Almanac

- February 7, 2007

Wine Press: Courtship rituals have a special place at the table

by Mark Chamness

Pairing food and wine is like two people on a date — some pairs will be dynamite and others a disaster. Food and wine, like people, need good chemistry. The partners' personalities should complement one another.

Matchmaker, make me a match

Zinfandel is the bold but dumb jock, looking for a quick night on the town with hot barbecue ribs. They make a delicious but quickly forgotten affair. Attempting to match a mighty zinfandel with a delicate salad of spring greens with tarragon vinaigrette is a recipe for failure.

Cabernet sauvignon is the corporate executive type seeking a mate who shares similar intensity, affluence, and command for respect, making it an ideal candidate for beef tenderloin au poivre or grilled veal. Jesse Cool, owner of the Flea Street Cafe in Menlo Park, suggests pairing an Ahlgren cabernet sauvignon "Bates Ranch" with Coleman pasture-raised lamb.

Chianti (sangiovese) is a needy wine — often better with a mate than without. Exhibiting more body than pinot noir, it needs a partner who can handle its full figure. Pasta with red sauce or portobello mushrooms are classic pairings.

Intellectual but high-maintenance pinot noir matches poached salmon with dill. Her twin sister, red Burgundy, is the gold-digger seeking out roasted pheasant or duck confit. Richer versions may require a complex and demanding dish, such as lamb Wellington.

Syrah is not afraid to speak her mind — powerful and full-bodied, this outdoorsy type is often peppery, with blackberry fruit and gamey character. She'll meet her equal in mesquite-smoked ribs.

Chardonnay is Miss Congeniality. She needs an easy-going partner, otherwise she'll be overwhelmed. Hook her up with pan-roasted quail with apple reduction. A close runner-up in the Miss Congeniality category is rose — with her easy-going personality, she gets along with almost everyone. "Silver Mountain rose is one of my favorites," says Ms. Cool, a big fan of dry roses.

Bold, brash, and exotic viognier has a thing for spicy Asian companions. (The most remarkable versions of this wine come from the French city of Condrieu.) John Sanders, the wine director of Marche in Menlo Park, suggests seared Nantucket scallops in carrot sauce and white truffle oil paired with Condrieu, from Philippe Faury. "The minerality of Condrieu is a perfect match for the scallops," he says.

Some resist courtship

Unfortunately, some California wines exhibit classic "Type A" desire for control that can spell doom for a relationship. They come on strong with high alcohol and excessive oak, overpowering potential partners.

These wines can be difficult to pair since they are often made to be consumed alone. I suggest they be appreciated as self-reliant and solitary individuals, unencumbered by suitors.

For a few contentious characters, pairing is no picnic. Mr. Sanders admits, "I find vegetables often difficult. For roasted artichokes I would suggest a Gruner Veltliner. It is also herbaceous in and of itself."

Although asparagus can frustrate experienced matchmakers, Ms. Cool doesn't balk. She recommends a Sauvignon Blanc with chilled Asparagus Mimosa.

Wine personals

It's only a matter of time before the back labels of bottles contain personal ads: "Nubile Napa Valley merlot seeks down-to-earth playmate for picnic rendezvous. Must be hearty, enjoy fine dining, and be tolerant of my fruit-forward personality and medium body. A well-seasoned and beefy physique is a plus. Insipid candidates need not apply."

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