More Culinary Wine Adventures...

More Culinary Wine Adventures...
For more of Randy's tasting notes and gibberish-free ruminations, visit

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Wine miracles by the bucket (inside Paola di Mauro's kitchen)

In Italy, as you might well know, wine has always been a food, not necessarily something that you drink. The gastronomy itself is very regional, much of it as old as the hills, and probably even more of it as stylish or innovative as anything the Italians do. That’s the miracle of the Italian wine and food culture: its propensity to renew itself in delicious, and inspiring, ways.

The last time I was in Italy, which was always miracle enough for me (an overgrown kid from Hawai`i), I did what you do when you visit: get run off the road by the hell-bent natives, while meandering through those ageless towns perched atop impossibly steep, craggy hills, awash in colors seemingly more golden, deeper brown, a more Sistine blue than anywhere else in the world; the natural light from above bouncing off shimmering lakes lying like giant mirrors under the sky.

I think the most beautiful lake of all may have been the one called Albano, in the township of Marino located just twenty minutes outside of Rome. Some of the popes must have also thought of it as a miracle, too, since they built a summer home there on its bluffs -- an Italian “Châteauneuf-du-Pape,” or so I’m told.

This area around Lake Albano is also a posh neighborhood, complete with a history befitting its address along the old Appian Way, amidst a wealth of moneyed and not-so-moneyed-anymore marquis and, nowadays, even a fabulous underground wine restaurant. I dropped (literally) in that eatery, called Antico Ristorante Pagnanelli; and if you like sipping incredible (and incredibly reasonable priced) wines to acoustic guitars and violas in deep, vaulted cellars and tunnels beneath the Nuova Appia, you'll have a good time. I wouldn't be surprised if the pope, who still lives next door, has his own private underground entrance.

Antico Ristorante Pagnanelli

Practically across the street from the pope's palazzo and the Pagnanelli's restaurant is another miracle: the home of Paola di Mauro, one of the greatest cooks in Italy. I said cook, not "chef," since Paola's kitchen looks like anyone else's home kitchen; no high tech equipment or cold steel countertops, just pots, pans, bottles, wooden boxes, utensils and cutlery strewn about in cramped quarters. Then again, there lies the difference, because how many other home cooks have a little vineyard, a grove of olive as well as fruit trees, and a working winery just outside her kitchen door? But you have to forgive her for this since this is Marino, after all; a very old neighborhood that dates back to the days of fun and games at the Colloseum. Groves, vineyards, and meandering tunnels simply come with the territory.

It seems that in the mid-sixties Paola bought her property from another lady who was originally from Bordeaux in France. So French grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, sauvignon blanc and sémillon are still to be found in Paola's vineyard, alongside native Italian varieties like trebbiano and malvasia di Lazio. It just made sense for Paola to continue to make wine from her backyard – at first, both reds and whites, for her own amusement, and then for family and friends.

And wouldn't you know: the wines of Colle Picchioni, the name of Paola's estate, soon became the darlings of the wine insiders' world. Gambero Rosso, Italy's equivalent to the Wine Spectator in the U.S., gave Paola's red wine (made from merlot and the two cabernets) its highest rank (a symbol of three "glasses"). The internationally known, and feared, wine writer named Robert Parker has been most generous with his own 90-plus ratings. And as little as they produce – less than 1,200 cases, a mere drop in a bucket in Italy's ocean of wine – Colle Picchioni can now be found in some of the toniest restaurants in the world, in places as far off as Tokyo, Berlin, Beverly Hills, New York, and (to Paola’s amusement) Disney World.

But the miracle is not that Paola's wines have become famous, nor the fact that she is actually better known – at least to the Italian food gastronomes who speak of her as reverently as Alice Waters does of Lulu Peyraud – for her cooking. It is also a miracle that she and her son, Armando, still actually produce wines in the fashion that they, rather than critics like Robert Parker, prefer. And this is wine that is meant to go with the food Paola cooks in her kitchen.

Let me be a witness. The first wine Armando poured for me – at the kitchen table while Paola was pan frying with pungent rosemary and olive oil – was a two year old Colle Picchioni Marino Bianco Donna Paola: a soft, dry, fluid white wine, rather light and almost oily on the palate. What it wasn't was something big, thick, oaky, fruity or awesome – none of the flag words for the most highly rated wines of today. It is, in fact, an old fashioned wine; small in stature and rather plain, or square; almost boring by the standards of contemporary, internationalized wine.

While we sipped and talked about their friends in Santa Monica, California (Valentino’s Piero Selvaggio is one of Paola’s culinary disciples), Paola brought over her white bean soup – made from a different bean, a little more fava-like, from the better known white beans of Tuscany – over which Armando drizzled olive oil and dried chile flakes, and then stirred in a tiny dollop of blood red paste made from tomatoes, bell peppers and olive oil. The taste was smooth, soothing, yet tingly and robust; each sensation intensified by the round, easy, mildly oily texture of the Colle Picchioni white. Call it a food and wine epiphany. It often is when seemingly simple things add up to something unexpected, like the roar of great waters (or in this case, unassuming wine) knocking you from the saddle on the road to Damascus.

Then Paola finished what she was cooking in the pan, bringing a ceramic pot to the table containing her "Roman lamb." Nothing cute about the name, since she lives in Rome and this is lamb; but lamb in the way she had been cooking it over the past thirty years: bony morsels with chicken livers and other odd ends, rosemary, dried anchovy, white vinegar, pepper, and generous doses of the all-pervasive olive oil (for a reasonable facsimile, please re this recipe for abbachio alla Romana)

"Now we will show you why in Rome we drink white wine with everything," says Armando, "even with red meat." And indeed, what was plain as the Italian hills was how easily the oil and herbs in the lamb pulled together with the soft, oozing quality of the white wine. "The dish is not a difficult one," added Paola, "but neither is the wine. Great wine and food is not always complicated."

That reminded me a conversation I had with the Italian winemaking genius, Riccardo Cotarella, just a few days before at his dinner table in Umbria. "Drinking wine is a pleasure,” he had said, “and so you should always judge a wine by how much pleasure you feel when you drink it."

Via di Colle Picchioni

The rare wines of Colle Picchioni may fulfill this elemental advice, but you needn't look far to find other wines that achieve the same thing: Italy's Frascati and Soave Classico, Sicily’s nero d’Avola, wines made from verdejo, tempranillo and garnacha grapes in Spain, the little torrontés of Argentina, picpoul and Cahors from South-West France, lembergers from Washington and Austria, Oregon’s disrespected syrahs, California’s underestimated petite sirah and near-forgotten charbono, the under-appreciated rieslings and even more misunderstood gewürztraminers and scheurebes of Germany… these and zillions of other wines that are bound to impress you more by their unconscious ease on the table than by any numerical ratings found in the wine magazines.

Have you already seen the memo? I apologize if it came from me, since I just can’t help thinking: the miracle of wine is that it is not at all a pot of gold shimmering in the hills – 90-plus point wines of astronomic prices that are that way mainly because they’ve become objects of attention of collectors who are really nothing more than syllogomaniacs (obsessive-compulsive hoarders) with money to burn and habit of believing everything they read – but rather, something as easy to find as your next good meal, at home or at the next stop along the road. As long as there’s decent, food worthy bottle of wine to go with it!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Chicken (recipes & wine matches) everybody loves

Let’s talk chicken and wine matches. But why? The way I see it:
  • I learned long ago that ordering chicken in every restaurant gives you a pretty good idea of how good, bad, or detail oriented every restaurant's chef is. I know why, as a result, Blue Hill in New York, Zuni in San Francisco, and Le Pigeon in Portland are among my favorite restaurants in the country: they do chicken right.
  • Chicken loves bottled company, and picking a good one is not one of life’s most difficult tasks. The great thing about chicken, of course, is that there are 1,001 ways to cook it; and undoubtedly a 1,001 different wines to go with it. Well, probably more than that. But for someone with as catholic a taste as mine, this is heaven, plain and simple.
Chicken must be eaten with wine because that’s what elevates it no matter how it’s made. No one breathlessly writes home to say, "I found the perfect tea for har yee kai” (“beggar’s” chicken); or that "the classic Creole fried chicken beverage is a Big Gulp." But they do say that Bourgogne rouge is the natural match for coq au vin; and that a good barbera, or else Chianti, makes as much sense with cacciatore as coffee with a doughnut.

So what do you say? Let’s share some favorite chicken and wine matches. I’ll start with mine:

Chicken Cacciatore

The familial Italian chicken is cooked either with tomatoes, herbs and white wine, or braised with black olives and anchovy – or sometimes all of it at once. Tuscany’s Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino, which are made from the red sangiovese grape, have the natural acidity and cherry tomato-like fruitiness to strike the perfect balance with this style of chicken. Of those from Chianti Classico, I look for Castello di Ama, Fonterutoli, Fontodi, La Massa, Emma and Badia a Colitbuono; and from Montalcino, some of the greatest heights are reached by La Magia, Barbi and Altesino. But still, fine sangiovese based reds don’t have to come from one of those chichi producers of Tuscany.

Other excellent, and often exceptionally well priced, sangiovese style wines from Italy include those from the regions of Carmignano (Capezzana makes a bunch of delicious ones), Sangiovese di Romagna (Zerbina’s a terrific value), Morellino di Scansano (Aia Vecchia and Fattoria le Pupille’s are full and velvety), Rosso di Montalcino (I like Uccelliera and Rosso di Casanova di Neri’s), and the illustrious, yet still reasonably priced Vino Nobile de Montepulciano (my favorites being Avignonesi and Poliziano).

Barring that, there are other red wine grapes – notably barbera and dolcetto – cultivated in both Italy and California (and bottled by the names of the grape in both places) that offer soft, zesty edged fruit qualities similar to sangiovese, making as effortless a match with cacciatore style chicken as the red wines of Tuscany.

Coq au Vin Blanc

Chicken simmered in red wine, bacon, pearl onions, mushrooms and garlic cloves is wonderful with red pinot noir from France, California, Oregon, or any place you can find soft, silky examples of this naturally earthy-spicy red wine. But for coq au "vin blanc" – substituting white wine for red in the cooking – I’ve found that the better match is a dry white wine with a modicum of stony earthiness, without the weighty fruitiness that is more typical of California’s popular chardonnays, without the lemony sharp edge of typical sauvignon (or fumé) blancs, and without the perfumey fruitiness of, say, riesling or moscato.

So for me, the classic chicken-in-white-wine matches come from France: the round, mineral and smoke nuanced whites of Burgundy’s Mâcon (think Verget’s Saint-Véran or Robert-Denogent’s Pouilly-Fuissé) and Côte de Beaune (like Marc Colin’s Saint-Aubin, or the Meursaults by Pierre Morey or Francois Jobard). Even stonier are the smoothly dry bottlings of pinot blanc and pinot d’Alsace of Alsace (those of Marcel Deiss, Charles Schleret, Kuentz-Bas and Ostertag being strongest in the terroir qualities a coq a vin blanc loves).

In California, not all chardonnays are distractingly fruity. In the cooler climates like the Sonoma Coast and Santa Barbara, there are some crisp styles with mineral qualities being produced (especially those by Au Bon Climat, Tandem, Keller, Neyers, DuNah, Porter-Bass, and Dutton-Goldfield’s Rued Vineyard); and you’ll find similar, moderately scaled chardonnays in Oregon (by Argyle, Eola Hills, King Estate, and best of all, Ken Wright and Seven Springs) as well as in Washington State (those of Woodward Canyon, Amavi, Abeja, Januik and even Château Ste. Michelle are always among the best).

But who says the world of coq au vin blanc turns around chardonnay? The pinot blancs of California (those of Chalone, Au Bon Climat and J. Wilkes, for starters) as well as Oregon (WillaKenzie’s and Ken Wright’s are as good as it gets, although Foris makes a nifty little one in the south side of the state) fulfill the same culinary need when it calls for a white wine that’s not too heavy, not too light, not too tart, and not too soft or fruity.

Lemon or Ginger Chicken

The familiar Chinese style dishes – in sweet /sour lemon sauces, or steamed with ginger and garlic – call for more exotically perfumed white wines that combine both acidity and traces of residual sugar. But this does not mean, as often assumed, that the best choice is gewürztraminer – a lychee scented white wine that has a tendency towards low acid and slightly bitter qualities (as commonly found in the gewürztraminers of France’s Alsace, and many of the dryer styles of California). Heavy, bitter styles of gewürztraminer have a tendency to taste unbearably harsh with sweet/sour dishes, and the dishes sweeter and more sour than necessary.

The best white wine for strongly flavored Chinese styles of chicken is riesling; lush enough to merge seamlessly with gingery spices, and feathery fine, gentle and balanced enough to echo sweet/sour notes. The lightest yet most intensely scented and refined rieslings in the world come from Germany; particularly the kabinett quality styles from the regions of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer (strictly personal favorites: Weins-Prüm, Mönchhof, Loosen, Milz, Selbach-Oster, Zilliken, von Hövel, and von Schubert), Rheingau (Weil, Künstler, and Kesseler), Rheinhessen (Gunderloch), and Pfalz (Burklin-Wolf, Pfeffingen, or von Bassermann-Jordan).

In Washington State, Chateau Ste. Michelle has been turning out fresh, balanced, lusciously fruited rieslings since the ‘70s, although Pacific Rim (sourcing in Washington’s Columbia Valley) and Oregon’s Chehalem are undoubtedly making the finest rieslings in the Northwest today. In the Southern Hemisphere, the rieslings by Leeuwin Estate in Western Australia and Villa Maria in New Zealand are wonderful, tropical-scented whites showing just hints of sweetness, balanced by enough zesty acidity to harmonize with sweet/salty/spicy/gingery Asian style chickens.

Chicken Etoufée

In North America, and around the world for that matter, the Cajun-Creole style of casserole chicken may very well reign supreme. Versions such as Paul Prudhomme's – given great density (but not overly thickened) by roux, the "holy trinity" of onions, bell peppers and celery, and a dozen or so other spices and seasonings – are both complex and mercilessly intense. For something so good, the only thing to drink with it is a great wine

Etoufée likes wines equal to it in depth, heft, and layers of spice. This would mean a good red wine, but not one with a dry, hard taste that would deaden the palate; and the wine that best fits this description is California’s zinfandel – especially the velvety, peppery-cinnamon-and-clove, berry jam-like scented zinfandels produced in Sonoma by the likes of Carol Shelton, Quivira and Ridge.

Of those from Napa Valley, zinfandel fanatics swear by Robert Biale and Turley Wine Cellars, although my current fave-raves are those of Tres Sabores and Frog’s Leap. Sourcing from other parts of the state, producers like Neyers, Rosenblum, Cosentino, St. Amant, Jesse’s Grove, Macchia, Michael-David (especially their Earthquake), Cedarville, Perry Creek, C.G. di Arie and Miraflores makes outstanding all-American styles – big, brash, unabashedly fruity – for this all-American style of chicken.

Chicken Paprikas

The late Roy Andries de Groot once proclaimed his recipe for Hungarian style of chicken – browned with goose fat, then braised with onions, garlic and, finally, a sauce pigmented by generous doses of the mildly spiced paprika chile before thickened in the end with sour cream – as one of the most glorious dishes in the world, and I can’t say I disagree (look for my favorite recipe at the end of this post).

For paprika laced chicken, de Groot’s classic choice was always a lovingly cellared, old French Bordeaux or California cabernet sauvignon – soft, yet rich enough to absorb the avalanche of sweet, spicy, succulent flavors in paprikas style chicken. The problem being, de Groot’s idea of “cellaring” was a vintage at least 20 or 25 years old. Most of us zip down to the nearest liquor or grocery store to pick up our wine to drink tonight, and we’re lucky if it’s more than three years old.

So in lieu of something cellared, I recommend a soft, luxuriously fruited, California grown red wine made from the merlot grape (Salexis, Selene, Swanson, Neyers and Peju’s are five that continue to stir my old passions for the grape); or else one of elegant yet dense, juicy “Bordeaux” style blends of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc from California (some new and old favorites: Robert Sinskey’s Marcien, Lang & Reed’s Right Bank, Murphy-Goode’s All In and Wild Card Clarets, Worthy’s Sophia’s Cuvée, Justin’s Justification and Isosceles, St. Supery’s Élu, and Babcock’s Fathom) or Washington (where Va Piano’s Bruno’s Blend, Sleight of Hand’s The Illusionist, and the sangiovese laced Manina Cali and Long Shadows Saggi are my current faves).


My experience of lemon and ginger chicken dishes is deeply ingrained in the Chinese restaurant experiences of my younger days in the Hawaiian islands, and recipes for these are found all over the net. For the best chicken cacciatore, I strongly recommend Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook: and for classic chicken etoufée, I don’t see how anyone can go wrong with the recipe in Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen.

For other classic wine matches, we’ve improvised own versions of older recipes over the years. one of our all-time favorites:

Rihana’s Coq au Vin Blanc

8 pieces chicken thighs (mostly) and legs (or one 5 lb. chicken, cut in serving pieces)
24-30 pearl onions
Salt and fresh ground black pepper
6 oz. bacon strips or slab, squared or cubed
8 oz. button mushrooms, quartered
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 bottle (750 ml.) white wine (inexpensive chardonnay will do)
1 medium yellow onion, quartered
2 stalks celery, quartered
2 medium carrots, quartered
3 cloves garlic, crushed
6-8 springs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
2 cups chicken stock or broth

Cut off root end of each pearl onion and make an “x” with knife in its place. Bring 2-3 cups water to boil and drop in the onions for 1 minute. Remove onions from pot, allow to cool, and peel (onions should slide right out of skin). Set aside.

Blanch bacon briefly in boiling water; drain, and dice or cube. Fry to render fat; remove meat and set aside, and save fat for frying.

Sprinkle chicken pieces on all sides with salt and ground pepper. Place chicken pieces, a few at a time, into a large (1-2 gallon) sealable plastic bag along with flour; shake to coat chicken completely. Remove chicken from bag, and fry in bacon fat, just until crust is crisp. Set chicken pieces aside.

In same pan, add pearl onions to fat, sprinkle with salt and pepper, sautéing until lightly brown (approximately 8-10 minutes). Remove onions from pan and set aside. Transfer chicken into a 7-8 quart enameled cast (like Le Creuset) or cast iron Dutch oven.

Add mushrooms to the same 12 inch sauté pan, adding 1 tbsp. butter if needed, and sauté until liquid is released (approximately 5 minutes). Store onions, mushrooms and bacon in airtight container in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Pour off remaining fat and deglaze pan with approximately 1 cup of wine. Pour this into Dutch oven along with chicken stock, quartered onion, carrots, celery, garlic, thyme and bay leaf. Add all of the remaining wine. Preheat oven to 325° F.

Place chicken in oven and cook for 2 to 2-1/2 hours, or until chicken is tender. Maintain a very gentle simmer and stir occasionally.

Once chicken is done, remove it to a heatproof container, cover, and place in oven to keep warm. Strain the sauce in a sieve and degrease (discard carrots, celery, thyme, garlic and bay leaf). Return the sauce to a pot, place over medium heat, and reduce by 1/3 (depending on how much liquid you began with, this should take 20-45 minutes).

When sauce has thickened, add pearl onions, mushrooms and bacon, and cook another 15 minutes or until heated through. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary; remove from heat, add the chicken and serve.

Serve from Dutch oven with either long grained white rice or lightly buttered egg noodles. (note: if sauce is not thick enough at the end of reducing, you may add a mixture of equal parts butter and flour kneaded together, starting with 1 tbsp. each; whisk this in the sauce for 4-5 minutes, and repeat if necessary).

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Red wine with fish revisited

The concept, red wine with fish, is now as firmly entrenched in culinary phraseology as red wine with meat and white wine with fish. Exactly how does this work, and why?

To get a handle on this, you need to go back to the basic methodology first explicated some twenty years ago by David Rosengarten and Joshua Wesson in their book, Red Wine with Fish (sadly out of print today), based on the premise that all wines and foods find their match in two basic ways:

Similarities - When there are similar taste sensations in both a dish and a wine (example: the buttery sauce in a fish dish enhanced by the creamy or buttery texture of an oak barrel fermented white wine)

Contrasts - When sensations in a wine contrast with sensations in a dish to positive effect (example: the sweetness of a white wine balancing the saltiness of a dish like ham or cured sausage, and vice-versa)

The how’s, in the simplest way I can put it:
  • Since more than anything, it is the bitter or hard tannin components found mostly in red wine that are obstacles to matching fish or shellfish (i.e. excessive contrast, like ketchup on ice cream), you turn to red wines with soft or almost no tannin to speak of.
  • Since almost all fish and shellfish like wines with some degree of acidity (i.e. complimenting contrast, like lemon squeezed on a filet, or walnuts on a sundae), you utilize red wines with at least a modicum of tartness.
  • Since red wines are indeed best with meatier dishes, you apply this principle to meatier, as opposed to delicate, types of fish (going for heightened similarity, like syrup on ice cream)
  • Since many dishes we eat are sums of their parts (example: a banana-cherry-walnuts-hot fudge-whipped cream sundae as opposed to a plain scoop of vanilla), we increase the chances of successful red wine matching by cooking our seafood with ingredients or techniques that are more likely to match red rather than white wines in terms of similarity and contrast.
  • Since red wines, by nature (i.e. fermented with skins, as opposed to whites which are not), are more complex than white wines, we go one step further in our food preparation by consciously utilizing ingredients with some degree of umami – “delicious,” high amino acid related sensations, which soft, complex styles of red wine such as pinot noir love (re my previous post, Desconstructing Umami).

For those of us in the restaurant business, the option of serving red wine with fish has been just what the doctor ordered because of the current consumer preference for red over white wines. In a multi-course dinner, for example, we can start with a sparkling or white wine with a seafood appetizer course, and then dive directly into a succession of red wines matched with either seafood or red meats.

Then there is the simple fact explaining why: many seafood courses simply taste better with a red rather than white wine; given both the way many red wines are made today (with more emphasis on smoothness of texture and balance of sensations), and the way we and many of our favorite chefs cook seafood today (with lots of red wine matching components). Drinking red wine with fish just makes sense.

Oh, many of us will always have a predilection for thick, heavy tannin, super powered reds like cabernet sauvignon; just like for all the popularity of seafood, we will always love a good, charred, juicy chunk of steak. But if you prefer seafood and at the same time red wines, with sensible guidelines dialed into your own tastes there is no reason why you cannot enjoy a “perfect” match in every meal.

That said, some specific red wine friendly foods we have known and enjoyed well:

All tuna all the time

Seared rare or prepared raw (i.e. variations of sashimi, tartare or poke), the higher grades of Pacific ‘ahi tuna are the seafood lovers’ steak. Because of its red fleshed, high fat meatiness, tuna is one of those fishes that 99% of the time are better matched with red wines than with whites. Negligibly tannic, fruity red wines, like France’s Beaujolais vinified from the gamay noir au jus blanc grape (Joshua Wesson often describes this grape as a “cross dresser” – a red that thinks it’s a white), are natural tuna matches. But when you crust it with bitter peppercorns, char it with grill lines, or dress it up in sauces beefed up with earthy soy, umami rich veal stocks or meaty demi-glace, all of the sudden red wines with stronger tannin underpinnings find balancing notes of similarity.

The all-star choice for tuna, in these post-Sideways days, is of course pinot noir. “Pinot noir with everything” is a mantra in many restaurants today, and for good reason: it is the one grape variety producing reds overlapping into virtually all food types – seafoods, leaner cuts of red meats, playfully cooked “other white” meats looking for moderate tannin, and even salads and appetizers better matched with wines with perceptible underpinnings of acidity.

Charred or smoky salmon

Although pinker, less meaty, and slightly stronger in fish oils than tuna, salmon still falls into a category of fish that are usually better matched with red than white wines. I’d put this percentage of this working at 80%; but when you apply preparations resulting in more aggressive sensations – like smoking, wood roasting or grilling, or crusting with pungent herbs and/or peppercorns – you strike notes of similarity pushing the percentage of successful red wine matching closer to 99%. Particularly pinot noir, a wine best finished in French oak, adding the woodsmoky qualities that amplify the grape’s intrinsic spice qualities.

In the Pacific-Northwest, for instance, pinot noir has long been a cultural gastronomic match as natural as Chianti in Tuscany. Native American inspired, open fire, alder or cedar plank cooked salmon is an easy one; but also other regional inflections such as pan seared salmon finished with wild berry infused demiglace (bringing out the berry perfumed qualities of Oregon grown pinot noir), or salmon glazed with sweetened soy marinades or ponzus reflecting the strong Asian-Pacific influences (both sweet and umami sensations mingling with the grape’s perfumed, earth and spice qualities).

But it’s not just pinot noir that works for salmon. In the past, the Wine Spectator’s Harvey Steiman has made credible cases for fruit forward, zesty edged red zinfandels as natural salmon matches. When the salmon is roasted with, say, herbs like basil, dill or chives, or even finished with sun dried tomato or cheese, the even zestier, woodsy, finely textured red wines vinified from the sangiovese grape (i.e. Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano or Rosso di Montalcino) might make more sense; as would typically sprightly, floral and spice scented wines made from blaufränkisch (also called lemberger or limberger) from Austria or Eastern Washington. Try salmon simply charcoal grilled with pungent vegetables (squash, fennel, scallions, etc.), and see if even a lower acid, yet soft and smoky nuanced red like Tempranillo (from Spain’s Rioja or Ribera del Duero) doesn’t make a seamless match. Indubitably.

Oysters any way

At the Grand Central Oyster Bar, conveniently esconced in New York’s Grand Central Station, they’ll tell you that a soft, zippy pinot noir is just as good a match for raw oysters as a sharply dry sauvignon blanc. This might not work for you, but if it does it’s because of umami factors – the savory, high amino acid components of oysters combined with propensity of softer tannin, spice and earth nuanced reds like pinot noir to embrace that sensation. But if you’re skeptical, here’s the trick: grill the suckers (over wood or charcoal on a grill topper or just aluminum foil punched with holes), and you’ll find the smoky sensations in both wine and bivalve working in even more delicious synchronicity. But whether you’re consuming oysters by themselves, baked in any number of ways (from high umami bacon to sweet sensation black beans), or adding them to stews or other mediums (like Southern style oyster stuffed steaks), the point is that oysters are a red wine natural – don’t think twice, it’s all right.


Like oysters, strongly earthy mussels – even when stewed as it usually is in seafood stock and white wine – are one of those dishes that open up to either crisp dry whites (offering contrasting notes of acidity) or softly textured reds (offering similarities of earth tones). An interesting thing to try is juxtaposing the two wine types, the white served chilled and the red served slightly chilled (60 minutes in the fridge), and you’ll see how Wesson and Rosengarten’s theorem works in two different ways.

Charred scallops

One of the longtime signatures of San Francisco’s Traci Des Jardins is scallops pieced with truffled mash potatoes. She’s also not opposed to browning in butter with smoked bacon and Brussel sprouts, or any ways that arouse the senses with clarity of smell. As far as I’m concerned, whenever scallops are flash charred and scented with earth tones and umami driven sensations they become dishes for pinot noir – especially those from Burgundy in France, where the pinot perfume always seem more sharply defined, the tannins more supple, and the terroir notes more pervasive. When scallops are combined with winey balsamic syrups, cured meats like prosciutto, or pungent vegetables like spinach or mushrooms, they are more likely to respond to finely textured reds like pinot noir.

Mixed seafood dishes

Two of the most famous ways of mixing fish and shellfish together in one dish are in the form of bouillabaisse and cioppino – the former fused together by one of the most elemental of spices, saffron, and the latter a San Francisco treat laced with tomato and wine. Then there are the endless variations of paella – rice dishes also based on saffron and cooking in earthy seafood stocks. Whenever you combine seafoods in these classic ways you are essentially piling on a plethora of high umami components – the one taste sensation that sings most sweetly with soft, multifaceted forms of red wine. Both saffron and tomatoes only intensify the need.

Then there is the universally beloved freshwater crustacean, crawfish: in the recipes that evolved in Louisiana – etoufée and jambalaya – strongly skewed towards red wine friendly ingredients like chopped onions, bell peppers and celery (the Cajun-Creole “holy trinity”), along with umami-rich tomatoes, earthy okra, pungent scallions, and layers upon layers of spices and seasonings that demand the complexity of red, rather than white, wines. The most reliable match? Probably all-American red zinfandels, with their typical jammy sweetness that smooth over strong seasonings, and the wine’s peppercorn spiciness that relates well to Cajun-Creole spices.

None of this is a matter, as Cole Porter put it, of “anything goes,” but rather a matter of what makes sense. If you prefer red wine and you love seafood, then you choose the wines and cook in a way that make it happen, which is just not difficult in these days of hugely variant wines and foodstuffs.

Grandson, James, checking out the crawfish before they hit the pot

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The positive taste of brett in wines and food matching

The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast. One of the controversies that emerged in the 1990s concerns an extremely common, but often glossed over, taste factor in wine called Brettanomyces; often shortened to “brett” in the parlance of winemakers.

Brett is basically one of the many natural species of yeast that begins to make its presence known in red wines after fermentation, while they are aging in the barrel. Although I have found few vintners anxious to discuss it, the winemaking community has long known that Brettanomyces, more than anything else, is largely responsible for the earthy, leathery qualities long associated almost exclusively with European wines, although it is by no means foreign to New World wines.

During all my years of California wine judging, in fact, picking out wines with subtle or excess brett has been as routine as picking out wines with notes of volatile acidity, oxidation, madeirization or hydrogen sulfides. Not too long ago, many wine writers and restaurant/retail professionals were still shamefully misrepresenting this attribute to consumers as aspects of terroir or climat – that is, resulting from unique environmental conditions of specific regions and vineyards – and would speak of it in reverent, and sometimes even mystical, terms.

The “glove leathery” nuances found in red Burgundy, the “sweaty saddle” common in Spanish reds and South-West French reds (like Ribera del Duero, Rioja, Madiran and Saint-Chinian), and even the handsome, leathery complexity common to many of Bordeaux’s grand crus: all of this is essentially the manifestation of a component that oenologists generally classify as a “spoilage” yeast. At worst -- when left uncontrolled in wineries (judicious use of sulfur dioxide is the most effective method of suppressing brett) – Brettanomyces laden wines begin to taste “mousy” or metallic, or else barnyardy and all-too-often, manure-like.

Brett is common to wines coming out of fairly new wine growing regions – like many cold climate grown New Zealand and Australia pinot noirs – where winemakers are just beginning to get a handle on their craft. Yet strong leather, even manure-like manifestations of brett are also common to fairly well established regions, among new and old wineries alike. Examples: cabernet sauvignons coming out of Chile (like the ultra-premium Errazuriz and Domus Aurea), Australia’s Barossa Valley (Torbreck, one of the better known of those producers), as well as California (from Robert Mondavi to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars). Château Musar from Lebanon’s Bakaa Valley – one of the darlings of the British wine trade – is particularly rife with this character. Even more distressing is the fact that many of these high brett wines retail in the $50 to $100-plus range – as if having this stinky “European” taste qualifies for ultra-premium pricing!

In the nineties Brettanomyces became something of a controversy within winemaking circles when more and more New World producers began to supplement their technology with traditional, Old World methods of vinification: particularly things like natural yeast fermentation, minimal sulfuring and cellar intervention, and greater tolerance of high pH levels (the level of wine’s acidic strength) than previously accepted. In wine judgings, as a result, we would find higher incidents of brett in categories such as “small production pinot noir” (case productions of, say, 500 or less). The goal, of course, was to utilize European style handcrafting to achieve more intense, unbridled natural flavors, particularly when sourced from special vineyards. Letting the terroir, so to speak, speak more loudly in the glass.

I would often find these small batch wines to be very attractive, but many others the opposite – almost repulsive. Why would many vintners deliberately skirt the fine line between subtle and excess brett; between love and hate? My personal theory: because wine writers tend to have a higher tolerance of brett than ordinary consumers (who usually believe whatever writers tell them anyway). If wines that retain, say, French-like or “rubber boot” qualities garner higher ratings from certain well known writers, why not? Do the math: high scores + critical success = greater demand, higher prices and financial success.

This is why you might read about, say, a 2006 Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste ($40-$80 current retail) that is rich, velvety, full of cigarbox and blackcurrant fruit, but also positively oozing with barnyard animal-like aromas and flavors. Yet all you read from Robert Parker (who gives it a 92) are words like “classic crème de cassis,” “pure personality,” and “beautiful density.” Jancis Robinson (who gives it 17.5 out of 20) chimes in with phraseology like “overlay of spice” and “all-over-the-palate experience.” But nary a word about the obvious brett. Why? Like I said, I think most of the better known wine writers either don’t smell it or just don’t care when they do. It’s bad enough (if you don’t enjoy the smell of barnyards in wine) that they’re swaying you by meaningless numerical scores; but when they don’t even mention it in the descriptions… don’t get me started!

Not all writers, of course. One of the more vociferous critics of brett when it occurs in California wines has been Ronn Wiegand, an influential MW/MS. One morning he told me, “As far as I’m concerned, Brettanomyces is a serious flaw that tends to blur grape and regional distinctions. I never really liked it in French wines, and I certainly don’t think it belongs in California wines.”

There has to be some irony to the fact that after many years of being compared unfavorably to French wines, California wines are being knocked when they taste too much like them. David Ramey (pictured, right), one of the California winemakers Wiegand admires most, once shared this perspective with me: “In my experience wines that are known to be made as naturally as possible, like France’s Beaucastel and Pichon-Lalande, are often found to taste ‘better.’ No question, Brettanomyces plays a part in these wines - so where’s the problem?” At the same time, however, Ramey makes it very clear that "it's not a wise commercial policy to make wines with brett for the American market, so we have a zero brett policy here at Ramey Wine Cellars, despite working with native yeasts, high pH's and bottling unfiltered -- the classical means of elevage include techniques that eliminate brett in one's cellar."

Tony Soter, one of the winemakers I admire most, and whose wines at Etude were never been accused of being French-like, takes a more tolerant stance: “This is a sad issue, because it takes all the mystery out of those great French wines that, frankly, I love.” As for his own wines, Soter admits, “I’ve played with Brettanoymyces, although at relatively low levels, because it does compliment a wine somewhat. The point, however, is that ultimately it should be wine drinkers, not writers, who should decide what they like, and whether brett in a wine is good or not.”

In one of his old newsletters (now compiled in his book, Inspiring Thirst), Kermit Lynch went so far as to say that the opposite of a "bretty" wine is the type of sterile, unnatural wine he has long decried, calling the nitpicking of wines with animal, underbrush, leather or even barnyard aromas an insiduous "Attack of the Brett Nerds." Lynch has plenty to beef about because knee-jerk reactions to brett are often confused with earthy yet enthralling manifestations of garrigue - in Southern French wines in particular, time honored distinguishing marks of terroir - with this spoilage yeast; which is easy to do because of sensory similarities (for example, simply rub a twig of fresh rosemary between your fingers, and you'll retain an animal-like smell on your fingers that is pungently organic, and most definitely not brett-related).

And in fact, besides Beaucastel and Pichon-Lalande there are many, many other wines of the world that are produced with subtle qualities of brett that amplify, and thus improve, natural fruit and other organic elements, adding up to magnificent expressions of terroir: for me, the mysteriously deep, dark Madiran by Château Lafitte-Teston immediately comes to mind; so does the massively scaled Domaine de la Granges de Peres from Languedoc, the spice-box scented Gigondas by Domaine du Cayron, the magnificently deep reservas of Spain’s Tinto Pesquera, the powerful yet pillowy textured Falesco Montiano by Italy’s ingenius Riccardo Cotarella, Antinori’s legendary Tignanello, and on the home front, Randall Grahm’s groundbreaking string of Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volants… the hits go on and on.

How does that song go? If loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right… so maybe we need to take the bull by the horns, and talk about how we can match foods with the finer brett laced wines of the world, working with the yeast to come up with something even more exciting.


Not only is Brettanomyces a welcome complexity in many wines, its presence can make for some interesting food matches. Some guidelines and experiences:
  • First, there is probably nothing you can do from a culinary perspective with wines in which brett is way over-the-top – riddled with a pervasive aroma of leather to the detriment of fruitiness, or else a basically unpleasant, barnyardy stink. Excess brett – like excess alcohol, acid, volatile acidity, tannin, oak, or any other elements – will not make a dish taste better, and nothing you can do to a dish might make the wine taste better (and for you “breathers” out there: no amount of time in a decanter will rid a wine of stink either). Unbalanced wines of any sort always have a low percentage chance of working with food.
  • However, wines with subtle brett qualities can be quite useful. I’ve enjoyed softer, moderately scaled reds with leather or even gamy undertones in seafood settings; particularly fish or shellfish with strong marine notes of earthy quality. Who wouldn’t, for instance, prefer a light, snappy sangiovese based red over any white wine with pasta and mussels in an herb scented tomato sauce? Earthy red Bandol is often served with bouillabaisse laced with saffron (one of the most complex earthen spices of all) to delicious effect, especially with dabs of garlicky aioli; and in the Bay Area, I’ve enjoyed some funky, small batch pinot noirs with The City’s many variations of earthy and saline cioppinos.

  • For deeper, sturdier red wines (like cabernet sauvignon, syrah, or Southern French style blends) tinged with brett, gamy meats like venison and leg of lamb are no-brainers, and meaty birds like squab, pigeon, Muscovy duck and even goose are not a bad idea either. But you can play with lightly gamy notes in a wine with any meat, gamy or not, with the use of earthy ingredients such as wild mushrooms, organ meats, bone marrow, lardons or pancetta, homemade sausages, horseradish and fennel, root vegetables, earthy varieties of Chèvre, cumin and tumeric, and in more elegant settings, truffles (and truffle oil), foie gras, or with creative use of the trufflish Mexican delicacy, huitlacoche (corn smut, which I once enjoyed in a ravioli with crimini, spinach and achiote chili sauce).
  • Use of pungent, fatty or chewy organ meats — like tripe (especially cut thick, as in meñudo), liver, kidneys, sweetbreads, tongue, beef tendons, and the rind, belly, feet, chitterlings, trotters and head meat of pork – are all of the right textural and aromatic “stuff” for earth toned wines.
  • Just as use of fruit (fresh or dried) in dressings, finishing sauces, or condiments compliments a gamy meat, it goes a long ways towards brightening the fruit qualities of red wines with low key brett. Vegetables that are naturally sweet (like beets and yams) or slightly sweetened (squash and onions) can do the same.

Some brett-laced wine and food matches we have known and loved:
  • In Berkeley, a succession of mildly gamy 20 year old reds (a Chave Hermitage, followed by a Vieux Télégraphe Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Domaine Tempier Bandol) with a potato casserole generously layered with black truffles
  • At the Joel Palmer House in Dayton, Oregon, a pungent, essence-of-wild three-mushroom tart with a soft, fragrant, yet distinctly leather glovish Adelsheim Willamette Valley Pinot Noir
  • In a South Australian wine country restaurant, a lamb’s brains in mustard sauce with a wildly earthy Rockford Basket Press Shiraz
  • At Bay Wolf in Oakland, a ravioli of wild mushrooms and spinach in an aromatic porcini broth with a lush yet meaty-game nuanced Au Bon Climat Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir
  • At Matsuhisa in Aspen, an ankimo (monkfish liver) paté with caviar and a bright strawberry, blackberry, pepper and leather laced Torbreck Juveniles (Barossa Valley grenache/shiraz/mataro)
  • At home in the Islands, an oyster stuffed game hen in a ragout of giblets, onions and porcini with a leather-on-lace Allegrini La Grola Valpolicella
  • In one of our Island restaurants, a lusty confit of duck, roasted garlic and offal in a white bean cassoulet with a mild but pungent, unsulfured, unfiltered, un-nothinged Morgon by Foillard
  • In my most recent home in the Rockies, a simple cube steak pan roasted with alderwood smoked salt, cracked pepper and sweet-hot paprika – and finished with a smothering of shallots, mushrooms and red wine deglaze – with Spain’s Dehesa la Granja, brimming with sweet blackberry coated in leather and roasted meat
  • Home again in the Rockies, a saddle sweat scented cumin laced ground bison chili served with Hebrew National dogs and Cheddar; finding a natural match with a virile, suede nuanced and textured Altos las Hormigas Malbec from Argentina
  • One final home remedy – spinach pasta with chopped chorizo and sweet onions in classic, Italian herbed tomato sauce and generous shavings of earthy Pecorino, washed down with a zesty, leather wrapped cherry toned Peppoli Chianti Classico by Antinori
But maybe you don’t dig snails, monkfish liver, lamb’s brains, cioppino, or the taste of Brettanomyces in your wine. That’s your call. After all, in the end that’s all that matters.

Kermit Lynch, the original wine adventurer
(photo by Peter DaSilva, The New York Times)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

When in Rome (or the Hawaiian isles)

When in Rome, everyone knows, you do as the Romans do – including eat, and drink, and hang around outdoor cafés from early afternoon to the wee hours of the morning.

When in Rome, you drink Frascati. When in Florence, it’s more likely Chianti; in Pamplona, probably Rioja; in Strasbourg, Alsatian riesling or pinot gris; in Nice, Cassis rosé or blanc; or in Paris, Chinon, Saumur-Champigny or Beaujolais. But why? It’s cultural, it’s tried-and-true, and why fight it? Man gotta eat, after all; and as Woody Allen once said (at least about cavemen), “frequently there must be a beverage.”

There is a lot to be said for the natural regional wine and food matches of the world, but also a lot about how global influences wash up on our shores wherever we are. In Hawai`i, for instance, we don’t really make our own wine to write home about, but we do have an enormous range of foodstuffs at our disposal. The Islands are, after all, the “melting pot of the Pacific”; and since this pot is very much multi-cultural and cosmopolitan, so are our choices of wine – from everywhere, with an everywhereness about them. Globally inspired wine and food matches as good as anything in Rome, or anywhere else for that matter.

So if or when you find yourself in the Hawaiian Islands, where the sand is soft as silk and the water as clear and bright as Mother Nature's bathtub...

do keep some of these tried-and-true matches in mind when you order up some of the local delicacies:

Poke style raw tuna (with soy, sesame oil, sweet Maui onions, fresh chopped seaweed and chili pepper): classic, spicy fruited pinot noirs (from Oregon, California, New Zealand or France); or Austria’s zweigelt or lemberger (the latter, also produced in Washington); sparkling rosés or blanc de noirs.

Flash seared raw tuna in wasabi mustard sauces: French Champagne; Italian prosecco; or most dry California sparklers; softer styles of pinot noir or most fruit-forward red wine blends (for sampling of the latter, see Basic guidelines to matching the Asian/fusion palate).

Lomi lomi salmon (chopped salmon, tomato and green onions): dry yet fruity rosés (Bandol, Tavel, Cassis or Marsannay from France, Rosé di Regaleali from Italy, or California’s SoloRosa); off-dry German rieslings (halbtrocken or QbA); verdejo from Spain; or Portugal’s Vinho Verde.

Spam Musubi & Sushi (most varieties): dry rosé (Southern French, or most any dry California pink made from grapes like grenache, barbera or pinot noir); France’s Beaujolais (especially grand crus like Morgon, Fleurie or Moulin-à-Vent); sparkling shiraz from Australia; or softer, moderately priced pinot noirs (Oregon, California, or Austria).

Huli-huli chicken (rock salted and charcoal grilled halves): almost any good California or Australian chardonnay; pinot gris from Oregon, Alsace, Austria or New Zealand; new style, fluid, mildly crisp California varietals such as grenache blanc, vermentino or verdelho.

Kalua pig (roasted, smoke flavored, rock salted pork): more intense, off-dry German rieslings (especially kabinett); deeply fruited, smoky oaked California zinfandel or petite sirah (especially from Lodi or Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley or Rockpile AVA); or from Spain, tempranillo (like Cigales, Rioja, or La Mancha) or garnacha based reds (Montsant or Priorat).

Hawaiian beef stew (i.e. pipi stew; tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, celery and onions): soft, velvety merlots (California, Chile or Italy); richer Spanish reds (reserva bottlings from Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Priorat, or Mencía); silkier styles of sangiovese (especially Chianti, Carmignano, Rosso di Montalcino or Vino Nobile di Montepulciano); cabernet franc based reds like Bourgueil, Chinon or Cahors from France.

Mahimahi (dolphinfish) in lemon butter sauces: Austria’s grüner veltliner; creamier textured (i.e. lightly oaked) California sauvignon (a.k.a. fumé) blanc; lighter, crisper, minerally style chardonnays (from Mendocino or Santa Barbara, Oregon, Washington, or Mâcon in France); or Italian whites made like Arneis, Gavi or Greco.

Miso butterfish (marinated black cod): dry style rieslings (Alsatian, German trocken, and dry styles from California or Australia); Spain’s albariño; most dry French champagne or méthode Champenoise style sparklers from California; most ginjo sakés.

Chicken katsu (panko crusted) or grilled salmon with ponzu dips: crisp-edged sauvignon blanc (especially Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé from France); France’s Picpoul, Muscadet, Montlouis or Savennières; Italy’s friulano or pinot grigio; torrontés from Argentina.

Korean style short ribs of beef (i.e. kalbi; soy/garlic/ sugar/sesame seed marinades): spicy, aromatic Australian shiraz or cabernet/shiraz blends; California, Washington or Southern Oregon syrahs; or else California zinfandels or syrahs (bigger the better).

Teriyaki beef or pork (sweet soy/ginger marinades): richer, ultra-premium pinot noirs (California or Oregon); rounder, softer cabernet sauvignon or Bordeaux style blends (Australia, Chile, or low to medium priced Californians); zesty, fruit forward carignane or the most food-versatile California red of all, zinfandel.

Surf's up!

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Musashi way of wine (and surprising Asian food/wine matches)

Some curious, yet totally sensible, thoughts concerning why certain foods, and food and wine combinations, always seem to be so "right" for us once occurred to me when I reading about the period of Shojin Ryori in late 19th century Japan.

Influenced by the austere lifestyle of samurais and Zen Buddhists, Shojin Ryori was basically a vegetarian temple approach to cooking which placed emphasis on food of five colors (green, red, yellow, white and black-purple) and no less than six different tastes (hot, sour, salty, sweet, bitter and “delicate”). Still profoundly influential in Japanese cooking today, Shojin Ryori probably amounts to the most successful formalization of a specific cooking style ever achieved. Think of it. The French had Escoffier, and we've had Julia Child. But how many of the French consciously cook like Escoffier, and how many Americans actually follow Julia? Certainly not a vast majority, like you still find in Japan.

You could surmise that it's the Japanese temperament and culture that lend itself to such formality, but I would proffer an even simpler explanation: Shojin Ryori looks, and tastes, and even feels "right." How many of us have no idea of what we're eating in a Japanese restaurant, butappreciate the beauty of the food nonetheless?

There are many other foods, of course, which exemplify this sense of universal rightness. For Italians it's pasta, tomatoes, olive oil, Parmigiano, porcini, and when the season arrives, truffles. Why do Germans swoon over white asparagus, Russians crave their borscht, and Cajuns pick their brides by how they make roux? Some things are just that important.

The important thing that all of these foods have in common is a taste that is more than sweet, sour, salty and bitter – the four basic sensations felt on the palate – but also round, complex, almost titillating to all the senses, including that of sight, smell and sound. Earthy qualities -- which you certainly find in the intriguing shapes of mushrooms, gnarly oysters, and seaweeds -- tend to be very much a part of this. In fact, more and more foodies are becoming accustomed to the concept of umami, originally coined by a Japanese scientist to define this "fifth taste" (although more pedestrian terms like "savory" and "delicious" are just as accurate), which occurs in foodstuffs or dishes high in amino acids (see my previous post, Deconstructing Umami). But even if you don’t understand it, it is enough to know that umami significantly enhances the sensory perception of foods that do more than sustain the body, but also tweak our curiosity, appeal to our sense of aesthetics, and rock us ‘til the cows come home.

I once read a story by David Rosengarten, who talked about a Frenchman who recommended Sancerre -- the flinty-smoke scented, light and lemony dry white wine of the Loire River region -- with charcuterie, the sausage meats of that region. "But why?" asked Rosengarten. Because it is a priori, said the Frenchman -- it stands before reason. If that is not rightness, I don't know what is.

In Alsace, on the French side of the Rhine, the charcuterie is served with sauerkraut, and the a priori choice of wine would be the dry yet flowery scented, crisply acidic, and often headily alcoholic (in very ripe years) style of riesling produced in that region. It makes sense because the riesling fragrance always hints at sweetness, while the crisp acids and full alcohols of these white wines match the sweet-sourness of the sauerkraut, helping the palate digest the spicy fattiness of sausages. More importantly, all the sensations, given by both wine and food, combine to create a perfectly delicious whole -- better than the parts eaten, or drunk, separately.

Lately I've been finding this phenomenon – that delicious harmony of multiple elements – in places with far less gastronomic history than along the rivers of France. I often used to wonder, for instance, what to drink with sticky sweet, spicy, vinegary, barbecued baby back pork ribs, with which I’ve tried just about everything, except kava and peyote tea. Crisply balanced rieslings have always been a problem because they aren't always strong enough to handle the fatty, gristly ribs. The sweetness of most white zinfandels ends up tasting redundant with sweet-spicy pork ribs. Fruity red zins have worked pretty darned well, but sometimes their tannin levels are too when the marinades are spanking hot or on the sweet side. All of which, for years, left me wanting more…

Then sitting at a hoity-toity chef’s counter in Chicago, I tested out a plate of sticky, spicy baby back ribs with a genshu ("cloudy" or “rough filtered”) style of saké called Rihaku Dreamy Clouds. This authentic, creamy textured Japanese saké was typically full in alcohol (15.6%), lusciously fruity (without being too sweet), buoyantly balanced, and totally without the rough tannin or souring acid of red or white wines. This was a "wine,” all right, but made from rice, not grapes; and perhaps better than most wines made from grapes, it had all the elements needed to take the sticky ribs to places I never thought possible. Maybe it was the time, and maybe just the place. But the combination left me feeling strangely like a samurai, on a path towards a strangely, if not perverse, nonvegetarian state of Shojin Ryorism.

Another odd turn once came up in an Orange County (CA) shopping center, of all places, in a standard issue Italian restaurant where I could not help but be intrigued by a simple dish of risotto cooked in a mildly truffled mushroom broth, topped with pungent shavings of Parmigiano. I thought: this dish is saturated with umami, so why settle for the predictable match of an Italian Chianti Classico or pinot grigio? Why not one of those new, dryish, ice cold styles of ginjo or daiginjo style sakés, which offer just as much of the minerally, silky qualities of white wines made from grapes to match the earthy, creamy taste of mushroom risotto? I happened to have a slightly chilled bottle of saké on me (don’t ask!), so I asked my waiter for a white wine glass (I drink my fine sakés from glass tulips, not wooden boxes). After trying this unorthodox combination, I have to say: works like a charm!

But oh, some wine-foodie experts might say, saké is way too alcoholic and much lower in acid than white wines like arneis and pinot grigio. Aren’t high acid/low alcohol wines the highest percent matches for food? First of all, I see nothing in a brothy, mushroomy risotto that suggests that high acid and moderate alcohol is necessary. In fact, I would suggest that the relatively low acid, full alcohol, and high umami quality of a dry or semi-dry saké give it even more of an advantage in such food contexts. If, of course, saké is “wine” enough for your taste.

Which brings me to a sub-text: few things may be as overrated by contemporary gastronomes as the importance of acid and dryness in wines. There are many foods – from pasta in oils and fish in butter, to sushi, ham hocks and clam bakes -- that are perfectly delicious with decidedly low acid, unabashedly fruity wines such as chardonnay from California, Washington sémillon, müller-thurgau from Germany, Australian marsanne, reds and rosés of Southern France, and yes, sakés from Japan. So the next time you hear an expert pontificating about the need for acidic, dry wines for food, I suggest that you run from the room screaming.

Finally, there is my loosely formed, personal theory of wine/food matching that I call Musashi, or "unorthodox." Miyamoto Musashi was a legendary figure from 1600s Japan whose self-taught style was the opposite of the formal, disciplined, but often superfluous style of established schools of kenjitsu (Japanese sword fighting) of this then war-obsessed culture. But it was precisely this unorthodox, ungainly and unpredictable style that made Musashi Japan's greatest swordsman, unbeaten in every battle and over 60 duels, even those involving impossible odds.

Musashi, in fact, found ultimate virtue in "that which cannot be seen."  My culinary interpretation:  wine and food matches that make sense precisely because of the element of surprise.

How many of our best food and wine experiences have been like that -- unexpected, totally unpredicted, yet in the end triumphant? Old rules like white-wine-with-fish, and even new rules like red-wine-with-fish, often fall by the wayside when we are actually enjoying such things at the table. Why? I think it is because we have a tendency to want to pigeonhole elements of food and wine combinations, forgetting that the ultimate test is how delicious everything really tastes. Not how it's supposed to taste.

Like the many times we used to put together Hawaiian style poke – raw tuna tossed in soy sauce, sesame oil, chopped sweet white and green onions, coils of fresh seaweed, and splashes of chili pepper water – with a glass of slightly sweet German riesling, next to a glass of full tannin Oregon pinot noir to compare. Every saw, old and new, tells us that German riesling has all the balancing elements needed for decidedly salty, sweet, oily and spicy foods like poke, yet it was the slightly bitter and dry pinot noir that kept saying to my palate, I taste better. This was because red wines like pinot noir are what they are – earthy, harmonious, velvety textured sums of their parts, rather than defined by their parts. More simply put: perfectly delicious.

Or like the proverbial slash of Musashi: unsuspected, yet unfailingly pure, and true.


Wine may not be indigenous to the cultures and gastronomies of Asia. But there are now more than enough variations of wines made around the world today to find some perfectly delicious, if not surprising, matches for nearly every Asian style dish. If you love wine, and you love Asian foods, all the more reason to try them:

Asian Foods with German Riesling (Dry to Kabinett Level Sweetness)

Quintessential German style rieslings – penetratingly scented, juicy rich, light and fine as silk, with a whispering sweetness balanced by perceptible acidity – are usually the first wines cited for Asian foods. Think of how you might make a healthy stir fry – balancing toothsome squares of tofu or thin strips of meat with at least equal amounts of crisp vegetables, a trace of an oil balanced with soy, lemon or rice vinegar, salt and cracked pepper, a touch of a chili sauce or multi-spice seasonings, and served with fragrant jasmine rice. You can't go wrong when you figure in a fragrant, deftly balanced German riesling, whether bone dry (if balanced with lush fruitiness and minerality), “half-dry” (balancing slivers of sweetness), or slightly sweet (Kabinett style).

It may be understandable why someone would say that Asian cooking is not good for wine. Badly balanced cooking -- and badly balanced wine, for that matter – is not good for anyone. But when principles of harmony and balance are executed in your stir fry, and are intrinsic in your choice of wine, then you’ve got yourself a perfectly delicious, and dramatic, match.

Asian Foods with Viognier

White wines made from the viognier grape are actually an unorthodox choice for Asian style foods for two reasons -- they tend to be low in acid and full in alcohol, somewhat like chardonnay. But unlike chardonnays, viogniers tend to be extremely fragrant -- billowing with exotic fruit and honeysuckle-like perfumes, and suggestions of violet and white pepper. The finer styles of California grown viognier are amplified by plush, mouthwatering, almost sweet (even if the wine is technically dry), dense and silken textured flavors.

Chinese cooking in particular -- such as duck in hoisin plum sauces, chicken in gingery or citrusy syrups, and savory sauced napa cabbage, choy sum, mustard greens, and other toothsome vegetables -- can be tilted towards sweetness balanced by a mild bitterness and saltiness. In Southeast Asia, fish is often coated with curries and coconut milk, strong pastes made from coriander root and peppercorns, or stuffed with scallions, fatty pork, garlic cloves and even spicy hot Serrano chilies. In these food contexts, the aggressively full, hefty, peppery qualities of viognier are often superior to the more feeble alcohol and higher acid qualities of riesling.

Viognier doesn't work, however, in cases where dishes are overly sweet, or numbingly hot -- in other words, badly balanced Asian cooking. But when full flavored Asian dishes are prepared correctly, a good, balanced viognier can contribute an exotic note of its own to the overall experience.

Asian Foods with Zinfandel

The jammy, lusciously raspberryish, black peppery spiced aromas and flavors of first rate California zinfandel – especially those of moderate or at least rounded tannin structure - are a sensible if unorthodox choice with barbecued pork or beef ribs coated in sweet/spicy marinades (especially when Asian chili seasonings or sauces are used). A proper zinfandel has the red wine tannin to handle fatty, charred meats, yet the cushion of fruitiness to enhance, rather than fight, the hot spices.

But peppery spiced zinfandels are also surprising with aggressive forms of Southeast Asian cooking, such as grilled coriander chicken served with sweet/salty/spicy dipping sauces (nam jeem), raw beef with pepper salt, beef stir fried with spicy ginger, and hot pot dishes such as eggplant (cooked with ground pork, coriander, dried shrimp, garlic, and shallots) served with fried beef jerky. Whenever there is a presence of peppercorns, some vinegary zest, or slightly hot garlic, chile and gingery sensations, a zesty, peppery, fruity zinfandel finds another surprising food element.

Asian Foods with Southern French Varietals & Blends (Syrah, Grenache & Mourvèdre)

The entire premise of balancing Southern French style varietals reds and blends – syrah utilized for its floral, spicy, structural fullness, grenache for its plush, mildly peppery red fruitiness, and mourvèdre for its dense, meaty texture – draws comparisons to the balancing of ingredients and sensations in Asian style cooking. Beef pork ribs in sweet, salty, peppery, vinegary, spicy hot, and even downright sticky sauces tend to be problematic for Bordeaux varietals, but not so much for the Southern French.

The advantage of Southern French blends is that their tannin is moderated enough so that they don’t taste so bitter in relation to sweet, sour, salty or spicy sauces, yet retain enough red wine phenolics to digest fatty meats. This opens the door for the peppercorn-like components natural to syrah and grenache to find pleasing flavor bridges in dishes that make use of chiles and other spicy ingredients.

Then there is the factor of umami – specifically, the reaction of salt and acidity when activitated by foods high in amino acids (such as mushrooms, aged cheeses, seaweeds and natural stocks) – which effectively reduces bitter tastes in both wines and dishes.

In the presence of high umami ingredients - like Chinese hotpots of black fungus and chicken - typically spicy, sweetly fruited, earth toned Southern French reds tend to taste “milder,” while dishes become more savory. In fact, pure varietal syrahs – particularly the fruit forward (as opposed to hard and tannic) styles of Australian shiraz, and many of the new style syrahs coming from California’s Central Coast or Southern Oregon – seem to help the palate achieve umami-related sensory adaptations with considerable ease. It’s no surprise that the dominant style of cooking done in Australia today is pervasively Asian, and the Aussies have no problem, philosophically or sensory related, consuming their biggest Southern French varietals and blends with it!

Asian Foods with Rounder Italian Red Varietals (Dolcetto, Barbera & Sangiovese)

The range of red wines made from these grapes not only in Italy but also, now, in California is astounding. Each has its charms – dolcetto a zesty black fruitiness, barbera an even zestier edged, palate sticking fruitiness, and sangiovese (i.e. Chianti, and reds of Montalcino and Montepulciano) a mildly zesty, cherry fruit complexity – and all are marked by qualities of slightly elevated acidity, low to medium tannin, and earth related characteristics manifested in multiple ways, from burning leaves and licorice to roasted meat and leather-like nuances.

Given these structural and aroma/flavor advantages, there are few wines that perform as well with Chinese or Southeast Asian style hot pots of beef or pork; especially when punctuated by peppercorns, garlic, scallions, and the licoricey tastes of star anise, cilantro or coriander, and sacred basil. Then there is the seemingly vast range of small production Italian and California wines that utilize these varietals as blending elements – sangiovese with cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese with tempranillo, barbera with nebbiolo, zinfandel with barbera, et al. While unorthodox, the good thing about these innovative “Italianate” wines is that they fit in with many of the unorthodox styles of fusion cooking being done all around the world.

To wit: if Asian cooking is untraditional with wine, the best wines for Asian foods may very well be the most untraditional, imaginative blends.

Given these structural and aroma/flavor advantages, there are few wines that perform as well with Chinese or Southeast Asian style hot pots of beef or pork; especially when punctuated by peppercorns, garlic, scallions, and the licoricey tastes of star anise, cilantro or coriander, and sacred basil. Then there is the seemingly vast range of small production Italian and California wines that utilize these varietals as blending elements – sangiovese with cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese with tempranillo, barbera with nebbiolo, zinfandel with barbera, et al. While unorthodox, the good thing about these innovative “Italianates” is that they fit in with many of the unorthodox styles of fusion cooking being done all around the world.

Into the Realm of Good Sense

There is no reason to fear wine with Asian foods as long as your choices are based upon the premise that the highest percentage chances of achieving a perfectly delicious match are found in
  • Crisply balanced, moderately scaled whites, or
  • Sweetly fruit forward reds (whether light or big) that are also round, smoothly textured, and (especially) spice toned.
To that, you can probably add sweetly aromatic, smoothly dry or off-dry pink wines, not to mention crisp, lively sparklers.

But when you think about it, if you can find wines to match the most difficult Asian foods, you can probably find just as many to match more of the foods we love to eat; like spicy marinades, salty chips and creamy dips, generously mayo-ed salads, souped up ramen (I add fishcake, sesame oil, nori strips, spinach or even chard), and even fully loaded hot dogs (for me, naked without a meaty chili, sauerkraut and sweet onions), cheeseburgers (either Tabasco and sharp Cheddar, or Maytag blue cheese and sweet relish). If wine is to ever become an American staple, it has to be treated like one: as a sensible part of our lives and meals!