Back in the days before wine became the raison d’etre for many a meal, the rule of thumb was, you have red wine with red meat and white wine with fish, seafood or poultry. Thank the grape gods that we now realize food and wine can be equally complex. The plain truth is, a successful pairing is one that you find pleasing.
That said, a few incontrovertible chemical facts enter the picture. Some wine and food combinations result in a flavor that was not present in either one to begin with. If, for instance, you pair a food high in tannins (say, walnuts) with a wine high in tannins (Bordeaux, Syrah, Shiraz), both will taste metallic. Other food-wine combinations are fireworks-come-true. Think of Chianti with a rich, meaty pasta sauce.
This brings us to tomatoes, which are tricky. Because they have a high acid content, tomatoes act forcefully on the taste of wine and vice versa. The best way to illustrate this is to talk about the effects of the three wines chosen to accompany this month’s roasted garlic tomato soup. I went to the wine market with the express intention of finding one red, one white and one rose that might stand up to the bold richness of the tomatoes, the garlic and the heavy cream.
Domain de Fondreche Instant Rose 2003 (Cote du Ventroux), $10. Poor rose has suffered for decades, with good reason. What has always been in France quite a dry wine, and a favorite lunchtime beverage, became synonymous in the U.S. with Mateus. Then to add salt to the wound, someone came up with the hideous idea of pink Zinfandel, which, in many cases, is the color of rose. This is most unfortunate because all of the good wine shops have excellent selections of French or French-style rose. Three of our four tasters, then, began with the well-known American prejudice against rose. Noses were wrinkled. Glasses were scrutinized. And then the sipping began. Upon first swallowing the wine, before tasting the soup, they agreed: “Not much of a finish,” “Not really a spectrum of flavor.” While I found it to have the expected properties of both red and white grapes, the fourth taster claimed that it “skimmed over” his tongue and immediately asked to have more. But after a few spoonfuls of soup, the anti-rose tasters completely changed their tune to one of respect. “Ooh, there’s flavor to it!” exclaimed one delightedly. By the /files/storyimages/of the bowls of soup, each of us found the wine to have taken on a refreshing quality that brightened the palate.
Champalou Vouvray 2001, $14. No prejudice here. People t/files/storyimages/to like simple French labels. And the word “Vouvray” is fun to say. It’s made from the Chenin Blanc grape and is known for its dryness, for its non-oaky properties, for being vivid and clean. Before pairing it with the soup, we had a wide divergence of opinion. One person tasted pears, another butteriness, a third demoted that designation to “butter thinned with turpentine.” But everyone again changed course midway through the bowl of soup. By the end, three of us committed to buying more bottles of this one, while the wag admitted that at least he no longer tasted the turpentine undertones.
Neyer’s Grenache 2002 (Hudson Vineyards, Napa Valley), $28. This, in my lone opinion, is one of the best red wines in the entire world. Grenache is low in tannins and high in fruitiness, and this particular batch is absolutely bursting with flavor. From the moment I tasted it, I was in love. I never wavered. The first sip was delicious, all of the middle sips were delicious, the last sip had me running out to buy another bottle. It stood up from start to finish to the tomato soup. It maintained its character. Other tasters in the group found it equally delicious from the outset, using words such as “peppery,” “velvety” and “cedary at the end.” After some accompanying tastes of soup and bread, however, the other three tasters began to find the Grenache overpowering.
Thus the majority ruled the rose best with the soup. But for me, the Grenache is the wine you always want with you, every season, every meal.