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Christoper S. Miller
Many of my clients and students have recently been asking for a genius way to solve the conundrum of matching wine and food, a hot topic at the moment. Part of this perplexity is due to the ever-expanding selection of wines available, and part is due to our evolving cuisine. During the past decade our food and wine palates have evolved so much that “white with fish, red with meat” has really become obsolete. Still, there are a few rules.

Tannic wines are best for steaks that are grilled or sautéed. Crisp white wines are best suited to fish or chicken dishes that have a rich or creamy sauce. Never serve Cabernet Sauvignon with shellfish. Always be careful of artichokes with any wine. Ditto for asparagus.

Despite these rules there is lots of flexibility when it comes to bending them, with two exceptions. A Cabernet Sauvignon will always taste of iodine when paired with shellfish, and artichokes will always make pretty much any wine taste like metal. As a European and CIA trained chef, I have found a few strict rules I am able to work around by adjusting the dish. Asparagus, for instance, is a very difficult companion to wine, but if grilled with a good dose of high quality olive oil and finished with some freshly grated Parmesan and grilled Pancetta, it will pair quite nicely to several styles of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

There are many little tricks like these that a wine savvy chef can do to help with wine and food pairing. Most of my tricks I taught myself while creating wine dinners at my former restaurant.

Wine dinners are the best tool for a restaurant chef to learn and practice wine pairing methods. I have been lucky to be on all three sides of a wine dinner program: sommelier, chef and consumer. The last several years I have attended wine dinners at La Cote Basque, Daniel and The Four Seasons, and the food is always quite good. This year’s Daniel dinner featured the wines of Joseph Phelps Winery, and it was exceptional. The food was specifically prepared to pair with each wine. The food was of such a level that Daniel himself was willing to make an appearance with the hosts, Michael Aaron of Sherry-Lehmann, Mark Lauber of Lauber Imports, and Tom Shelton of Joseph Phelps Winery. We were informed that Daniel and his Sommelier Philippe Marchal worked with the wines several days in advance to create the best pairings possible. The dinner was unusual because all the wines served were red, and big reds at that.

The first course was a lobster dish that was garnished with chorizo sausage to help the dish pair with J. Phelps Le Mistral, a deep, dark red from Monterey vineyards. Le Mistral is a Rhône blend of Syrah, Grenache, Petite Sirah and Alicante Bouschet. Not only did the match work great due to the chorizo, I suspect the chef also used a touch of the wine in the gentle sauce accompanying the dish. Later courses were also exceptional but not such tricky matches. A beef course (braised short rib and filet mignon) and a cheese course paired with J. Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon and Insignia from several different vintages, including the excellent maturing 1996, were pretty simple pairings but delicious none the less.

With wine dinners and restaurant dining, the wine and food pairing responsibility can be put on someone else, such as a sommelier, but for dining at home you may need some advice. As we eat lighter and healthier, the wines we choose should reflect that, and most wines that are best suited for today’s “lighter fare” are not those that garner the stunning scores from critics – Robert Parker and Wine Spectator mostly – with their school-like numbers.

Interestingly, we are learning and adjusting our wine selections to be more food friendly. For instance, oaky white wines often overpower lighter cuisine and lately the market has sought-out crisper, cleaner wines such as Chablis, Sancerre and New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. We have even seen more Chardonnay labeled as Un-Oaked Chardonnay, that trend started in Australia, but I have seen Chardonnay from California, New Zealand and South Africa labeled that way, too.

Here on Long Island, Channing Daughters is producing a bunch of crisp whites that are quite impressive. They are even garnering high scores from Prof. Parker and his mighty numbers. These are wonderful food wines that are great for pairing with that healthy Mediterranean cuisine that has become so popular. As a result, some of Channing Daughters’ wines sell out so fast you have to be on their mailing list in order to assure a purchase. Chris Tracy, the winemaker, is a big fan of the wines of Friuli in northeastern Italy, another great area for food-friendly wines, both reds and whites. Friuli is home to several wonderful white wines, such as the specialty Tocai Friuliano (this will soon be called just Friuliano due to protestations from Hungary), Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio, all varieties that Tracy works with in Bridgehampton.

The last food friendly wine I will mention also gets fine results locally as well as in the “Old World.” Cabernet Franc produces world-class wines in parts of Bordeaux (notably Château Cheval-Blanc), in the Loire (Chinon), in Friuli and here on the North Fork of Long Island. The Cabernet Franc grape likes a cooler climate and is not as fussy about soil types as some other grapes, such as the finicky Pinot Noir, so Long Island is well suited for it. Cabernet Franc is one of my favorite grapes in that it has the ability to produce serious wines like Cheval-Blanc (notes of tobacco, red and black currants and hint of spice, the palate is deep and concentrated) or more playful wines like those found in the Loire. Loire Cabernet Francs have brighter fruit characters, such as red cherry and red raspberry. Here on Long Island, both styles are made very well. A couple of my local favorites are from Paumonok, Pellegrini, The Old Field and Jamesport.