Most Americans are still daunted by the prospect of choosing the "right" wine, and nowhere more than in fancy restaurants. In the high-stakes world of haute dining, the wrong wine choice can result in loss of face and shirt.
In short, wine, like sex, is cheaper and safer at home. And also a good deal more casual, it turns out.
The question is, what to serve chez vous? I recently polled some professional winos and foodies of my acquaintance as to what they drink with dinner when they're off duty, at home with their mates and offspring. They gave me combinations like mu shu pork with cheap white Gravesi, roasted chicken with Beaujolais, braised lamb shanks with grenache-based Rhone wines. Unfortunately, when I asked these experts for the principles behind their preferences, they merely replied, "I don't know, it just tastes good to me."
As creative young sommeliers will be the first to tell you, pairing food and wine is just as often an art as a science. There are no immutable rules: if you like it enough to want it again, it's a successful combination. Still, if you take a moment to consider a wine's flavors, texture, weight and level of acidity, you'll improve your odds of success.
The age-old pairings found in regional cuisines are more than cliched coincidence: certain foods and wines share affinities bred by their common origin. For instance, classic Chablis is literally grown on chalky soil made of decomposed sea shells, so it's no accident that this wine works magic with raw oysters. By the same token, pungent, grassy Sancerre ultimately derives from the same dirt as that town's pungent, grassy chevres. The herbal scents featured in Provencal cooking--thyme, rosemary, olive--resonate in the region's red wines.
If there's one characteristic most versatile food wines share, it's crisp acidity. Fresh acids cleanse the palate by cutting through fish oil, fatty meat, cream sauces. Although I generally prefer completely dry wines with my meal, slightly sweet examples can be equally satisfying with many dishes, provided the sweetness is held in check by the vibrancy of juicy acids. Tannic wines, on the other hand, seem best suited for meat, highly seasoned fowl, or dry, salty cheeses.
One more cheering fact about adaptable food wines: they're also usually the most accessible. Forget about the fancy labels and the 20-year-old bottles. Forget the tannic, oaky, high-octane monsters. The truth is that the lighter, simpler meals most of us cook at home are better served by a host of young and generally inexpensive wines. And if you can't find a good Cotes du Rhone red or New Zealand sauvignon blanc in your wine rack, you'll find current vintages all over retail shelves--or in this monthly feature.
Medium red-ruby. High-pitched aromas of licorice, bitter chocolate, wild herbs, spices and graphite minerality. Floral and juicy in the mouth, with excellent energy and definition to the flavors of red berries and cherry complicated by licorice and pepper. Perfumed, juicy, stylish claret with lovely fruit intensity and modest weight. Finishes with broad, palate-dusting tannins and a youthful tightness. Old school in the best way.
Light yellow. Pungent herb, nectarine and mineral aromas show very good clarity and energy. Linear citrus and pit fruit flavors are tightly wound and well focused, with a hint of white pepper adding back-end bite. Clean and energetic on the dry, persistent finish, which strongly repeats the citrus and mineral notes. (JR)
Bright medium red. Cool aromas of sour cherry, blueberry, menthol and exotic flowers. Supple and sweet but tangy, with bracing acidity giving this midweight pinot a distinctly juicy character. Quite dry and grown-up, and not overoaked. Vibrant, food-friendly pinot under twenty bucks is a gift. (ST)
Bright red. High-pitched red berry and floral aromas are complicated by Asian spices and orange peel. Silky in texture and gently sweet, with vibrant strawberry and black raspberry flavors and a touch of bitter cherry. The supple, intensely fruity finish is spicy, focused and nicely persistent. This drinks well now but has the spine to age. (JR)
Light peach skin color. Wild red berries, orange zest and honeysuckle on the mineral-accented nose. Fresh, lithe and precise, offering tangy red fruit and citrus flavors and a deeper note of bitter quince. Shows very good clarity and balance, finishing sappy, precise and long. (JR)
Region: New Zealand
Pale yellow. Pure, scented nose offers citrus peel, tarragon, pepper
and subtle saline minerality. Rich, tactile and full but without any
impression of weight. The citrus, mineral and spice flavors offer
terrific intensity and life in the mouth. A complex, serious wine with outstanding depth. The very long finish hints at passion fruit and guava. (ST)
Dark red with ruby tones. Sexy aromas of plum, redcurrant, tobacco, woodsmoke, leather and spices; a real essence of gravelly Graves soil. Then plush and seamless in texture in the style of the highly touted 2009 vintage but not at all overly sweet, offering complex flavors of currant, tobacco, leather and mint. Finishes dry and perfumed, with a fine dusting of tannins. This is a project of vineyard owner and renowned enologist Denis Dubourdieu. (ST)
(a 62/28/10 blend, raised mostly in stainless steel; no new oak): Deep, bright ruby. Bright, intense aromas of blueberry, fresh plum, espresso and black pepper. Fat and sweet, with nicely concentrated black and blue fruit, floral and bitter chocolate flavors and a spicy kick on the back. Sweet, juicy and very long. This big boy has 16% alcohol. (JR)
(60% mourvedre, 30% cinsault and 10% syrah): Pale orange. Redcurrant and strawberry aromas are complicated by notes of smoky herbs and dried rose. Musky, incisive red fruit flavors show a refreshingly bitter quality, picking up a licorice nuance with air. Dry and nervy but there's good depth here and the sappy finish clings with very good tenacity and clarity. Quite complex for the price. (JR)
Medium red. Captivating aromas of sour cherry, rose petal, cinnamon and musky minerality. Supple on entry, then explosive in the middle palate, offering compelling red fruit perfume without any undue weight. Finishes very long and precise, thanks to terrific acidity and firm but fine-grained tannins. This utterly seamless and very refined mostly-nebbiolo wine is made in the cooler northern reaches of the Piedmont region by Paolo De Marchi, owner of the top Chianti estate Isole e Olena. (ST)
(40% shiraz, 32% mourvedre and 28% grenache): Bright ruby-red. Sexy, lively aromas of raspberry and cherry, with deeper licorice and vanilla nuances gaining strength with air. Juicy and energetic on the palate, offering sweet red and dark berry flavors and no rough edges. Finishes with a kick of peppery spices and very good lingering sweetness. This is delicious right now.
Since 1985, Stephen Tanzer and his team of renowned, widely published regional experts have spent months of every year on the wine trails of the world, having their passports punched and tasting tens of thousands of wines annually, the best of which are reviewed in the independent, critically acclaimed, bimonthly International Wine Cellar (IWC).
Many wines featured in Second Tuesday will be selected from past, current and upcoming issues of the IWC. But Stephen and associate editor Josh Raynolds will also include superb recent discoveries that would otherwise slip between the cracks of IWC coverage.
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