In the beginning, marrying wine with food was simple. He brought up a jug of wine from the root cellar, and she cooked whatever food they had. It was teamwork. Wine wasn't "selected" to match the local cuisine. It was already made, and there was only one kind. Food was prepared in ways that would enhance the local wine.
With the invention of the cork-sealed bottle, wines became portable and could be introduced to different parts of the world. Not surprisingly, a natural disconnect between these wines and "foreign" cuisine demanded the creation of simple instructions to guide inexperienced drinkers. Hence, The Great Rule: white wines shall be served cold with fish, and red wines are to be served at room temperature with meat.
For eons, that rule was all we needed to know, because with traditional winemaking, young reds were so bitterly tannic that they overwhelmed the delicate fl avours of fish, seafood or other "white meats," while white wines tended to make any meat that was cooked past medium taste dry and tough. Fortunately, modern winemaking has now taken care of most of those issues. Using current technologies, wineries can produce fresh, light reds to match fish, as well as powerful oaky whites that deliver a knockout punch to beef at its prime. With so many choices before us today, perhaps wine and food couplings should be called "affairs" rather than marriages!
A fare to remember
In their groundbreaking book Red Wine with Fish (Simon & Schuster, 1989), authors David Rosengarten and Joshua Wesson contend that no one can be an "expert" in matching food and wine. You'd need to taste every wine in the world from every vintage, plus every food product from every supplier to understand how each would interact with others in every circumstance. That may be true, but it's no reason to throw in the dishtowel.
Another reality is that very few wines will actually spoil a meal. But a well-chosen coupling can ramp up the gastro-moment to amazing heights. In my case, I get almost as much pleasure from the memories as I do from the initial experiences. Many of those memorable pairings have involved champagne (all $50-plus brands). One was with oysters on the half shell. The French fizz was drizzled onto the raw bivalve in place of mignonette dressing, and it all slid deliciously down my gullet – again and again and again. Champagne is one of the few wines I recommend consuming anywhere, any time, with anything and with anyone. Oh yes, and with great frequency.
There are less expensive alternatives. Bubblies made using the "traditional" or "classic" production method have more elegance than others. Ontario's Henry of Pelham Winery makes a superb one, Cuvée Catharine ($30), while British Columbia's Okanagan Valley boasts Cipes "pyramid-aged" sparkling wines from Summerhill Pyramid Winery (from $25). Terrific imports include Spain's Codorniu Brut Clasico ($12) and Australia's Banrock Station Sparkling Chardonnay ($13).
When shopping for fish-friendly bottles, it's best to look to coastal regions, where the local chow comes from the water. One of the most overlooked sources is Greece. Forget retsina: Greeks eat fish almost every day with every meal, and the many nonresinated white wines they produce are kindred spirits with fried, poached, steamed, barbecued or otherwise cooked seafood. A bottomless glass of J. Boutari & Son's exuberant Santorini ($16) with an array of grilled calamari and fish one evening last summer will forever remain a treasured memory.
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