A Delicate Balance
By Natalie MacLean

Dinner with wine used to be simple. The rule was white wine with white meat and red wine with red meat. But most of us don’t just eat meat and potatoes or drink claret and chablis these days.

With modern fusion cuisine and wines from new regions around the world, the choices – and confusion – are great. One new school of thought is that any wine goes with any dish. However, most of us don’t put ketchup on our ice cream for the same reason as we don’t drink a delicate white wine with a hearty meat dish or a powerful red wine with sole – they are mismatched flavors and textures.

When the marriage of food and wine works well, each enhances the other, making the meal greater than if you had consumed them separately. That’s why the following classic matches have survived the changes in food fashion: stilton with port, foie gras with sauternes, boeuf bourguignon with Burgundian pinot noir and goat cheese with sauvignon blanc.

It helps to start with the basic principles of food and wine pairing as they still provide a basis for experimenting with new world cuisine. One of the most important elements to harmonize between wine and food is flavor. For example, a tangy tomato-based pasta sauce requires a wine with comparable acidity. Without this balance between the acidity of the dish and the wine, the partner with lower acidity tastes flabby and dull, while the other, too tart.

To find an acidic wine, you can chose one that is made in the same area as the food. Years of matching the regional cuisine and wine as well as similar soil and climatic conditions make this a safe bet. For example, you could pair a tomato sauce fettuccine with a Tuscan chianti. Or you can select a wine from a cool climate where the grapes don’t ripen to great sweetness, and maintain their tart, tangy edge. Crisp New Zealand sauvignon blancs and French chablis serve these dishes well.

Acidic wines also work well with salty dishes. For example, oysters are both salty and briny with an oily mouth-coating texture that can smoother most wines. However, a sparkling wine from California, a Spanish cava or French champagne can both refresh and cleanse your palate when eating fish. Bubblies also work well with spicy foods. Hot spice in Asian, Thai, curry and chili pepper dishes can numb the palate. Many of these foods also have high acidity from citrus ingredients such as lime juice as well as sweetness. Therefore, you need a wine with an acidic backbone as well as a touch of sweetness such as an off-dry California sparkling wine with lots of fruit.

While off-dry, acidic wines go well with many dishes, the two most difficult wines to pair with food are also the two most popular: chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. New World chardonnays can be oaky, buttery, flavorful wines that overwhelm many dishes. But you can still enjoy chardonnay with your meal. Pair it with butter and cream sauces to marry similar textures and flavors.

Conversely, cabernet sauvignons can have bitter dark fruit flavours with mouth drying tannins (the same sensation you get from drinking well-brewed tea). Therefore, they find their happiest match in foods with juicy proteins such as a rare steak. The protein softens the tannin making the wine taste smooth and fruity. Steaks done with crushed black peppercorns sensitize your taste-buds, making the wine taste even more fruity and robust. However, the way in which the dish is prepared also has an impact. A well-done steak, for example, may taste too dry with a tannic cabernet.

Proteins are also at work with the marriage of wine and cheese, the cocktail classic. Red wines tend to go better with hard cheeses such as blue cheese as they can accommodate more tannins. However, whites suit soft cheeses such as brie and camembert as the creamier textures require more acidity for balance.

Game birds such quail, pheasant, turkey, duck, squab and guinea hen have earthy flavors that are more robust than chicken. Wild game often goes better with racy red wines that have a gamy quality to them, the classic being Burgundian pinot noir. The flavors of pinot noir -- plum, cherry, mushrooms, earth and even barnyard (that’s a positive adjective) – accentuate the same gamy flavors in the food. Other wine options for game birds include Spanish rioja, Oregon pinot noir and lighter-style Rhône Valley wines such as Côte-Rôtie.

When it comes to barbecued and grilled dishes, go for robust reds, such as shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and barolo. Argentine malbec is the Ultimate Summer Barbecue Wine. With it's fleshy black fruit, dark spices and smoky notes, malbec muscles in beautifully beside most grilled fare: it's a sizzling combination.

One of the most challenging flavors to balance is sweetness. Dishes with a touch of sweetness such as glazed pork do well with off-dry wines such as riesling and chenin blanc. However, rich desserts such as chocolate and crème brulée demand a wine that is sweeter than the dessert, or the wine will taste thin, even bitter. Sweet wines such as sauternes, Canadian icewine, late harvest wines and port will work not only for their sweetness but also for their unctuous texture.

Pair food with wine with my easy-to-use online tool. Search by wine if you're looking for meal inspirations or search by food to find great wine suggestions. In my new book, Red, White and Drunk All Over, I explore food and wine matching in more depth.

Your best source of food and wine matching is your own palate. Experiment with different combinations to discover not only what makes a perfect pairing for you, but also to broaden your range of possibilities. As the author Alexis Lichine observed, “There is no substitute for pulling corks.”

Vintage Gifts
By Natalie MacLean

One of the easiest people to buy for on your list this year is the wine lover. There seems to be no end to the wine books, videos, gadgets and accessories that pour on to the market each year. Even the budding oenophile will appreciate these gifts. The books can be purchased from most major bookstores across the country, while the accessories can be found in specialty wine stores in your area or by calling the stores listed below. In addition to these selections, most of the provincial liquor stores offer special gift packages for the holidays.

The beautifully illustrated, panoramic maps of Oz Clarke’s Wine Atlas of the World include the major grape growing regions of the world as well as lesser known areas such as the Western Balkans, Asia and the Black Sea States. The book also provides an overview of the winemaking process as well as the major wines for each region making it an excellent resource book for any wine library. The opinionated British wine critic Oz Clarke keeps his prose lively, deftly sidestepping the dense and deadly category into which wine resource books often fall. His Pocket Wine Guide 2000, is essential whether you are dining in or out. In it, you will find most wines on the market rated and described, as well as a barrel full of useful information. The atlas is $80.00 and the pocket guide $18.00.

In 1985, Joy Sterling left her career as a television journalist to manage the marketing of her parents’ Napa Valley winery. Vineyard: A Year in the Life of California’s Wine Country is her third book about life at Iron Horse. With its extravagant photography and leisurely prose, it is both an elegant coffee table book as well as strong addition to any wine library. Sterling brings us up close to the crush and into intimate nooks that we likely would miss even if we were walking through the vineyard. Produced with photographer Andy Katz, the book is published by Simon and Schuster and retails for $35.00.

Wine with Food by Joanna Simon is one of the best for exploring wine’s relationship with all types of dishes, trimmings and sauces. Simon will help you answer such questions as which wine complements Thai food, can you serve white wine with red meat and will any wine stand up to spicy, hot chili? The book, published by Simon and Schuster, retails for $34.00.

For those who’d rather watch than read, the eponymously titled Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course follows the wine writer as she travels to each wine region chatting informally with leading vintners about their wines. The video series is also packed with helpful tips from choosing the right glass to decanting wine. Perfect for those holiday evenings when you want to curl up with a glass of ice wine and watch something other than the latest Lethal Weapon sequel. Available from the Wine Establishment in Toronto (416-861-1331) for $129.95.

The Most Useful Wine Gift Award this year goes to a decanter stand that allows you to dry decanters after washing them. The pine version is $19.95 and chrome is $29.95. Available from C.A. Paradis in Ottawa (613-731-2866).

Wine glasses always make a great gift. The market leader Reidel offers the Vinum line for $24.95 per glass or the Overture line, an excellent value at $12.95. Try giving a set of six or more so that they may be used for entertaining. Available at the Marquis Wine Cellars in Vancouver (604-684-0445).

The Lear Jet of corkscrews, Screwpull’s Elegance Leverpull corkscrew makes the struggle to uncork wine a thing of the past. At $359.95 it should probably open the bottle for you, but that’s probably next year’s model. Available at the Marquis Wine Cellars.

Inevitably even the most careful tipplers may topple their red wine on a light carpet or pair of pants. Don’t worry, there’s Wine Away, a red wine stain remover that works on most carpets and materials. It’s $17.95 at the Wine Establishment.

For preserving wine try Private Preserve. Though many wine lovers never need to preserve a half finished bottle (and would think it bizarre that anyone should), for those who have simply topped out on their last bottle of Chateau d’Yquem, this aerosol nitrogenous spray removes the oxygen in the bottle so you can recork wine to keep it fresh for a few days. The can is $19.95 at C.A. Paradis and will preserve up to 120 bottles.

Did you ever fantasize about running a winery? Now you can do just that without giving up your day job. The Monopoly Game: Napa Valley Edition allows players to move their pieces around the board while haggling over such august wineries as Beaulieu, Robert Mondavi and Stag’s Leap instead of the classic Park Avenue properties. Available from International Wine Accessories (800-527-4072) for US$35.00.

The Baccahanales game will help you improve your wine tasting skills while you play. With 44 reusable scent essences, 50 tasting guides and a test aroma glass, both beginners and enthusiasts can sharpen their ability to distinguish a wine’s quality, origin and characteristics. Available from International Wine Accessories for US$94.95.

Don’t forget stocking stuffers such as a 4-bottle cream canvas wine bag for $13.95 from Stoney Ridge Cellars in Vineland, Ontario (905-562-1324), ice wine jelly for $4.95 per jar and fruit-flavoured salsas such as cranberry-cabernet sauvignon for $6.95 from Mission Hill Winery in Westbank, British Columbia (250-768-5125) and damask white napkin sets with woven grape names for $24/set of four from Cave Spring Cellars winery in Jordan, Ontario (905-562-3581). All the wineries deliver custom baskets filled with such delectables as ice wine truffles, tea towels, books, clothing and of course, the old stand-by gift: a bottle of wine.

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