I couldn’t believe it. Yet, I was tasting it.
I set the wine glass down.
A perfect match: A food and wine pairing that creates something wholly different, a new experience greater than the sum of its parts. The holy grail of wine matching.
It’s something I have heard said of, and have tried to achieve, yet, had never captured. Even my best pairings have always been somehow off, perhaps just slightly. My match would be excellent, every part complimenting another. Yet, somehow, it still failed to transcend simple flavors and create that experience of gustatory alchemy: the transmutation of food and wine into, well, a singular experience.
Yet, here I was, having it.
Of course, I stumbled upon it by complete accident. I had been working at home, alone, and had thrown together a salad with a left-over tuna steak. Out of white wine, I had hurried to Elman’s Liquors, saw a wine I had served as a waiter years before, and grabbed it because I remembered liking it.
It’s Only a Moment
Worse, I was alone. I could share this with no one.
Nor could I ever share it.
Not only have a read repeatedly how any attempt to recreate a moment like this invariably leads to frustration, and worse: to missed opportunities of enjoying what is there. Because dreams of what should have been distract, letting disappointment supersede enjoyment. I have also tried to conjure up those excellent if simpler pairings a second time and they have always fallen short.
I must imagine that, in part, the magic works when we don’t expect it. Like going to a movie full of expectations, only to be let down. Even if it’s good. Your imagination created something reality can never reach: Disappointment is guaranteed. So, too with wine.
About the Circumstances
Yet, more importantly, the circumstances: your mood and memories will be different. Then too, the food is never the same, not exactly. Nor is the wine— it’s older, at a different temperature perhaps, in a different glass, been exposed to air too long. Or for too short. And then there are those pernicious expectations, demanding it be at least as good, tipping disappointment over until it’s all but guaranteed spill out of the glass.
Even if you get all the physical aspects precisely the same, remember Gertrude Stein’s quip: “a rose is a rose is a rose.” Each “rose” subtly transformed by its place in the sentence, just as you are subtly different for having lived more, for expecting something you did not the first time.
So, no. I could never recreate this perfect match. I would have to luxuriate in it alone.
It Looked Promising, But
Later that week, remembering the amazing flavors of that impromptu salad Niçoise and Hess Select Chardonnay, I planned a dinner of braised beef paired with a four-year-old bottle of Hawks Crest Cabernet Sauvignon that I had found by chance at a small bodega. A big, well-made red, full of fruit with serious structure to match a complexly flavored, meaty dish of beef, root vegetables, cloves, and allspice. It seemed so promising—a maturing Cabernet Sauvignon with its flavors of stewed fruits just starting to appear with the fading flavors of cassis, and its softened tannins going up against the rich vegetable and spice flavors of the sauce, the meaty beef sweetness…
I was not impressed. The bottle had lost too much of its structure, and, while tasting good, never held up to the beef. It was a good meal: I and my dinner companion, my future wife, enjoyed it a lot. But there was no chemistry. The Philosopher’s Stone remained absent. The magic danced tantalizing on the horizon of my imagination.
As almost always.
Matching Wine: the Sometimes Magic
I have matched wine with food thousands of times, both for myself and for guests in restaurants. Only a handful of times has that magic appeared. And always when least expected.
So, when it happens, relish it. Commit it to memory.
Yet heed my warning: never try to recreate it, or to force it by following all sorts of expert advice. Disappointment is the usual outcome.
It comes when it wills, not when you will it.
Remember, it’s magic.
You’re not supposed to understand, merely enjoy.
Five wines under $20†
Inexpensive wines make up the bulk of most people’s wine drinking. But, inexpensive doesn’t have to mean boring. Added bonus – not only are these wines guilt free for the budget, but they match everyday fare better than more expensive wines.
†(Prices are what I paid retail in Manhattan, circa 2003. Current, local prices may vary.)
Medium-straw in color, and very clear, it comes on with exotic spice—cinnamon and clove—in the nose, with plenty of wood, hinting at cedar, with a touch of exotic fruit—a suggestion of mango.
Then it shows its size with a mouth-coating richness. Mangos and tropical fruits take over. It’s lush, but with enough tart, acids to keep it balanced. Then, it moves into a long smooth finish touched with figs and dates, underpinned with enough acids to keep it from being flabby.
Singular with a mock salad Niçoise of boiled potatoes, fresh parsley and tarragon, onions, fennel, and medium-rare, pan-seared tuna with a Vietnamese soy-chili dressing. Exotic matched exotic, and the balance, and size worked perfectly. Simply stunning.
Dark ruby and plumb color. Thick, strong legs were showing off its 13.5% alcohol. Very good ripeness, here. Expect loads of fruit.
The nose is full of rich red fruits, pie crust, and smoked meats. This suggests a big wine, and the palate confirms this. Rich red fruits start the attack, which then opens into smooth tannins with noticeable acids. It’s full-bodied and jammy. The fruit yields to an acidic finish with some grip to the superfine tannins. A long finish, with a touch of bitter at the end. This keeps the wine from being flabby and sweet tasting. Appropriate as an aperitif. Quite good with food. Think salty, pungent cheeses like blue, and salt-cured meats.
$10.99 retail †
Garnet, with brick at the edges. It’s starting to show some age at two years, indicating it’s going to be a Beaujolais style rather than a Claret style Zin. Strong legs and high alcohol. I’m expecting excellent ripeness and fruit.
The nose is simple, all red fruits and berries, with heat from the alcohol.
The palate fits the expectations nicely. Rich, full-bodied, and mouth coating: full of earthy berries. Some acid and tannins appear mid-palate. Finishes with fine tannins and solid acidity, adding a dollop of red fruits and berries. A straightforward but pleasing wine. Sort of a new world, Beaujolais. A picnic wine. Or one for pasta with a sweet red sauce.
Not my favorite style of Zinfandel—I prefer the Claret style with more tannins. But, completely drinkable and enjoyable. Nothing to really think about. Just drink it.
Louis Latour Importers
November brings Thanksgiving, and with that, thoughts turn to Beaujolais. Usually, Nouveau. But I’ve turned to a slightly older one first.
Plumb colored and clear. Slight separation on the edges. Still young, which is critical in Beaujolais.
Dusty berries and cherries—a typical Gamay nose. A touch of cherry tart and almost hot at 13% alcohol.
The palate is medium-bodied, full of dark and sour cherries. No tannins, of course, but it has solid acidity. Round with balance. One of the best and most flavorful Beaujolais-Villages I’ve had. An easy-going wine with immediate appeal and good acidity for food. Medium length. Fine alone. Does well with simple food—smoked mackerel with dill potatoes. (Beaujolais is the only white wine that happens to be red.)
“Les Grands Coasses”
Michael Skurnik Wines
Cranberry and plumb. Very youthful looking. Exactly as it should be.
Vivid and bright nose, simply stuffed with berries, like a berry soda, touches of cherry gummi candy. Very appealing.
I’d never thought to say this about a Beaujolais Nouveau, but this is one good wine. Not good for a Beaujolais Nouveau, but simply good. The palate is chock full of fruit, underpinned with wow acids to keep all this fruit in line. Moves into cherry gummi candy flavors, with loads of acidity providing excellent structure. I’m going to buy a case.
Serve this chilled. Superb aperitif. Quite lovely with a simple seafood pasta in an Aglio e Oilo sauce. Shockingly good Beaujolais Nouveau. Drink by January.
Bonus wine—the accidental find:
This is the second label wine from Napa’s famous Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, the wine that beat Bordeaux in 1976 and helped put California on the world wine map. I found this older vintage in a small wine shop in Brooklyn, quite by accident. The new vintages will show more ripe fruit flavors and firmer tannins
It showed its age with a garnet color and brick-colored edges.
The nose was full of spice and cassis, jammy red fruits, and an odd heat, like camphor. This was joined with forest floor and moss scents, again, indicating its age.
The palate started with tannins that gave way immediately to big, rich, mouth-coating spices and cooked dark fruits. Tooth licking richness. Finished with very smooth tannins and stewed dark fruits. Lots of glycerol. Some acids. It’s getting old. Need to drink this while is still have some structure left. Interesting wine, and an inexpensive way to try a mature Cabernet Sauvignon. If you can find it. The ones on the shelves now will be more aggressive and will stand up to grilled meats quiet well
New wines Tasted Fresh for Your Perusal
A big wine that needs food—not a sipping beverage. Intense plum color, viscous, with long slow legs circling the glass (14.5% ABV) The nose is full of dark fruits and berries, almost jammy, with just a hint of wood. The attack is full, mouth-filling a shot through w/the same dark fruit showing off in the nose. But before it gets jammy, the structure kicks in with fine, yet firm tannins back up with a good dose of acidity. Long finish that has a touch of bitterness under the receding fruits—Loves lamb, and other meats, or a meaty sauced pasts: 4 of 5 🍷🇪🇸
Softer white that grows on you. Very pale goldenrod, almost water clear. Distinct long legs encircling the glass, medium viscosity. Burnt sugar and strong toasted notes on the nose with some white fruit. Soft attack with warming feeling—toasty notes and caramelized white fruits mid palate moving into a long caramelized finish with enough acidity and a hint of bitterness to keep it clean. Less of a sipper, but paired well with simple fare, crudités, and light pasta. Think vegetarian, canapés, and shellfish: 3 of 5 🍷🇮🇹
A wine that demands food: it wasn’t great as an aperitif, but when we started on the roast carrot grilled cheese sandwiches, it shone. Very pale parchment in color, nearly clear, low viscosity, with a few short legs, and clear meniscus. A light custard, w/brûlée notes over orange melon. Light, acidic, bright wine that perks up the tongue as it moved through the mouth into a very long, quite dry finish. Very good food wine, think fish and salads, plant driven cuisine: 4 of 5 🍷🇬🇷
A wine that will grow on you over food. Garnet w/a splash of brick, and several long, fat legs. Moderately viscous, which shrouds the 14% APV. Hot nose (alcohol), with dark berry fruit and a hint of toast. Rather austere wine—light to medium body with a mellow attack, hints of dark fruit mid-palate, with drying acidity and gripping tannins in the long, dry finish that has bitter notes at times. Not a lot of fruit, but it lightly coats the mouth after the finish. Needed food to be enjoyed. Think beef, lamb, game meats, and aggressively sauced Pasta:3.5 of 5 🍷🇪🇸From the Tasting Room wine club: ~ $12.00.
Crisp, food-loving wine. Nearly clear—faint goldenrod. A good number of long, slow legs, moderate viscosity, befitting a 12% APV wine. Light nose with a touch of pear tart, and a hint of rust. The attack is full of acid and green apples. Medium body—crisp all the way through the long finish, leaving a light coating on the tongue. I will get it again. Why Brooklyn and the subway line, not sure: 3.5 of 5 🍷🇮🇹(Yes, Italy. It’s from Veneto. ) From McGovern’s Wine and Spirits. For paring, think white meats, rich fish, and spicy dishes from non-European cuisines.
A fair, if unimpressive, Sangiovese from Toscana. Did the job with food. Medium plum, clear meniscus, with many long legs around the glass. Fruity nose, red and grapey. A fruity attack, medium body, some acidy, but lacking in tannins. Medium-long finish, with that fruit working through: 2.5 of 5 🍷🇮🇹. Think Red Meats, poultry, and Cured Meat for this one.
Grew better over time. I’d forgotten I’d rated this a year and a half earlier. They are quite similar (good for me) with some differences: age in bottle? Or my age. Hmm.
A nice bottle of wine from a maker I’d forgotten about. Pale goldenrod and viscous, with many thick legs. Banana cream in the nose at first, which settles into creamy brightness. Rich, with racy acidity, which coats the mouth with creamy white fruit, which lasts into the long finish. A bold new world white, but with enough acidity to balance it all out. Not genius, just enjoyable: 3.5 of 5 🍷🇦🇺
Solid Chard from down under Rich goldenrod, viscous, with plenty of fat legs all around the glass. The nose comes on lavish, honey custard w/touches of caramel. Full-bodied, round wine, with distinct money notes, a bit of chamomile mid-palate, mouth-coating unctuousness, and plenty of acidity to balance this all. A wine with saliva squirting acidity: 4 of 5 🍷🇦🇺
For either of these, think pairing with white meats, Rich fish (e.g. salmon, or tuna), and plant based dishes
A fair example of an Aussie Chard. Light goldenrod, moderately viscous, a decent number of slow forming legs. Custardy nose with banana and a hint of pear and honey. Medium body, with custard/caramel and a hint of chamomile; firm Scott and some pleasing honey-caramel notes. Late in the long finish, some tropical fruit notes show up, along with a suggestion of warm spice: 3.5 of 5 🍷🇦🇺For this one, think pairing with white meats, Rich fish (e.g. salmon, or tuna), and plant based dishes.
Weakest of the Gruet offerings, it’s still a fair sparkler. Very pale, dusky rose with more substantial bubbles, spotty bead, and a coating of bubbles around the glass. Fruity notes—faintly like pressed candy—cranberry/sour cherry. A dry, almost austere attack, saliva squirting acidity, prickly effervescence — long tart finish with dried stone fruit finish (cherry): 3 of 5 🍷🇺🇸 The high acidity and balance of this sparkler makes it quite versatile, letting it match with plant based dishes, fish, shellfish, white meats, sauced red meats and spicy cuisines. Even berry desserts.
Robust, full-bodied Pinot Noir. Medium garnet, with a touch of brick on the meniscus, many, low, fat legs are showing off the higher ABV. Warm nose, some spice, and a bit of dark cherry fruit. The attack comes on with deep sour cherry notes, with a touch of wood and warm spice, full-body, mouth coating with Fine tannins late and solid acidity, leading into a very long finish with notes of dried cranberry, dark fruit and spice: 4 of 5 🍷🇺🇸This style of Pinot Noir does well with meats: red, white, cured and game.
Another one that grew better over time. Once again, I’d forgotten I’d rated this earlier this time around 3 years. They are quite similar (good for me) with some differences: age in bottle? Or my age. Considering the thought I put into the later one, it could be a lot of me. But it was so young the first time. Hmm.
Slick, concentrated white. Lots going on here. Full-bodied, with solid acidity. Not an everyday wine: 3.5 of 5 🍷🇺🇸
An excellent example of Cali Chardonnay. Rich, goldenrod color, with many, very slow forming legs, viscous. Nutty and rich in the nose, with buttercream notes late. Comes on full-bodied, even unctuous, but with balancing acidity: creme brûlée, with a hint of vanilla and bananas. Toasty, some lemon in the finish, along with allspice. A slick glass of wine: 4.5 of 5 🍷🇺🇸
For pairing either one, think white means, Rich fish (e.g. salmon and tuna), and plant based dishes
A venerable wine sadly showing it’s age. Brick/garnet, a few darker streaks, many long, slow, fat legs all around the glass. The nose is touched with violets, and toasted wood, perhaps grilled meat, rather hot, but showing some bandaids notes. A faint attack, really showing its age here. Medium body. Some bruit cherry fruit mid-palate with loads of acids, find gripping tanning in the long finish. Rather wish I’d had it a couple of years earlier: 2.5 of 5 🍷🇮🇹. Young, this would have paired nicely with red meats, including game. Now, the tannins have retreated, so include white meats.
A fair red that grows on you as the finish lingers. Medium garnet with a touch of rust towards the meniscus. Long, slow legs round the glass and moderate viscosity. A bit hot, with sour cherry and old wood notes. Mellow attack, medium body, dark berries, good balance of acidity, and lots of fine tannins—lingering finish full of tannins and hints of berries: 2.5 of 5 🍷🇮🇹. For pairing this wine, think meats, cheeses and pastas, especially with red meat sauce.
Not bad, reasonably big wine with some fruit and loads of back end. Deep plum—a few low legs and somewhat viscous with a clear meniscus. Distinct Orrin with a touch of old wood. Rich. The attack is all texture—acids and fine tannins, then quickly some dark fruits, and some old and new wood notes into the finish. Gripping tannins: 3 of 5 🍷🇮🇹. This red does lean toward paring with red meats, including game, but has the balancd for white meats, and pastas.
Pale parchment, a few legs—mostly sheeting—and no petulance. The nose shows stones and a hint of petrol—no fruit to speak of. Earthy with firm acidity in the attack, but no real fruit comes through even mid-palate. Moderately long finish with an odd tail—a redux of petrol. Overall a rather odd example of Vihno Verde: 2 of 5 🍷🇵🇹 Think: shellfish, small plates, Lean fish, Cured Meat and plant based dises.