way to blunt the edges of a young and oaky white wine, and the cider evokes this wine's pineapple fruitiness.
Prices and availability subject to change.
Ted Loos, the former features editor of Wine Spectator, has written about wine for Bon Appétit, and is the author of Town & Country Wine Companion: A Tasting Guide and Journal(Hearst Books, $12.95).
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