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Love the One You're With

Chicken a la king with a white Burgundy, probably a Pouilly Fuissé.  Beef bourguignon with a red Burgundy.  A red Bordeaux to match a steak au poivre.  Mac and cheese and a Coke or a glass of milk for the kids.

Once life was simple.  The best food and wines in most towns was served at the country club, and the dishes were all what was called classic French.  They were all prepared more or less the same and stayed on the menu because customers who came on Friday and Saturday nights had already decided what they were going to order hours in advance.  The wines were always French, usually a vintage or two behind.  There was major disappointment if you were expecting potatoes dauphenoise with your prime rib, and the chef had decided to be daring and fix creamed spinach instead.

Life is more complicated now, if much more exciting. The prime question most wine writers get these days is still, “What food would you pair this wine with?” Frankly, even if I tell you, it probably isn’t on a menu.  If it is, it’s probably spiced differently and prepared sous vide rather than sautéed.  Truth be told, in our day-to-day life, we seldom have optimal matches unless we’re eating out each night at great restaurants. What white is chilled in the fridge, and do we have any of that red left over from lunch?

That’s why it’s so much fun, especially for wine and food professionals, to have a wine dinner where a lot of planning has gone into it.  Such as the one this week held by Alamos wines by Catena at Ela restaurant in South Philly. Chefs Jason Cichonski and Billy Riddle came up with five courses coordinated with Jimena Turner of Alamos.

Here it is: 1st Bite – spruce smoked amberjack with preserved lemon, caper and brown butter (2012 Alamos Torrontes); 2nd – roasted beet tartare with celery root, house ricotta, pumpernickel pita chips (2012 Malbec); 3rd – house-made pasta with wild mushrooms, bone marrow, red wine sauce (2012 red blend); 4th – Wagyu beef with pumpkin, black garlic, smoked potatoes (2011 Seleccion Malbec); 5th – soft chocolate with rosemary, raspberry, pistachio (2011 Cabernet Sauvignon).  Everything tasted great, and the pairings went well. And, as anyone who has drunk much Alamos knows, it offers first-line quality and second-line prices.

I do like CIA prof and wine book author Michael Weiss’ simple, yet complex formula for pairings. For textures and tastes of both wine and food, he suggests thinking of “towers of power,” whether you’re looking for a complement or a contrast.  For example, a wine may go from light to full, bland to spicy, no oak to tannic – and so on.  Food may be boiled or seared. Sauces from a little water in the pan to dense and creamy.

I usually “instinctively” pair wine and food, especially at home.  No one tells you which vegetable goes best with whatever protein you’re fixing as a main course or as a one-course meal.  You just sense that frites go well with steak.  And, after you’ve drunk wine most of your life, you have a feeling what wine you can choose from your cellar to go with whatever dish you’re preparing without giving it a lot of analytical thought. Or you sense when you’re in a certain mood – “I want something a little younger and tannic tonight, or something older and leaner.”

The point?  Just some observations, which are not very deep.  The range of ingredients and food combinations these days is awesome, a great time to be a foodie.  And the range of local and international wines is equally awesome for a wino.  Having the opportunity to pair them, or having someone else pair them for you, is one of the good life’s great diversions.  By the same token, I usually try not to overthink pairings on a day-to-day basis.  I seldom drink Pinot Noir with rare beef, unless the Pinot is from Sancerre, but generally I don’t ponder a lot over whether the red I choose on a particular evening to go with that steak is Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Touriga Nacional or Garnacha, or what is its vintage and provenance.

When it comes to wine and food, rocker Stephen Stills had a good line in a different context from 1970 – “If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.”

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