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The Anatomy of a Wine Pairing

March 14, 2010

About nine months ago I wrote The First Rule of Wine Pairing.  At the end of the post I said, “Next week we can discuss rule number two.”

But instead of talking more about wine pairing, I moved on to wine storage, then wine glasses, then a larger discussion of drinking in general.  And wine pairing hasn’t been discussed since.

Frankly, I’m not entirely sure what the second rule of wine pairing was going to be.  Although my hunch is that it had to do with drinking wine grown in close proximity to the food’s place of origin.

For example, that would mean drinking:
– Bandol with cassoulet
– Riesling with schnitzel
– Dry fino sherry with tapas
– Malbec at the Argentine steakhouse
Chardonnay with baked goat cheese salad

However, this week I find myself in a situation where I am looking at a menu and thinking about wine pairings.  So it seems like a perfect opportunity for me to explain my thought process when trying to solve the riddle of which wine to serve with dinner.

Some friends and I are going to the Casola Dining Room at the SCCC cooking school.  But it isn’t for a couple of weeks.  So this week we will cover the appetizer and next week we can discuss the pairing for the entrée.

There are three choices offered for starters:

Consommé Princesse
Clear chicken broth with asparagus tips, quenelles of chicken forcemeat, and chervil.

Salade Gourmande
Bitter greens, French beans, asparagus, and shallots tossed in walnut oil vinaigrette. Topped with shaved poached foie gras and truffle oil.

Coquilles Saint-Jacques au Gratin
Scallops in a wine, mushroom and cream sauce topped with grated cheese and breadcrumbs and finished under the broiler.

Not knowing who will order which dish, the challenge is coming up with a single wine pairing that will work well for all three.

It’s especially tricky because asparagus and vinegar are known to be wine killers.  There is a chemical component in asparagus that actually makes a lot of wines taste worse.  And vinegar has a tendency to dampen the diner’s perception of a wine’s acidity.  Acidity gives a wine structure, and without it the wine can feel limp and listless.

There is also a wide range of textures and flavors among the three dishes, from the delicacy of the soup, to the pungency of the truffle oil, to the richness of the scallops.

Still, I believe there is one white wine that will work well for all three dishes.

It may feel a bit like cheating, but I’m going with Champagne.  I say it’s cheating because Champagne goes with everything.  In this case though, it would be great to find one with a bit of earthiness, since that would complement the mushroom in the scallops and the truffle oil on the salad.

The effervescence of the wine will help it maintain its structure despite the vinegar in the salad.  And sparkling wine is one of the safer choices for pairing with asparagus.

Plus the mouth-cleansing bubbles will work beautifully for cutting through the richness of the cream sauce.  At the same time, this wine is delicate enough to not overwhelm the consommé.

On their own, I might have gone for more classic pairings like a rich and heavy white Burgundy for the seafood in cream sauce, and a light white sauvignon blanc from the Loire for the delicate chicken soup.  But both still work with the champagne, which would have been my go-to wine for the salad.

Now that the wine choice is figured out, it’s time for a trip to the wine store to seal the deal.  I will ask if they have any good recommendations for a sparkling wine with a little bit of earthiness, preferably from France, that costs less than thirty dollars.

That’s it.  Other people may go about creating a wine pairing differently. But this is how I do it.  Hopefully it will help you construct pairings of your own in the future.

Any questions?

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