Pairing wines and foods can sometimes be a puzzling process for those who don’t do it very often. Or, when the foods are widely disparate and only one or two wines are desired.
Sometimes guesswork is as good as anything until you find what most pleases your palate. I usually advise going against the conventional wisdom of white with fish and poultry, red with beef and pork.
That came home to me once again when I was one in a party of four meeting recently for dinner at a restaurant with a superb wine list. My assigned task was to decide on what one wine to drink with appetizers and entrees that ranged from a vegetable sampler to beef carpaccio to scallops to beef tenderloin.
I ended up selecting a 2006 Marques de Casa Concha Cabernet Sauvignon Puente Alto from Chile’s Maipo Valley, a rich, fruity bold wine that a good cab should be, one that held its own against the beef dishes but had enough subtlety and delicacy of finish to complement the scallops and vegetables without overwhelming either dish.
In the same week, I had to come up with a pair of wines for a dinner party for eight – meaning a lot of different personal tastes – for which I’d cooked a three-course Mexican menu.
This time I was in control of the menu, unlike at the aforementioned restaurant, so I could be more precise with what was needed to complement a wide-ranging dinner:
Starters were guacamole and a pico de gallo salsa, followed by tortas de cangrejo (lump Pacific crab cakes on a bed of micro-greens, dotted with a coarse mustard-mayo sauce).
Entrees were a carne de cerdo machado (herb-rubbed, oven roasted pork tenderloins, accompanied by a sauce of fresh cream, raisins, apricots, white wine and beef and chicken stocks) and estefado de pollo y tomatillo (a savory light stew of herbed chicken stock, thickened with a butter roux and studded with diced green tomatillos, yellow bell peppers, scallions, shallots, cilantro, served with brown basmati rice).
Dessert was a simple banana saute in a sauce of rum, brown sugar and fresh orange juice.
Margaritas – real ones, not the from-a-mix and frozen sort – were perfect with the starters, and a 1997 Bourgogne Les Champlains, a crisp, clean white from France’s Burgundy region, cleansed the palate and led into the crab cakes very nicely.
With the pork and chicken dishes a 2005 Black Russian Red from the excellent McGregor Vineyards in New York’s Finger Lakes had all the richness of stone fruits and a well-balanced structure necessary to work with the numerous herbs in the meat dishes – thyme, basil, smoked paprika, coriander, dried habaneros, etc.
For dessert, I followed my own muse. For the most part, I note people tend to pair astringent wines or tart liqueurs with sweet desserts. I go the other way, and served a Faretti Biscotti Famosi, from the famous Italian liqueur maker.
If I didn’t know better, I’d swear the Faretti craftsmen had simply crushed a batch of biscotti into a slightly syrupy form and bottled it. The signature flavors of almond, honey and even the biscuit itself are immediately obvious in both the nose and on the palate. The more you sip, the more it opens to reveal hints of citrus, fennel, caramel and vanilla, making it a delightful accompaniment to other sweets.
When you’re in the position of having to make the choices, be innovative. But, don’t select wines or liqueurs you’ve never tasted before; that’s a surefire way of increasing the odds things won’t pair well. Be bold, but be sensible.
You can read a variety of my tasting notes online to get some guidance on a wide variety of wines and liqueurs that may enhance your entertaining. Go to http://dowdtastingnotes.com.
William M. Dowd covers the global world of adult beverages at billdowd.com.