The Boston Phoenix January 11-18, 2001


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White wine with steak? Red wine with fish? A few varietals that really swing.

by David Marglin

One of the great wine myths of this past century (wine writers like to muse upon a grand span at its close) was that red wine goes only with red meat and white wine goes only with "white" meats, including fish and fowl. Like all myths, this one offered a simple way to get a handle on the extraordinary -- much as the myth of the sun god, Helios, driving his shining chariot across the sky explained the light of day to the ancient Greeks. But pairing wine and food goes to the very essence of being a wine lover, and there are few rules.

It's true that red meats, for the most part, work best with red wines, especially big wines like cabs, merlots, syrahs, and zins. Big chewy reds go best with red meat, and vice versa. But you can find white wines that make a steak taste better or complement a succulent lamb chop. For example, a few sémillon-chardonnay blends and some straight chards can stand up to bloody meat, and even some rieslings and pinot gris will rally if necessary.

And so many red wines work so well with so many "white" meats and fish, it isn't even funny. When you order chicken, think zinfandel, like any of the 1998 Ridge Vineyard offerings (especially Pagani Ranch and Paso Robles Dusi Ranch), or those beauties from Mendocino like Mariah or Lolonis. With salmon, I love pinot noir, especially those from the Sonoma Coast like Wild Hog, Flowers, and Littorai, as well as the new batch of 1998 Oregons, including Torii Mor, anything from Ken Wright, Hamacher, Adelsheim, Willamette Valley Vineyards, or Willakenzie Estate. The 1998 Oregons are pretty much all good, and they're so fruity they work beautifully with Thai and Indian cuisines. Big pinots are grown and made all over the world, and many of them work wonderfully with less delicate fish (sauce depending, of course). I love Coldstream Hills from Australia, and Martinborough's New Zealand pinots have wowed wine critics for years. South African pinots are also coming on strong.

And other red wines swing too. I've recently fallen in love with grenache, and I find a lot of 1998 Southern Rhônes are bold accompaniments to fried chicken, paellas, fried seafood, even Jasper's signature pan-roasted lobster. The key is to think about the flavors of the wine, but the problem with this advice, alas, is that most folks do not know the flavors of most wines from memory. And you almost never know exactly how even the most well-prepared dish is going to taste. So, to me, it's all about ballpark figures, and observance of these five simple rules.

* Some foods are wine-proof. If you get that spicy-lemony beef salad at Elephant Walk, don't expect any red to like it. Red wines don't care for citrus, nor do they like vinaigrettes. Or raw fruit. So you just have to forget about finding any good wine to pair with certain dishes. Drink beer.

* There is a red wine for almost any food that goes well with white wine (although the reverse does not hold true). The trick, of course, is finding it. In most instances, there's someone out there who can help. You can, for example, e-mail us here at wine[a], and we can make some recommendations. If you are at a restaurant, someone can almost always suggest which reds cross over nicely. Any of your many local wine merchants can show you a few options.

* Softer, fruitier reds generally work better with foods that traditionally pair well with whites. Use common sense: don't serve a big merlot with Dover sole, or a massive shiraz with some delicately spiced chicken dish.

* Plonk won't work. Plonk means your basic under-$10 wines, very approachable, with names like Turning Leaf or Ecco Domani. They are decent enough, but they are so clean-cut that, in my experience, they don't excite the palate in an experimental crossover moment. If you wanna swing, spend money or choose very wisely, with the help of a professional.

* Learn from mistakes. If you try to match a red with something that's usually paired with white, you're likely to succeed if you have help or know what you are doing. But sometimes, the combo won't work. If you like the wine itself, I think that if something doesn't click, itthe varietal that isn't working. Assuming the dish is not wine-proof, remember what was off, and go back to your wine professional for another match.

The trick when pairing red wine with not-red meats, fish, and vegetables is to keep an open mind with your open wine. It may feel a little kinky to drink a red in a white situation, but to each his or her own, right? The magic of wine is that it gives you so many choices and such staggering variety.

Save the date: in addition to hosting the Boston Wine Expo on January 20 and 21, the World Trade Center is also the site of the annual Spinazzola gathering (for those of you who keep your money in your mattress and do not invest in the stock market) on January 19, at a cost of $175 per person.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

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