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A MARRIAGE PERFECTED IN TASTEBUD HEAVEN

Nothing is easy in the dining world of the '90s -- especially matching up food and wine.
In today's Culinary Speak the combination of food and wine is referred to as a "marriage." And a successful marriage involves give and take.

Example: When a committee of dining experts met at the Hyatt Regency last week to approve the food and wine lineup for the patron wine tasting at the March 31 Studio Arena International Wine Auction, they changed the position of the '92 Abtsberg Riesling Spatlese originally slated to accompany a grilled beef dish.

General consensus was that this wine was too sweet and too low in acidity to complement the lusty flavored meat that was topped with peppers. But the same wine fairly exploded when paired with the scallops.

The committee did recommend adding a little orange flavor to the scallop sauce to tune up the wine's "notes of apricot."

And, interestingly enough, the wine originally selected to accompany the scallops, a '92 Abtsberg Riesling Kabinett with its higher acidity and lean taste, was a fine accompaniment to the beef.

Adjustments were necessary even though the original pairings had been carefully discussed with Hyatt Executive Chef Kevin Phebus and faxed for approval to Dr. Carl Von Schubert, whose wine estates lie near Trier, Germany. Von Schubert's Maximin Grunhaus wines will be served throughout the patron tasting and he will be on hand to discuss the wines. Von Schubert is considered a a giant in the industry.

Sometimes what looks like a good marriage in theory turns out to be not so successful in actuality.

"People come into the store and tell us what they are serving, they give us their recipes and ask for the right wine to go with them," said Kevin Driscoll, wine manager at Premier Liquor. "But you can't be really sure until you taste."

If experts like Driscoll and Burt Notarius, president of Premier Liquor, can be surprised occasionally, what's an ordinary person to do -- especially since the the variety of foods we eat is much greater than it used to be.

American palates have changed. We eat more highly seasoned Asian, southwestern and Mexican food than we once did. And our methods of cooking have changed, as well.

Barbara Lang, who teaches food and wine pairing in the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration and who owns a Mexican restaurant, regards Americans' interest in new cuisines as challenging.

"It's a whole new way of looking at things," she says. But, many of the rules we used to depend on don't work anymore, she added.

Even the once chiseled-in-stone rule of white wine with white food (like chicken and fish) and red wine with red food (like meat) isn't observed like it used to be.

Von Schubert's white wines, for instance, will be served throughout the Studio Arena Patron Taste, which includes everything from smoked salmon pate to grilled tenderloin.

His wonderfully rich '93 Eiswien will be served with the rich Napoleon dessert.

Other experts often pair a grilled salmon or roasted chicken with a light red wine, although much depends on the way the food is cooked and the sauce in which it is served.

Just like marriage, food and wines are supposed to complement each other, not fight.

Ms. Lang thinks that the important things to keep in mind when marrying food and wine are the wine's basic components -- is it acid, sweet, fruity, tannic (astringent)?

To prove her point, Ms. Lang conducts wine tastings with popcorn -- she calls it "the Popcork Experience" -- and certainly it has the common touch.

She provides lemon popcorn (with the juice of the fruit squirted on it), salty popcorn, sugary popcorn and chile popcorn and four wines -- two white -- usually a high acid Chardonnay and a semi-sweet Riesling. And, two reds, usually a low tannin Pinot Noir and a young and very tannic Cabernet.

She encourages participants to taste each wine first and then to taste it with the four different popcorns. The change is amazing, she says.

Salty food appears to lessen the wine's acidity. "Do you remember that your mother used to put salt on grapefruit to make it taste sweet?" she asks her audience.

Salty foods can also make tannic wines taste more tannic. They pucker the sides of your mouth.

Acidic food neutralizes the taste of acid in wine.

On the other hand, sweet foods neutralize the sweetness in dry wines and make dry wines taste less fruity.

The heat of hot (spicy) foods is lowered by wines with sweetness, Ms. Lang says.

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