Good With Hard-to-Match Foods : Blush Wines Fight Back Against Strong Flavors

Times Staff Writer

Matching wine with food is a challenge when spicy Mexican, Chinese, Indian or Thai dishes are involved. It's even hard to find the right wine for the Thanksgiving turkey and sweet accompaniments like cranberry sauce, marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes and watermelon pickles.

For years, spicy Gewurztraminers were assigned to Asian foods. Now there is another answer that suits the turkey as well--the new faintly sweet, yet acid, blush wines. Whereas a fine, dry Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc washes out under the onslaught of chiles or cranberries, blush wines fight back.

Their fruity sweetness, balanced by refreshing acidity and, in many cases, tongue-tickling spritziness, goes well with a great variety of foods. The driest of the lot can handle almost anything. Served chilled, they are a pleasant alternative in hot weather when red wines seem suffocating.

'Lesser Category of Wine'

Not all wine experts admire or serve blush wines, however. Steve P. Garcia, who selects the wines for Saint Estephe restaurant in Manhattan Beach, said: "I am not excited with them for what we serve here." He criticizes the blushes as "too perfumey" and calls them "a lesser category of wine."

Although more than 450 wines are on the list at Vintages, a wine-oriented restaurant in Cannery Village, Newport Beach, none is a blush. "I think they are more of an afternoon style of wine, not a serious dinner wine," said Steve Contursi, restaurant owner. Vintages is strictly a dinner house, he said, adding: "If we were open for lunch, I would have a lot of lighter wines on the list."

Philip Reich, the wine buyer and wine director for Michael's in Santa Monica, occasionally slips out into the neighborhood for spicy Chinese food. Often, he orders a blush wine to go with it. "I like to eat foods with chiles in them, and these wines work very well with hot, spicy dishes," he said.

Reich recommends Zinfandel blushes with Hunan, Sichuan and Thai food. He likes Pinot Noir blushes with Mexican food and with truffle omelets and salmon, especially cold salmon and gravlax. Pale Pinot Noirs have "very defined" flavor components, he said. "The Cabernet Blancs have not come through for me."

Some pale wines are served at Michael's. "Most summers, I try to have one on the wine list by the glass. To me, they are an ideal wine for lunch when you don't feel like getting serious," Reich said.

Summer Sipping

The wine makers who produce blush wines recommend them for picnics, patio parties and, like Reich, for summer sipping. Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat winery in Los Alamos sees the blushes as "wine that begs to be drunk with food that would otherwise overpower a fine table wine." He ranks as overpowering not only Mexican, Cajun and other spicy dishes but smoked and grilled foods and anything laden with such strong flavors as lemon and dill. To serve a fine Chardonnay with these heady foods would be "a bit crazy," he said.

Bob Thompson, wine writer based in St. Helena in the Napa Valley, has long acknowledged blush wines as appropriate to certain foods. He suggests several pairings in his book, "The Pocket Encyclopedia of California Wines" (Simon & Schuster: $8.95), a revised edition of which was published this month.

Thompson recommends White Zinfandel with polenta, Pinot Noir Blanc with gougere and other blanc de noir wines with stuffed mushrooms, raw vegetables served with a dip, meat and vegetable soups, quail, smoked turkey, spareribs with sauce, fried pork chops, sweet and sour sauces and firm, full-flavored cheeses such as Port-Salut, Esrom and Muenster.

"That list is not meant to be Holy Writ," Thompson said, explaining that he and his wife, Harolyn, try several wines with a dish, then choose the one that best complements it according to their taste.

A supporter of the blushes, Thompson said: "Wine isn't supposed to be serious all the time. I think they're terrific."

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