Ask most wine merchants what wine goes with fish, and the reply will probably be: Chardonnay. Ask which pairs best with beef, and they'll likely tell you: Cabernet Sauvignon.
This is the way wine merchants tend to think, and it's the way many wine drinkers think as well. Grape acreage statistics in California attest to this. There are fewer acres of Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Chenin Blanc, Petite Sirah, Carignane and dozens of other grape varieties today than a decade ago, and there are more--far more--of Chardonnay and Cabernet.
Even though most California Cabernets and Chardonnays are unlikely candidates for food pairing, it appears that Americans have been led to believe that these two wines (or their French equivalents, Bordeaux and white Burgundy) are the best wines to serve with almost all foods. It's the chocolate and vanilla school of wine appreciation.
Although the major wine geeks reserve their top ratings for those two "classic" grape varieties, there is still great pleasure to be had in matching the right food and the right wine, even if that wine is neither Cab nor Chard. And when that is achieved, the delights outweigh having a "perfect" wine that happens not to match the victuals.
I was reminded of this the other day when reading through a delightful but, alas, long-out-of-print book by the late Andre Simon, one of gastronomy's greatest champions. He spoke for the British tradition of incorporating the right wine into a good meal--even if that wine be as humble as a Bourgueil, for heaven's sake.
"The Wine and Food Menu Book," written in the early '50s (the publication date on my copy appears to be 1956, but isn't clear), was one of Simon's many attempts to celebrate the joys of variety in wine, and the fact that even a modest bottle can be a worthy accompaniment for the proper repast.
Simon pleads his case in a brief but meaningful foreword in which he says the British Isles have "a far greater variety of wines from every part of the world than anywhere else . . . a privilege that Great Britain has been granted by Providence as a compensation for the fact that the country's climate makes it uneconomic to grow wine-making grapes in the open."
He then says that few British consumers had failed to tap the greatness of the bounty offered: ". . . there are quite a number of people who take just about the same interest in their daily food and drink as they do in refilling the tank of their automobile."
Then Simon praises the others, those who "are neither gluttons nor hedonists, but sensible persons who believe that whatever is worth doing is worth doing well, which means with intelligence and interest, including "well-chosen fare partnered with the right wines."
Notice he said "the right wines," not "great wines," since the best wine of a blind tasting might not be the best wine to serve with the food you intend to eat.
A few latter-day books have addressed this ideal of matching food and wine. It's not a science--in fact, it's a rather arcane art that stumps even good chefs--but certain wines and foods can be wonderfully matched.
In his book, Simon suggests the Bourgueil, a red wine from Touraine in the Loire Valley, be matched with cotriade de maquereaux a la concarneau, which, as (ahem) everyone knows, is a stew of mackerel with onions and potatoes. (A good Bourgueil being difficult to come by, to say nothing of a good mackerel, I'm not planning to make this dish very soon.)
On other menus, Simon suggests wines that are widely recognized as great, including Montrachet and top-growth Bordeaux. But more often he suggests wines as simple as Sancerre, white Rioja, Yugoslav Riesling, sparkling Saumur, Egri Bikaver (the "bull's blood" wine of Hungary) and two dozen other obscure and "not classic" wines.
Not every food/wine pairing can be memorable, Simon says, but he makes a powerful case for experimenting with a variety of wines at meals where no one wine comes to mind as the perfect choice.
As I was reading this book, I got an e-mail query from Richard Stolte, a reader in Eureka, Calif., who was planning a traditional northern Italian boiled meat dinner, bollito misto , including beef, veal and chicken. Stolte asked what wine to serve with it.
My recommendation was to choose something tart, such as a Rhone, Barbera or Chianti. I also said that bigger, richer wines were unlikely to be good with the food. I suggested a silent research project: Serve three wines and see which bottle empties first.
Stolte reported back: a 1991 Qupe "Los Olivos Cuvee" (an excellent Rhone-type) was consumed fastest, followed by the 1991 Il Falchetto Barbera d'Asti. Half of a bottle of a 1985 Barolo was left over. By reputation alone, the Barolo from a great vintage would have been a wine geek's choice as the best wine--but clearly not with that food.
Some of the most memorable food-wine matches I have had included neither "great" food nor "great" wine:
* A bowl of very light cream of wild mushroom soup with a glass of a fine, dry Oloroso Sherry.
* A Sunday brunch of Chinese chicken salad with mandarin oranges served with Dry Creek Vineyard Chenin Blanc.
* Homemade venison sausage stuffed into an Anaheim chile, covered with a light cream sauce, and served with a dry Gewurztraminer.
* Roasted sweet red peppers and barbecued kielbasa with a dry Mirassou Petite Rose.
* Fish steamed with fresh herbs, served with a 25-year-old Australian Semillon.
* Gravlax with a 20-year-old dry German Riesling.
Not classic wines, but all in good taste. I have probably had more fun with wines whose names wouldn't excite the wine geeks than with many great wines.
Some memorable spaghetti-and-Chianti meals hold as dear a place in my heart as do foie gras-and-Yquem ones.
And this is what the wine geeks miss.
Wine of the Week
1993 Yulumba Vineyards Botrytis Semillon "Family Reserve" ($11 per half bottle) --Australia's Barossa Valley is a warm region that reminds me a lot of the Napa Valley, with rolling hills on each side of a broad plain carpeted wall-to-wall with vines and dotted with winery tasting rooms. This Barossa dessert wine is a remarkable achievement, loaded with fresh fig fruit, hints of butter and caramel and cream, a vanilla aftertaste and unbelievable succulence. Sort of like liquid creme brulee. It's so sweet that just 1 1/2 ounces is a good serving, meaning a half bottle will serve eight people, leaving a half-ounce to be fought over.
Ask Dan Berger
* Share your opinions with Times wine writer Dan Berger on the Food & Wine bulletin board on TimesLink, The Times' online service. For information on TimesLink, call (800) 792-LINK, ext. 274.