How to pair white wine with food

I like to think that I treat wine like one should treat their children by never playing favorites. But the truth is that I am not capable. I truly prefer red wine to white wine. If served a white, even one of my favorites, when in the mood for a red I have a hard time enjoying it as much as I should. While the reverse can sometimes be true, after all I do live someplace where the average summertime temperature is often a few degrees warmer than Hell, it is a rare occurrence.

It isn’t that I don’t enjoy white wine, I really do love it. But if I want a glass of wine to enjoy by itself, 9 out of 10 times I will grab a glass of something red. Common wisdom says that when the weather turns hot, it is time to drink mostly white wine. Not me, I still like a big juicy red. However, the heat does effect two changes in my wine drinking habits.

The first is when I am drinking wine outdoors on a hot day. Then the rule noted above kicks in. I want something cold, crisp and refreshing. Other than Sangria, whites fit the bill when the Texas sun has even driven mad dogs and Englishmen back into the air-conditioning.

The other change is that hot weather makes me want lighter fare. Salads and fish sound much better to me than a big plate of braised lamb and polenta. While it is possible to drink red wine with lighter dishes, typically whites come to mind when the food is simple and light. In fact, I would be hard pressed to think of any pairing that does so much for both sides as seafood and white wine can.

Simply cooked fresh fish is tasty, as is a crisp, clean glass of white wine. They can also quickly become a tad boring as the meal or the bottle is consumed. But put the right two together and magic happens. Two simple items together and suddenly there are layers of complexity released in both that may not have even been hinted at when tried alone.

A lot of people will try to make up rules for pairing seafood with wine. I do not much care for rules, not only do they impose limits, but those limits are based on some else’s tastes, not yours and not mine. But if we examine these rules and treat them as mere suggestions on par with traffic laws in Houston, there are some things we can consider when we make our pairings.

Many experts will tell you that pairing a richer wine such as Chardonnay or Viognier with richer fish, or seafood served in a cream sauce is the way to go. Other experts suggest that the opposite is true; that a crisp, acidic wine cuts through the richness therefore making for a great pairing. What to do? Both sides are experts, but they say two completely opposite things. Fact is, both camps are correct, which just highlights how stupid wine rules are. I tend to do the former with mildly rich dishes, and the latter with very rich dishes. I’m not dogmatic about it, but find that it works well most of the time.

One of my favorite “rules” is to pair wines and dishes by region. Take a look at regional specialties and see what they pair with it. I believe that this method works very well since not only have the locals had centuries to tailor both their culinary treatments and winemaking techniques so that they work together, but also that the hand that guides the universe placed grapes and food that worked together well as a wonderful gift to us.

Some great examples of this are Muscadet and mussels (Nantes, in the Western Loire Valley), raw oysters with Chenin Blanc (middle Loire Valley) or Champagne (everywhere on the planet), Assyrtiko and grilled octopus (Santorini), or more generally Albarino with shellfish or spicy seafood stew (Spain or Portugal). Learning these pairings helps when called upon to improvise. If you want to play Hard Bop it really pays to study traditional Jazz first in my opinion.

Then there are some things that just work. Spicy foods call for sweetness (residual sugar) and low alcohol. Sugar is effective at cooling the burn caused by the capsaicin found in spicy peppers, probably due to an ability to get between the chemical and the mouths pain receptors. Capsaicin is soluble in alcohol, which would suggest that high alcohol would wash the burn away, but it doesn’t work that way. Alcohol also causes some pain receptors to trigger more easily. Alcohol stings, ask any 6 year old with a skinned knee who sees his mother approaching with a cotton ball soaked with the stuff. So when your mouth is on fire from a bite of Cajun, Mexican or Thai food reach for something like a sweeter Riesling or Gewurztraminer. I find that a good aromatic version of the latter does heavenly things with anything curried.

Since we are talking about something that is mostly subjective, perception of flavor, it is best to drink what you like and pair it with what tastes good to you. No matter how many Frenchmen swear to you that oysters and Champagne can’t be beat, if you don’t like either item it might turn out that it just doesn’t work for you. On the other hand, Amy had very little use for oysters until she tried that classic pairing and now can’t get enough of the little ocean boogers.

Experimentation will allow you to find what works best for your tastes. A group meal is an excellent opportunity to make these types of discoveries. If you are serving seafood dishes at home for a gathering, open a few bottles of different styles of wine. Give everyone multiple glasses and have a ball discovering what people think works well and what doesn’t. The same goes for dining out. Order multiple bottles and request extra glasses. How could that be anything but fun?

One last “rule” that I try to follow is to not force it, for lack of a better term. I cannot count the number of times that I have made a bad decision based upon being presented with the choice between a wine that I knew was very good, but probably wasn’t a good match for the meal, and a “lesser” wine that I knew would work. An extreme but very good example of this would be if you attended a party where the host offered you the choice between a very expensive White Burgundy and the very inexpensive and much-maligned White Zinfandel. A no-brainer, right? The choice is between fine wine and something whose main function is to identify the drinker as someone with no taste or sophistication. No serious wine drinker would even consider the White Zin! Well, except for me. If that party was a crawfish boil and those are my only two choices, hand me that glass of plonk and a roll of paper towels. Provided it had no real off flavors it might even taste pretty good. The White Burgundy probably wouldn’t be able to say the same.

In case this post has left you hungry and curious, here are a few recipes and white wine reviews for you to experiment with. Enjoy!

Seafood Medley
Aegean Braised Fish with White Beans and Potatoes
Wine Pairing Recipes: Wild Salmon & Mussels

White Wine Reviews
Weinrieder 2006 Grüner Veltliner Alte Reben
Estate Argyros Assyrtiko
Maryhill: Such a Thrill In Washington Whites
New Sauvignon Blanc on the Block: Cornerstone Cellars

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