Why did the chicken flee screaming across the road? It might’ve been escaping the dinner-party host trying to fry him and serve him with, yawn, a bottle of chardonnay.
Matching vino and vittles for your next bash doesn’t have to be a “Wine for Dummies” affair relying on tried-and-tired combos (steak with Merlot, fish and Pinot Grigio). But combining tidbits that are supposedly wine-averse — Indian take-out, chips, breakfast — might mean you’ll uncork some interesting bottles.
“In Europe, wine culture is quite developed, so it’s common and easy to simply pair white with fish or things like that,” says New York wine writer Tyler Colman, who blogs at DrVino.com. “In America, our cuisine is quite different. We’ve created things that are harder to match.”
Colman even posts seemingly impossible wine foods — falafel sandwiches, chili con carne — on his site and lets oenophile readers duke it out over what’d go best. (Consensus? A medium-bodied white for the former; a red or sparkler for the latter.)
There are as many ideas about which foods to eat with which wines as there are expensive B&Bs in Napa. But it helps to keep a few rules in mind when pairing non-trad dishes with fruits of the vineyards. “The most important thing is the weight and intensity of the dish,” says Andrew Stover, sommelier at Oya (777 9th St. NW). “It’s best to match full-bodied wines with full-bodied cuisine or vice versa.”
At the restaurant, Stover serves sushi (nope, it’s not just for sake anymore) with either dry or semi-dry crisp whites like Austrian Gruner Veltliner or Spanish Xarmant Txakolina 2006, a lip-smacking Basque treat. The idea is to not overpower the variety of tastes in the rolls — sticky rice, salty salmon, maybe spicy mayo.
Using wine to counterbalance food’s flavors can result in such surprising buffet bedfellows as salty potato chips and dry champagne. “That swarm of bubbles refreshes your palate and makes the next chip taste good,” says Natalie MacLean, a Canadian sommelier and author of Red, White and Drunk All Over. “It really varies the tastes and flavors.”
Sweet dessert wines, while usually partnered with creme brulees and plum tarts, can also cut through the richness of red meat or charcuterie. “I had a breakfast party where we served sausages with sauternes [syrupy sweet French dessert wine],” says Sebastian Zutant, sommelier at Proof (775 G St. NW). “It’s that salty-sweet idea.”
While matchy-matchy is a no-no in fashion, it can sometimes work wonders with wine and food. Zutant recently put a super-buttery chardonnay with an eggplant and goat cheese panini at Proof. The rich flavors worked in concert, “like pairing fat and grease,” he says. MacLean likes baked beans with tawny port. “I’ve got a trailer-trash heart. The beans and port have similar flavors of caramel and almonds. It’s all soft and round.”
Even oddball dishes with lots of conflicting, grape-stomping flavors (hot dogs and sauerkraut, spicy Thai noodles) can be tamed by decanting something with residual sweetness, say an off-dry reisling or a vouvray.
This week, Colman and several other wine writers each brought a wine to test with kebabs and curries at an East Side Indian restaurant. Sure enough, slightly sweet white wines won the taste-off. “Off-dry whites and bubbles tend to be good omnibus wines,” says Colman. “They can absorb salt and spice.”
“It’s intimidating to go off the beaten path,” says Troy Bock, wine director at Sonoma (223 Pennsylvania Ave. SE) and Mendocino Grille (2917 M St. NW). “But if you match two flavors you like, it often works.” His fave odd coupling? Chocolate cake and Syrah.
Yet some snacks will never meet their match. “I’m still experimenting with Mars Bars and Smarties,” says MacLean. And while pork rinds and a Pinot Gris might taste OK together, the spicy white is far yummier with pork barbecue.
“I don’t think KFC’s bowl of potatoes and chicken pairs with wine,” says Colman. “But we’ve started to have a conversation in America about pairing non-traditional food with wine. We don’t have to be mired in a Merlot morass.”