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The Anatomy of a Wine Pairing, Part Two

March 21, 2010

Here is the challenge.  You are having a dinner, and people will be choosing one of three entrées.  How do you decide what wine to serve to make everyone happy?

This is the follow up question to last week’s post The Anatomy of a Wine Pairing, where I performed the same exercise for the appetizer course.  And this isn’t just an intellectual exercise.  This will be the dinner and wine pairing for a special meal I’m having next week at the SCCC cooking school’s Casola Dining Room.

Here is the menu:

Sauté de Veau Marengo
Veal stewed with pearl onions, tomato, and mushroom.  Garnished with heart-shaped croutons.

Saumon á la Florentine
Poached salmon cutlets with Mornay sauce. Accompanied by sautéed spinach and cocotte potatoes.

Poulet Saute au Fines Herbes
Chicken Breast sautéed and finished in a sauce flavored with tarragon, chives, chervil, and parsley. Accompanied by pommes de terre marquis and sautéed haricots verts and carrots tossed in a fines herbes veloute.

It is no easy task.  The foods cover a range of textures and flavors.  From the rich meaty veal stew to the delicate poached salmon to an herbaceous chicken breast there is not necessarily a lot of common ground.

This is what I see as I look at the food.  The wine will need to be able to cut through the richness of the stew, be delicate enough to not overpower the poached salmon, and have some kind of herbal component in order to play nicely with the chicken.  Additionally, I think some earthiness would complement the mushrooms in the veal and the potatoes in the other dishes.

Two things will cut through rich foods, acid and tannin.  Tannins will primarily be found in the bigger red wines, which would completely overwhelm the more delicate dishes, so in this case we are looking for a wine with lively acidity but without much tannin.

The old standby of red with beef and white with chicken and fish doesn’t really do us much good here.

A lighter red, like pinot noir, is an obvious choice.  It provides the acidity we need, and can have the herbal complexity to work with the chicken without overwhelming the fish.  But since French pinot noir, which is primarily grown in Burgundy, can be one of the world’s best wines, it is difficult to find a good one at a reasonable price.

But a white wine is certainly a possibility too.  The only tricky task for a white wine is pairing up with the veal stew.  And I think the acidity of a white Bordeaux, which is made from a blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon, could be up for the task.

What it really comes down to is what my local wine retailer has in stock that will fit the bill.

My preference would be to search for a wine that is broadly connected to the cuisine, so French food would call for a French wine.  But if push comes to shove I will demur on country of origin to find a wine whose flavors complement and contrast with the foods being served.

This is where the experts come into play, whether they be your local wine merchant or the restaurant’s sommelier.  Experts work best when you can tell them what you are looking for so they can give you a bottle that matches those criteria.

“A wine that goes with veal stew” is a helpful place to begin. But “A light, herbaceous French wine with lively acidity (but low tannin) and some earth that is around twenty dollars” gives the professional a bit more to work with.

Because the truth is that no matter how educated you become about wines, there is no way of knowing what the wine in any specific bottle tastes like without opening the bottle.  In theory at least, sommeliers and good wine merchants should know the flavor profiles of everything they sell, and be able to send you home with a winner.

But first you need to be able to speak their language.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 21, 2010 10:38 pm

    I had my hand up saying pinot noir, pinot noir till you said it was the obvious choice. Thanks for bursting my balloon, Profussor. But hey, I was going to say an OREGON pinot which will be both cheaper and more versatile than the French ones. Also check into the Mendozas from Argentina.

    The other thing to consider is a peppery Chardonnay, or maybe Viognier. They would work great with the chicken and wouldn’t be bad with the other two dishes. Why not have both (a pinot and one of these whites) so diners can enjoy the very different but equally satisfying effect of contrasting two wines?

    • Mel permalink
      March 22, 2010 2:17 pm

      I’m thinking that Viognier might be a little bit too fruity/floral —

      For the Veal, yup, Pinot Noir is an easy choice, but a Bordeaux style blend would provide ample cherry spice with enough tannic backbone to compliment a Marengo. Inexpensive but tasty–the Coppola Rosso

      You could go dry Gewurtztraminer from Alsace (Hugel) with the Salmon if you didn’t want to go New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

      For the chicken I’d go South African stainless steel fermented Chardonnay all the way.
      I’m thinking that Viognier could be too floral/fruity –but it depends on the vintner.

  2. John H permalink
    July 19, 2010 5:40 pm

    Hey Profussor: How about a wine from Moric? The entry level Blaufrankisch would seem to fit your needs from a flavor/acidity profile and your budget. And nothing really screams that you are a fussy wine geek like recommending something from Austria. Of course I may be too late to be much help for your dinner…
    John H

    • July 19, 2010 9:21 pm

      Mr. H. It’s good to see you here. And thanks for the tip. Many years ago I went to Danube in the city and was completely dumbstruck by the deep Austrian wine list. It was so overwhelming we chose something closer to our comfort zone, a Sonoma zinfandel. But I do remember it going quite well with the beef cheek on spätzle.

      As to the formalities, surely you know that you, the missus and your progeny are among the few who can call me Dan.

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