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GOOD CHEMISTRY

Nothing enhances a romantic dinner like a bottle of wine. And nothing spoils the mood faster than a wine that doesn't go well with the food. Most people have learned to ignore the rigid wine-matching rules of the past in favor of more general guidelines, and generally, if you pick a wine you like, it's hard to come up with a bad match with most foods. Frankly, your relationship is less likely to work out than the wine match. But, like middle-aged men who live with their mothers or women with more than five cats, there are some couplings to avoid.

Start with the salad -- but not with the wine. A good wine has a carefully controlled balance of sugar and acid. Vinegar is wine gone bad. It throws off that delicate balance faster than Russell Crowe breaks up marriages. To make your salad more wine-friendly, use mild vinegar, lemon juice or wine in the dressing.

Bad chemistry doesn't just ruin a date; it can also mess up a wine match. For example, asparagus, spinach and globe artichokes all contain high quantities of iron. Drink red wine with them, and the iron reacts with the tannin to create a metallic taste. The same thing happens when you combine white turkey meat and red Bordeaux. Walnuts create another problem for the tannin in wine; they're high in tannin themselves, and the combination makes your red wine seem undrinkably dry.

Artichoke hearts are another romantic treat, but they have their own problem -- a chemical in them enhances the sweetness of anything you eat or drink immediately afterward. This reaction doesn't do most wines any good. But sometimes when bad wines happen to good people, a good food match results. Pick a wine that's drier than you like, or more acidic than it ought to be, and the artichoke hearts will compensate.

If you're serving Mexican, Indian or other hot, spicy foods, you might want to forget about wine altogether. The alcohol in wine reacts with chiles and other hot spices to create a burning sensation in your mouth. Even if your Chinese stir-fry isn't spicy, you can get the same burning sensation if it includes a highly acidic fruit such as pineapple. Beer is a much better match because it's lower in alcohol (4 percent) than wine (usually 10 to 12 percent), not to mention frosty cold.

If you're going for the ultimate in romance, caviar is classy. But the salty, fishy taste of the best caviar overwhelms even the best champagne, making it seem coarser, hotter and unpleasantly sweet. A shot of chilled Russian vodka works much better, and a beer isn't bad, either.

If your romantic dinner does go really well, you might be wondering what to serve with breakfast. Most wine experts don't recommend serving wine with eggs. But if you make an omelet with something that does go well with wine, like sausage, a fruity red wine should work. The famous example is a traditional dish in Burgundy: eggs poached in bacon and Beaujolais sauce. And while some might question the wisdom of drinking wine at breakfast at all, my feeling is, if your morning mouthwash has alcohol in it, you've already had the day's first drink.

Howard Riedel writes the wine update for the Premier Group and is local host for NPR's Morning Edition on WBFO-FM. His e-mail address is hriedel@wbfo.org.

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