Orchestrating the delicate dance of fruit and wine
If you're a person who thinks about flavors, you probably fall into one of two camps. You are a foodie or a wine enthusiast and view the world accordingly. Foodies tolerate wine; after all, they need something to wash down the truffled foie gras nestled on its bed of spring greens. Whiners (myself included) orchestrate entire meals around a favored bottle or two.
Recently, hoping to entertain some out-of-town guests with my wine acumen, I trotted out what I thought might be an interesting pair of wines from the cellar. One was a 1991 Leonetti Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon; the other a 1991 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Opened, blessed, fussed over and decanted about 15 minutes before mealtime, the two wines proceeded to do one of the most remarkable dances around each other I've ever witnessed.
Flavors looping and swooping in graceful curves, like two ballet dancers, or perhaps the animated hydro race on the Safeco Field scoreboard, the twin cabs tried to outshine, outmuscle or simply outlast each other. The four of us were so delighted with the performance that we hardly noticed the food. I think it was lamb, and I think it was pretty good, but I wouldn't swear to either.
Each season offers some opportunity, great or small, for the worlds of food and wine to do that same sort of pas de deux. I'm not speaking of merely "matching" the wine to the food, but of something much more exciting. A performance in which two worlds collide, then merge, and in the matrix of their overlap greatness resides.
Many books have been written attempting to lay down the rules for discovering food and wine pairings in which each side truly enhances the other. These tomes tend to be tedious affairs, blathering on about sugars and acids and tannins. Far better, in my experience, to simply find out through trial and error what works.
Without bogging you down in "rules," I can offer a few guidelines. Where fruits are concerned, you will want to key on sweetness and the elemental fruit flavors with which you are working. Ideally, find a wine that is as sweet as, or sweeter than, the fruit you are serving. Why? Because if the fruit out-sweets the wine, it will strip it of flavor. It's just that simple.
Try this experiment and see for yourself. Set out a bowl of ripe cherries. They should be juicy and fully ripe, so you can taste the sweetness on your tongue when you bite into them. Then grab a bottle of your favorite merlot. A good, fruity Washington merlot, without too much new oak, is perfect. The basic descriptor for the flavor of Washington merlot is cherry. When well made, the wine tastes like cherries. Now, with the real cherry flavor resonating in your throat, take a good swallow of merlot.
What happened? It was not the match made in heaven you might have envisioned. The sweetness of the cherries buried the perceived sweetness of the wine, which is actually quite dry. So what was left was the acid and tannin, and that leaves a somewhat harsh, somewhat bitter, and truly uncomplementary impression in the mouth.
Can red wines ever be best buddies with fruits? Of course, but it's not all that easy. Sweet red wines, such as late-harvest zinfandel, with its extra-high sugar levels and bracing flavors of ripe raspberries, might do very well set against a very tart pie made from loganberries or boysenberries.
But most of the best matches will come when summer fruits meet off-dry or sweet, white or pink wines. Here in Washington, look for sweeter-style rieslings and chenin blancs and gewürztraminers. The label on the bottle will sometimes list the residual sugar, expressed as a percentage. R.S. in the 2 to 4 percent range is a perfect off-dry wine that will work with tart fruits. For truly sweet fruits, or dessert dishes made with sweet crusts, cookies or pastries, go directly to the sweetest dessert wines, often labeled "late harvest."
The world of sweet wines (Taste, Feb. 9) is vast and inviting. There is no reason to believe that you have to pair the particular fruit you are serving with the wine grape that most closely matches it, but with white wines, at least, it's fun to try. Again remembering that the wine must be sweeter than the fruit, the following flavor guidelines should be useful:
Sweet rieslings: Ideal fruit matches would be apples, citrus fruits and apricots.
Sweet chenin blancs: Try peaches, apricots and nectarines.
Sweet gewürztraminers: Match with lychee, starfruit, pineapple or tart berries.
Sweet sauvignon blanc/semillon wines (such as those modeled after sauternes): Pick stone fruits and fruit desserts that have honey or butterscotch flavors.
Sweet muscat wines: Use anything suggestive of oranges, caramel or honey.
Over the years I have learned that the simpler fruit dishes offer the most rewarding matches with wine.
And some things are best avoided altogether. If you are having strawberries (or anything) dipped in chocolate, you're best off going directly to the brandy!
Paul Gregutt is a free-lance writer who regularly appears on the Wine pages of The Seattle Times' Wednesday Food section. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
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