Pairing Food With Wine : There Is More--and Less--to Mixing and Matching Than You Might Think

Some years ago, the longstanding American credo of "doing your own thing" swept through the world of fashion, and what you put on your body became a matter of mixing and matching. Now we've gone a step further, to mixing and matching what goes into the body as well. Nowhere has this trend been more provocative than in the pairing of food and wine.

Not that this is a particularly novel phenomenon. Even though trendy food-and-wine pairing is being sold as a new way to enjoy the pleasures of dining, the idea goes back many centuries, and the "red wine with red meats, white wine with seafood and poultry" thing was probably bandied about by Lucullus and his gourmet cronies around the marble tables of the Roman Empire.

Most certainly, the English wine merchants of the Middle Ages knew that certain wines went better with certain foods. When they went upstream in Portugal to buy the casks of wine for blending with their Ports, they would lodge at Villa Nova de Gaia, across the Douro River from Oporto. There they sampled the wines of the peasants, clearing their taste buds with biscuits. The bland bites allowed them to discover both the virtues and the faults in the wines. But when the aged Ports were ready for bottling and sale, they would always be offered to potential customers with cheese. The merchants knew that any wine tastes good--or even better--with cheese. Thus was born the maxim: "Buy it on biscuits; sell it on cheese."

Now take champagne. For years, the saying was that "champagne goes with everything." To prove that point, Korbel recently commissioned a study by Palatex, a leading food and beverage research firm, to find out what really "goes" with champagne. Palatex assembled a panel of connoisseurs who taste-tested 56 foods--gourmet dishes as well as everyday fare. The result was a compatibility index that ranked the combinations of food items tasted with Korbel Brut on a percentage basis. The results were indeed enlightening. The highest compatibility ratings were achieved by shrimp cocktail, followed by smoked salmon, raw oysters with lemon, beef stroganoff, and shrimp scampi. Caviar, which is often associated with champagne, was way down the list in 33rd place, after oreos but ahead of vanilla ice cream. That classic combiner, baked ham, came in 23rd, far behind lobster with drawn butter, which scored a respectable seventh.

Perhaps the fact that champagne indeed seems to "go with everything" is the reason it is the only wine category that keeps registering increases in sales. Among the imports, the leader, Moet & Chandon, is up 13% over last year. Second-place Mumm is up 9%, and Taittinger, which at one time was far back in the pack, is now the third-leading import bubbly, with an astonishing 66% increase in sales over last year. Among American champagnes, Korbel is still the most preferred, with sales having soared last year above 1.1 million cases.

Champagne, of course, is not everyone's favorite wine, especially with the current taste for lighter foods with drier wines. If I had to recommend a non-champagne table wine to a discriminating wine drinker this week, I'd pick Peter Sichel's Blue Nun Gold ($6.49), a Kabinett Niersteiner ( Qualitaetswein mit Praedikat ) from Rheinhessen and a newcomer to the marketplace. It's considerable drier than the regular Blue Nun, which Stiller and Meara used to promote in their fabulous radio commercials by stating--here are those words again--that "it goes with everything." This new blend comes from the 1985 vintage, which is noted for its softly elegant balance of fruit and acidity.

But perhaps even a great Rhine wine, no matter what goes with it, is not what you crave this month. Perhaps your palate hungers for something really exotic, perhaps a pairing of Tex-Mex or Cajun foods with wine. In that case, you might try a bottle of Buena Vista Spiceling, an extraordinary blending of Gewuerztraminer and Johannisberg Riesling by California wine maker Jill Davis. The price ($5) is right, and so is the taste, especially when it's chilled.

The point is that in pairing wine with food you have to remember first to please your own palate. So experiment and find the right combination for yourself, whether that means drinking champagne with caviar or Cabernet with chocolate mousse.

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