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10 tough matches
Lynne Char Bennett, Chronicle Staff Writer, Sun Francisco Chronicle Pairings expert plays matchmaker for foods that don't get along with most wines

They're the problem children born to the marriage of food and wine - the argumentative asparagus, bullying blue cheese and churlish hot chiles - we send to their rooms because they act up when there's wine on the table.

Some foods just aren't all that wine-friendly, clashing like a pair of band cymbals (think of bitter greens washed down with an oaky, tannic Cabernet Sauvignon). However, take comfort in knowing that there is a wine for every dish, and that like kids, all it takes are a few rules - guidelines, actually, because nothing is hard and fast in matching food and wine - for harmony to prevail.

I chose 10 of the most challenging ingredients to match with wine and ultimately found a great partner for each. Two basic principles came out of the experimentation. One: White wines go well with a much broader range of foods than red wines. Two: Wines with no oak and a touch of sweetness (Riesling, Gewurztraminer and even simple White Zinfandel) and wines with bright acidity and citrus notes (Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and brut sparking wine) are often the best choices for the most difficult ingredients.

I recommend wines made primarily from major grape varieties in both the New World (the United States, New Zealand, Australia) and the Old (Europe), but there are so many different wines and foods that other matches will work, too. Everyone's palate is different, so try your own pairings. Trust your taste buds.

Here are 10 of the toughest matches for wine:

1. Artichokes and asparagus. When I offered my next-door neighbor some asparagus soup, he said, "No, thank you."

He didn't like asparagus. "It tastes like grass," he said.

Asparagus and artichokes are double trouble when it comes to matching them with wine. People either love them (like me) or hate them; a sip of the wrong wine can create a clash of the titans that even the most ardent asparagus or artichoke fan can't win.

Both have a green, grassy, herbal character that by itself is not wine-friendly. Additionally, artichokes increase the pairing difficulty because they contain cynarin, a compound that causes a sweet aftertaste for most people and a metallic or bitter taste for others, though a few lucky people are not affected at all.

The best wines to pair with artichokes and asparagus are citrusy Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Grigios that can have a touch of herb or grassiness. Citrus aromas and flavors, brisk natural acidity and a lack of oak in the wines brighten the vegetables, much like a squeeze of lemon juice would. The wines' dryness and acidity help balance the sweet aftertaste from the artichoke.

Sauvignon Blancs, especially those from New Zealand and the Sancerre region of France , echo the herbal notes in the vegetables, though they can be too overpowering for those who don't care for the green character.

Improve the wine-food match by grilling or roasting the vegetables, or serving them with a mild vinaigrette or citrusy dressing to moderate their greenness and offset the artichoke's sweetness. A mayonnaise-based dip also works.

2. Bitter greens. I recently discovered that I'm more sensitive to bitterness than most people. Now I understand why I don't like black coffee and can only drink it wimpified with milk and sugar.

Though I grew up eating Chinese bitter melon and mustard greens, it still takes me a bite or two to calibrate my palate to the taste, though at times I crave some bitterness in my food. After moving to California , I started eating other vegetables with some bitterness: broccoli rabe, radicchio, endive, chicory and tiny Thai eggplants.

You can add ingredients such as bacon, sauteed onions and cheese to bitter vegetables (or coconut milk in the case of Thai eggplants) to moderate their bitterness. You can also roast the vegetables, serve them with a sauce or dressing or add them to braises. But simply prepared, they're hard to match to wine. Blame our ancestors.

Humans are usually able to detect bitterness at low levels, whether it's in coffee or medicine. Many poisonous plants are bitter. It's Mother Nature's way of protecting us from - or at least making us think twice about - what we might put into our mouths.

Some people are very sensitive to bitterness compared to the general population, according to Linda Bartoshuk, a professor at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven , Conn. These individuals, dubbed supertasters, have a greater number of taste buds for sweet, salty and sour as well as bitter. Bartoshuk says that a greater percentage of women than men - and Asian women in particular - are supertasters.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the non-tasters - individuals who have fewer taste buds than normal. These folks detect less bitterness in food and wine. Bartoshuk provides an analogy: supertasters "taste" in neon colors and non-tasters in pastel; everyone else "tastes" normal colors.

Very few wines can overcome bitter vegetables that are served plain. Yet bitterness is offset by a contrast of sweetness, which is why so many liquid medicines are sweet. Semisweet New World Rieslings serve this purpose (many German Rieslings have a petrol character that conflicts), so try serving them with unadorned radicchio, broccoli rabe and other bitter vegetables. Sauvignon Blancs are also good. Otherwise, if the vegetables are modified with other ingredients, pair the wine with the main flavors on the plate. At traditional Chinese banquets, the classic drink is Cognac , brandy or whisky diluted with 7Up, perfect for dishes that have a bitter element. Don't knock it until you've tried it.

3. Soy sauce. Salt is one of the most important ingredients in cooking, enhancing flavors and making them pop. Saltiness gains complexity when it's in seasonings and condiments that have the savory character of umami, including soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce and oyster sauce.

On its own, too much salt increases the perception of tannins in a wine. The umami in soy sauce intensifies that tannic effect. Any bitter notes or off flavors in wine - especially red wine - also come to the front, while the wine's fruitiness is muted. But soy sauce is not eaten as a stand-alone ingredient. It's used in a multitude of ways, including seasoning sushi, stir-frys, marinades and dipping sauces, so pair the wine with the overall flavors of the dish.

An unoaked or lightly oaked Chardonnay with good fruitiness and medium- to medium-full body supports the depth and saltiness of dishes with soy sauce, though the toastiness will be accentuated. Also, an off-dry white wine like Riesling provides some sweetness to balance the saltiness of the soy sauce.

Brut rose and blanc de noirs sparkling wines and New World Pinot Noirs with low tannin levels have the fruit and acidity to complement dishes that contain soy sauce.

The combination of Cognac and 7Up also does the trick - Cognac cleanses the palate, and 7Up adds a touch of sweetness to balance the saltiness and strong umami of the soy sauce.

4. Candied yams. I see yams and sweet potatoes baked with brown sugar and marshmallows only at Thanksgiving. Why is that? Tradition, most likely, plus it takes our teeth and palates the rest of the year to recover from the huge hit of sticky, sugary sweetness.

Candied yams are one of the problem children - besides the niece and nephew who keep chasing the cat around the house - who visit on one of the most food-focused holidays of the year.

Most wines taste thin and sour when they follow a bite of candied yam. As with wedding cake and other sweet desserts, the wine should be at least as sweet as or slightly sweeter than the food.

Riesling has the ripe stone fruit and residual sugar to match the sweetness of candied yams. German Rieslings with Spatlese and Auslese levels of ripeness also have enough acidity to balance the residual sugar, so the wine doesn't seem cloying.

Demi-sec sparkling wine, with 3.3 percent to 5 percent residual sugar, is sweet enough for many wedding cakes and candied yams that are on the less sweet side. The effervescence also helps cleanse the palate.

5. Chiles. Heat is where it's at for many ethnic cuisines, where hot chiles combine with sweet, savory, spicy and pungent ingredients. Kung Pao chicken, Mexican salsa frescas, Thai red curry and Vietnamese dipping sauces are but a few of the dishes that can take your mouth from warm to burn.

Beer is often the adult beverage of choice for chiles, because of its low alcohol and ice-cold serving temperature -- refreshing when your mouth's on fire.

Alcohol exacerbates chiles' heat. Sweetness calms it. Tannins add insult to injury on palates already assaulted with chiles. So if you have only one wine choice, pick a well-chilled bottle of fruity Riesling with some residual sugar and balanced acidity. Slightly sweet White Zinfandel is also a good companion to fiery foods.

6. Chocolate. "Cabernet and Chocolate" tastings are common in Wine Country, but let's face it - Cabernet Sauvignon and chocoholics should stop meeting like this.

Dark, bittersweet chocolate - also called semisweet - has a palate-coating texture, intensity of flavor and some bitterness. Cabernet Sauvignon's firm tannins and bitter, astringent character go toe to toe with dark chocolate, and neither one can win this bout.

Wines that suit rich chocolate truffles must have similar fullness and intensity to the chocolate, and also need to be as sweet as or sweeter than the dessert. Fortified wines like Port and some late-harvest Zinfandels have the alcohol, sweetness and full body to stand up to a dense dark chocolate dish.

Muscats and some white dessert wines hold their own with moderately chocolaty desserts like chocolate mousse.

Moscato di Asti, a lightly sparkling Muscat from Italy, and demi-sec sparkling wines pair with lighter-textured, desserts with some chocolate in them, such as white wedding cake with chocolate filling.

7. Eggs. Most people have eggs at breakfast, without wine. But egg-based dishes like quiches, frittatas, omelets and eggs Benedict are often on brunch and lunch menus and sometimes are enjoyed at dinner, too.

The rich, palate-coating yolk of a runny egg can seem metallic when consumed with wine. Fully cooked hard-boiled eggs have yolks with a slightly crumbly texture and light sulfurous aromas and flavors - also a wine-pairing challenge. A dry, medium-bodied wine with bright acidity and citrus aromas and flavors like Sauvignon Blanc, Alsatian Pinot Blanc and brut sparkling wine will cut through an egg yolk's richness.

Mayonnaise, Caesar salad dressing and hollandaise sauce also contain egg yolks (with richness that primarily comes from oil or butter) and will work with a lightly oaked, moderately acidic Chardonnay that has a little buttery character. Add other ingredients to eggs to make them more wine-friendly, like onions, mushrooms, bacon and cheese. They provide texture, overshadow any sulfurous quality and modify the egg's flavor.

No wonder sparkling wine - with or without orange juice - is often served with brunch - it's a great match for eggs.

8. Blue cheese. Pinot Noir, Syrah/Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon often are served with a cheese course, but if blue cheese is one of the selections, it won't do the wine, or your palate, any favors.

There are many types of blue cheese, with varying levels of salt and acidity, richness and pungency. But in general, blue cheese and dry red wine bring out undesirable characteristics in each other and suppress the positive ones. For example, a salty blue cheese like Point Reyes Original Blue can make a moderately tannic Cabernet Sauvignon seem sharp and bitter.

The most universal match with blue cheese is a fruity white wine with moderate acidity, no oak or minimal oak character and some residual sugar. The wine's ripe fruit and sweetness are a refreshing contrast to the pungency and salt of the cheese, while the wine's acidity refreshes the palate after the cheese's mouth-coating richness. The best results come when the wine and cheese have similar levels of acidity, body and intensity.

New World Sauvignon Blancs are a surprisingly good blue-cheese partner; the match works because of the similarity in acidity, as long as there is no oak in the wine.

Sweet dessert wines such as Sauternes and Port also work with blues like Roquefort and Stilton. If you must have a red wine, choose one that is fruity, with soft tannins.

9. Sweet and sour pork. Balanced acidity and sweetness in food and in wine creates harmony in the mouth. However, high levels of acidity and sweetness in a dish can overwhelm the wrong wine, making it seem harsh and tannic.

Sweet and sour pork, lemon chicken, sauerbraten, pickled beets, sweet pickles and cranberry sauce make dry wine taste tart, to the point of sourness, even though there is acidity in the dish. Keep the food's acidity and sugar in balance and lessen the intense pungency for the most successful wine matches.

Fruity, off-dry, high-acidity wines are best with sweet and sour dishes. Off-dry to semisweet Gewurztraminer and Riesling are good bets, though Beaujolais Nouveau and fruit-forward, low-tannin Zinfandels will work if you insist on a red wine.

10. Vinaigrette. You order a pricey Cabernet Sauvignon to go perfectly with your porterhouse steak, yet every time you take a bite of your side salad, you think you've wasted your money. What in the world is going on?

Vinegar can be death to wine. If vinaigrette is more acidic than a wine, the wine can taste flat by comparison. The vinaigrette's tartness can also make tannins or oak in wine seem harsher.

But if the acidity level in the wine and vinaigrette are somewhat similar, the fruit in the wine comes to the front. Choose a Sauvignon Blanc with zippy acidity, citrus aromas and flavors and no oak for the salad course. The wine's acidity will help cut through the oil in the vinaigrette.

If you're making your own salad dressing, reduce the vinegar to match less acidic wines like Viognier, Pinot Grigio/Gris and Gruner Veltliner. Use a higher proportion of oil to vinegar, say four or five parts oil to one part vinegar, or add some stock to increase the volume and dilute the acidity.

Or try something less acidic in the vinaigrette, such as orange juice, rice vinegar, raspberry vinegar and even red and white wine, which all have less acidity than sherry, Champagne and red wine vinegar. Add other ingredients like fruit, nuts or cheese to the salad to round out its flavors and increase the chance for a successful match.

Ten classic matches

Just as some ingredients give wine-and-food aficionados a devil of a time, other successful pairings are made in heaven. Here are 10 can't-miss matches:

Cabernet Sauvignon with steak grilled medium-rare: The steak's protein and fat smooth the wine's tannins, while the intensity, complexity and chewy texture of both steak and wine sing in harmony.

California Chardonnay with lobster in butter or cream sauce: The rich, sea-sweet succulence of lobster was made for a rich, mouth-filling wine. When made in a buttery, oaky style, Chardonnay needs an equally opulent dish.

Chianti with pasta bolognese: A high-acid Italian wine made from Sangiovese has red fruit aromas and flavors and finds a friend in the acidity of the tomatoes; Chianti's typical rusticity mirrors that of the dish.

Pinot Noir with duck and mushrooms: Rich, fatty duck gets a refreshing wash of natural acidity from Pinot Noir, and the wine's earthiness and truffle character are spot-on matches for fungi; in addition, the berry fruit in the wine plays counterpoint to the gamy duck.

Sauternes with foie gras: A rich dish calls for a wine with similar richness; at the same time, the wine's sweet fruit and honey flavors contrast with the meaty flavor of the foie gras. Although an unctuously sweet wine, the Sauternes also has enough acidity to cut through the fat of the foie gras.

Sancerre with fresh goat cheese: The wine and cheese are complementary in their tanginess, yet the racy acidity of Sauvignon Blanc clears the palate for another bite of creamy, mouth-coating chevre.

Muscadet, Chablis or Sauvignon Blanc with raw oysters: These clean, crisp, citrusy and sometimes minerally whites counter the briny, slightly metallic character of fresh-shucked oysters without overwhelming their taste and texture.

Red Bordeaux with lamb: The meat's intense, gamy flavor stands up to a full-bodied red like Bordeaux ; the lamb's fat moderates the wine's tannins.

Sparkling wine with caviar: The effervescence and firm acidity of bubbly mediates the salt, oil and crunch of the caviar. Luxury to the nth degree makes this an especially sexy match.

Zinfandel with barbecued ribs: A spicy wine complements a spicy dish; the inherent sweetness of the Zinfandel grape suits sauces that include brown sugar or molasses; and there is enough tannin and acidity in the wine to slice through the meaty, slightly fatty ribs.

Basic pairing principles

Some considerations in pairing wine to food include the similarities and contrasts of richness, texture, intensity and flavor of the dish and the wine.

Similarities - Match food and wine richness and texture. For example: lobster in butter sauce with a buttery Chardonnay.

Contrasts - Opposites can work too, especially in cases of richness versus acidity. For example: lobster in butter sauce with a crisp brut or blanc de blancs sparkling wine.

Regionality - Regional food usually pairs well with the wine produced there. For example: Alsatian choucroute with Riesling and wild salmon with Oregon Pinot Noir.

Flavors - Pair food and wine with similar flavors, such as steak in green peppercorn sauce with a peppery Syrah. Opposite flavors also can work - a fruity, New World Pinot Noir goes with earthy sauteed mushrooms.

Balance - Balance the acidity of the dish or sweetness of a dessert so it is similar to the wine. When pairing wine with dessert, the wine should always be as sweet as or sweeter.

Dominant flavors, sauces and accompaniments - The main ingredient is not always the dominant flavor in a dish; other ingredients contribute flavors and textures -- like chicken braised with olives and tomatoes versus simple roast chicken -- and influence the wine pairing. Modifiers to a dish, such as sauces and garnishes, can improve a match or allow a dish to happily mesh with more than one wine. For example, while many white fish go best with lean white wines like Pinot Gris, adding a sauce made with rich chicken jus helps the dish work with richer Chardonnay; adding mushrooms makes it Pinot Noir-friendly.

Other factors that influence the match include:

Cooking method - Steaming and poaching are better suited for lighter wines. Medium- and full-bodied red wines are better with grilled, roasted and braised dishes that have more intense flavors.

Occasion - A chilled rose is perfect for a warm day at the beach or a picnic with grilled shrimp and vegetable pasta salad.

Price and time commitment - While some people might have meat loaf with a $100 Cabernet Sauvignon, similarity between the price of a wine and the ingredients in the dish usually makes more sense. Grab a pepperoni pizza and a bottle of inexpensive Chianti. Or, plan a dinner party and go all out with an elegant, earthy red Burgundy and made-from scratch pappardelle topped with light creamy wild mushrooms and shaved truffles.


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