Ever sit around munching on a snack and think to yourself, “Boy, it would be great to be drinking a nice glass of wine with this,” but you haven’t the darnedest idea what would go with it? Or you’re eating a nice steak, and the wine you’re drinking tastes terrific with it, but when you take a bite of the side dish and another sip of wine, something in you goes BOING because something isn’t quite right?

We’re here to help. Some of my favorite experts have assisted me in identifying and matching wines with challenging foods.


The solution: Txakolina (pronounced chalk-oh-LEE-nah)
Contributed by: Lucas Henning, Wine Director at Cuvèe, Napa

Mr. Henning would rather never see artichokes displayed on a tasting menu at all. But if we insist, “I look to just hint or accent the flavors. The wine really depends on the cooking techniques, and the sauce of the dish”.

Sid Goldstein, author of The Wine Lover’s Cookbook: Great Recipes for the Perfect Glass of Wine, states that it is the acid, cynarin, in the artichoke that makes it “the enfant terrible of food and wine pairing”. Cynarin has the effect of making everything taste sweet after eating it, including wine.

Txakolina is a cool white with relatively low alcohol. The wine is crystal clear and has a considerably clean aroma and flavor.


The solution: Port

Contributed by: Judy Meredith, Education Department, Diageo Chateau & Estate
Wines, Napa

Chocolate is a hard one, according to Ms. Meredith. “Many think cab goes with chocolate – but not really.” The port works not only for its sweetness, but its soft and lush texture. “…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.”

Chocolate has been notoriously difficult to match due to its slightly bitter, slightly acidic nature, and its own tannins can overpower most wines. Further, the wide variety of chocolate types: from dark to milky; and incarnations: as a part of a chocolate dessert, filled or by itself, are enough to puzzle the most experienced sommeliers.


The solution: Trouchard Roussanne

Contributed by: Scott Tracy, Sommelier, La Toque, Rutherford

Foods like red cabbage need techniques to soften them before even considering a match with wine. Though delicious, the classic side dish, German Red Cabbage, made with bacon, apples, onions and sugar, also includes an ingredient deadly for matching: vinegar. “The roussanne is not big on fruit tones, but has a rich texture to absorb the earthy expressions [of the dish],” remarks Mr. Tracy. Low-fruit wines are best with vegetal flavors. With such difficult recipes, the goal is not to attain perfection with the pairing, but to find “good dancing partners”. Typically, culinary wizards expect that 1 + 1 = 3 with easier pairings. Any chef or sommelier should be happy if 1 + 1 = 2 results from some of these daunting challenges.


The solution: Pinot grigio for white-wine lovers and pinot noir for red-wine lovers
Contributed by: Chef Mounir Fahmy, Owner, Bay Leaf Restaurant, Napa

Depending on the country you are in, says Chef Fahmy, you will like different wines with the hummus. Italians prefer pinot grigio, Germans like gewürztraminer, and the French favor fumé blanc. Here in America, hummus is still relatively new, and pairing with wine may not even be considered. Although Chef Fahmy considers matching wine with hummus to be a challenge (his opinion is seconded in this blog with reader responses entitled Impossible food wine pairings: falafel sandwich), he thinks the red-wine lover would enjoy either pinot noir or gamay beaujolais, and the white-wine lover would fancy pinot grigio.


The solution: an earthy pinot noir
Contributed by: Cohen Jay, Manager of Hospitality, Wine Spectator Greystone
Culinary Institute

“Black cod is marinated in a mixture of yellow miso, mirin, soy sauce, sugar and yuzu. It is then broiled in the oven and placed on a cool soba noodle salad…the set is then topped with a mizuna salad.” The agedashi broth is poured around the salad. Mr. Jay recommends an earthy pinot noir from Russian River, like Merry Edwards, but cautions against picking a pinot with bold tannins, which could overwhelm the fish. “You may also try a dry Riesling. It cuts through the fish and goes well with the richness of the miso when, of course, sake isn't available.”

It is the umami characteristics in the agedashi broth that can make a wine taste bitter, according to Mr. Jay. Although sake would normally be paired with such a dish, “It's nice to have an alternative that complements the beautiful creations of both the winemaker and chef.”

Umami is a term that describes the delicious or savory taste in foods and wines, and actually results from a concrete substance: either glutamate or ribonucleotides. The presence of umami in food can have the effect of making the wine you drink with it taste bitter or acidic.


The solution: Rosé
Contributed by: Chef Robert Curry, Auberge Du Soleil, Rutherford

Chef Curry did not have a chance to expand on his suggestion, but his opinion that tomatoes are not easy to match is shared by many.

The characteristics of tomatoes that make them difficult to pair with wine are their high acidity and sweet flavor, as is true with many of the other challenging foods we’ve found.

Tim Gaiser agrees with Chef Curry’s wine choice. Gaiser suggests pairing tomatoes and garlic on grilled baguette slices with a rosé due to its “lively acidity and light-to-medium body” in “Rosé is Seriously Good Wine,” his article on the fineCooking site.

Sideways Wine Club blogger and wine merchant, Dave Chambers, recommends a dry rosé with his “Tomato Butt” Gazpacho, as long as the wine has sufficient acidity.

Finally, pairing a dry rosé with the classic insalata caprese (sliced tomatoes with fresh mozzarella, basil and olive oil) is suggested by Lynne Char Bennett and Tara Duggan in the SF Chronicle article “Summer's Perfect Match, Raising a Glass to the Season's Best Produce.”CHALLENGE #4: VINAIGRETTE DRESSING
The solution: Brut Champagne with high acid
Contributed by: Chef Julie Tan, Culinary Educator, Tasting Judge, Cookbook/Recipe Developer

“Vinaigrettes tend to thin out wines, so my solution is to make my own, using five parts oil to one part vinegar.” Alternatively, Chef Tan will use a squeeze of lemon in place of the vinaigrette. The use of the high-acid brut Champagne goes along with her like-with-like pairing theory, as vinaigrette is, of course, high in acid. Chef Tan believes in some of the new matching principles, such as pairing wine and food with either similar or contrasting aspects. She adds that a correction to the food is sometimes necessary, such as the squeeze of lemon mentioned above or salt.


The solution: Demi-sec Champagne

Contributed by: Chef Roy Salazar, Certified Executive Chef, Culinary Educator, Master Taster

Many couples serve brut Champagne with their wedding cakes “because they think brut is a quality grade and not a level of sweetness,” Chef Salazar comments. Actually, the wine should be as sweet or sweeter than the food, “so the solution is to convince the wedding party to purchase a demi-sec champagne, as it is sweeter and most likely will match nicely”.

Demi-sec is second-to-highest in the sweetness range of Champagnes, according to Le Champagne, which also indicates that this level of sweetness is appropriate with desserts.


The solution: determine the character of the particular mushroom type; no particular wine will go with all mushrooms
Contributed by: me, Paula Barker

When eating a dish in which mushrooms are dominant, the mushroom type, treatment and sauce will determine the best selection of wine. Matching wine with mushrooms becomes ambitious when the mushrooms are cooked, thus releasing umami, which can tend to make wine taste bitter. (See “Miso-marinated black cod” above, for explanation of the umami effect.)

The Grand Wine Cellar website has a nifty vegetable and wine pairing guide from which I have summarized the recommendations for mushrooms:
Chanterelle mushrooms: Pinot Noir, Viognier
Cremini mushrooms: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier
Morelle mushrooms: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah
Oyster mushrooms: Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier
Porcini mushrooms: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir
Portobello mushrooms: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir
Shiitake mushrooms: Pinot Noir, Syrah
White and brown mushrooms: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc


The solution: Lynmar Russian River Chardonnay

Contributed by: Chef Sandra Simile, Lynmar Winery, Russian River Valley

“One vegetable that I love to use in the spring, especially in a risotto paired with our Lynmar Russian River Chardonnay, is asparagus, whose flavor profile is a bit
grassy, vegetal and particularly difficult to pair with wine.”

By steaming the asparagus, adding butter and letting it sit while the risotto finishes cooking, then draining off the butter, the harsh vegetal quality is smoothed, while the fat is decreased.

Characteristics of Lynmar’s 2005 Russian River Chardonnay are fresh and vibrant aromas, followed by a “deceptively soft with no hard edges” entry on the palate. “A remarkable flavor density is then apparent, seamlessly flowing into a rich mid-palate and bracing acidity.” See full tasting notes. SUMMARY
The common issue that appears throughout our list of difficult-to-pair foods is the presence of acid, bitterness, umami, excessive sweetness, or any combination of these, which work to fight against wine matching. Each expert has shown that these factors can be overcome with adjustment to the food and insightful selection of the wine, with a footnote not to expect perfection.

Director of Hospitality of Domaine Carneros by Taittinger, Gregg Lamer, comments that he has not come across a food that can’t be paired. “Food and wine matching is such a funny thing. I have never had a meal where I said, ‘Wow, that was really bad together’. If the food is good and the wine is good, chances are good they will be good together. You can adjust the seasoning with salt and acid (lemon, vinegar, etc.) to help balance the food. It is like saying all sauvignon blancs are perfect with goat cheese. There are many styles of sauvignon blanc and many more styles of goat cheese. Some are amazing and some are disappointing, but if I were enjoying the experience with friends watching the sunset, it would probably taste better.”

There’s a lot of truth and a nice visual there!

Because the newest thinking in wine and food pairing reflects what Mr. Lamer says, that any wine can go with any food, and since the legitimacy of matching is debatable, try adding a little shake of salt or squeeze of lemon to your challenging recipe and take a bite. Sip your favorite wine. It’s smooth. It works! See my previous article for more on the philosophy.

Comments? Suggestions? Questions? Write to me! [email protected]