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Wine dining

Pre-pairing the perfect feast

from Grapes, by Thor Iverson

Six courses in, I knew I was in trouble.

It was my introduction to wine, food, France. And, more importantly, my girlfriend’s family. I was in some forsaken little village in Lorraine, sitting at a table with her parents, relatives, and their parents, eating freshly-hunted wild boar and hand-picked chestnuts, drinking wines I couldn’t even identify, much less pronounce. Every course came with its wine, every wine with its narrative, and I was absolutely hooked. (The girl was pretty nice, too.) But after a half-dozen iterations, I was feeling little other than existential pain, wondering if I would actually be able to stand at any future point, and how much a precipitous but happy collapse would affect my future prospects.

It was the most fun I’d ever had at a table, up to that point. (“At,” not “on”…let’s keep this family-oriented, shall we?) And it’s what led me to write about wine. Fortunately, or un-, I’ve had even more fun since then.

No surprise: the French have pretty much perfected a procession of food and wine, each selected to enhance the other. It’s an expensive proposition for a restaurant, because opening a bottle of wine for by-the-glass pours requires either by-the-glass pricing (your glass price = restaurant’s bottle price) or full confidence that sufficient quantities of each wine will be consumed. But why pay restaurant prices, when the same experience can be replicated at home?

In these days of take-out convenience, the idea of hosting a dedicated wine-focused party fills some with quavering fear, but it shouldn’t. It’s actually little different than hosting any sort of dinner party. All it requires is a shift in priorities. That is: the wine comes first, the food later. One can go crazy trying to find the perfect wine for a favored dish. But why go to all that psychic trouble, when there’s an easier solution? First, pick the wines. Then, match the food to those wines.

And here’s finally a use for all those lyrical but otherwise useless tasting notes we writers generate…the ones that mention smoked pork, fresh honeysuckle or grated blood orange rind. These are semi-metaphorical descriptors for how a wine tastes, yes, but they’re also helpful in constructing a wine-friendly dish.

To illustrate, consider an Alsatian gewürztraminer: cashew, lychee, peach, oil, cumin and coriander. Perhaps some sweetness, and also, low acidity. Now, one might know that stinky Alsatian Munster (one of the most offensive-yet-delicious of cheeses) is the classic match, but that’s not something that everyone loves. So why not construct a dish based on the wine’s inherent character? I’ve seared foie gras with diced lychees (available by the can), dusting the foie gras with ground cashews before searing, but more prosaic options like pork chops sauced with slow-cooked peaches and coriander would be just beautiful.

Or consider a Marlborough sauvignon blanc: crisp grapefruit, gooseberry, tropical fruit, hot pepper and assorted greenery. This begs for fish, but with the appropriate accompaniments, like a homemade fruit salsa (see above shopping list) spiked with Serrano chiles. Or a ceviche of tuna with jalapeño, lime and basil. A peppery syrah cries out for steak au poivre, a mushroomy red Burgundy for slow-cooked meats with truffle oil.

This may sound difficult at first, but just think about the wines you like and how they taste to you. Is your everyday merlot fruity and full-bodied, like chocolate and blueberry? Serve it with meat in a mole sauce. Is your favorite riesling full of crisp apples? Roasted pork with caramelized Granny Smiths. Your Champagne toasty and lemony? Try smoked salmon on toast with a little garnish of lemon zest. The options are endless.

The only caveat is that truly wine-unfriendly foods must be avoided. These include: extremely spicy foods (vindaloo, hot salsas, much authentic Thai cuisine), artichokes (though sauvignon blanc or grüner veltliner work well), asparagus (see artichoke matches), and very sweet foods, with which even the sweetest wines do not pair well.

As for quantities, figure that a bottle will provide about six to seven reasonable pours. If you have more people than that, or expect to serve several glasses of the each wine (which I do, but my guests are incorrigible lushes), you’ll need multiple bottles. People will drink more at the beginning of the meal than at the end, sparkling wines (served at the beginning of the meal) will rapidly disappear, and sweet wines require lower quantities per person.

And, if you feel yourself worried about personal verticality a few glasses in, don’t panic. Unless you’re the chef. In which case, it might be time to make a few well-placed phone calls to the local sushi joint. With which the best match is…let me remind youNew Zealand sauvignon blanc or German riesling. After all, a good host is nothing if not flexible. Even when horizontal.

(First published in stuff@night, 2007.)


Copyright © Thor Iverson.