Proven pairings

I am a little confused by a new trend hitting the wine scene: that any wine goes with just about any dish. "Professionals" in the retail and restaurant fields are straying from the traditional and historical pairing of wines to a "hey, whatever floats your boat," new-age feeling of wine appreciation.

I was watching a foodie show on the tube the other night and was stricken by a waitperson telling patrons that "just about any" wine on the list would go with the ribeye they had ordered. They asked for two glasses of sauvignon blanc because the man preferred white wine to red. It was like nails screeching down a blackboard to my ears.

Let's look at a few proven pairings and why these wines are meant to be enjoyed with certain foods.

Red meat — There are game meats, lean meats, lighter red meats and fatty meats. They can be smoked, marinated, blended (such as sausages or meatloaf), baked, grilled or fried and served with a variety of condiments. The palate density of red meat (its fiber and weight) simply destroys the light character of white wine. There is a definite, physical pounding that white wine receives with this kind of cuisine. White wine never should be suggested for heavy red meat.

Seafood — There is a huge difference between shellfish, saltwater fish and fresh water fish. (Think salmon and talapia or trout and mussels.) Dry white wine with less than 1 percent residual sugar is the overwhelming best choice for seafood. The thirst-quenching and palate-cleansing properties of dry white wine cannot be beat for seafood cuisine.

The exceptions are pairing lighter red wines such as pinot noir with salmon and heavier red wine with tomato-based seafood cuisine such as cioppino or pasta. I remember in the early 1980s Oregon fishermen and wine growers worked together to promote salmon and pinot noir as a pairing. It has worked well, and today, in both Oregon and Washington, the pairing is quite common.

As for white wine with residual sugar? The thirst-quenching qualities can be lost, and the cloying "quality" perceived on the palate can destroy the delicacy of seafood. White wines with good acidity and low sugar are the rule.

A note on high alcohol wines, either red or white: Wines with more than 14 percent alcohol can become obstructive to fine cuisine that is savored for nuance and peripheral flavors. Those looking for that certain "something" in cuisine that makes it special will want to avoid high alcohol content, which becomes a force in itself and overwhelms any meal.

Spicy, curried, salted and sugared dishes — These are hard to pair with any wine. The more heat applied, or the spicier or saltier the shaker, the fewer options for wine pairings. There was a study done some years ago in which five levels of the same Indian cuisine were set in front of wine professionals. Each level was spicier and more piquant than the next. The wine glasses were obscured so that the tasters could not see what wine was being served, red or white. The wines were served room temperature, and by the third level of cuisine, no one could tell whether they were drinking cabernet or chardonnay.

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at

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