When Night Train Simply Won’t Do

Published March 26, 2003

Boston’s Weekly Dig

Food and wine pairing can be an extremely daunting task.  Being an experienced wine drinker often does not lessen the burden.  Many diners are faced with a haphazard selection of wines in more restaurants than a seasoned consumer would like to imagine.  Talented sommeliers are hardly a dime a dozen and tend to be exclusive to upscale restaurants.  Furthermore, unknowledgeable wait staff may be a byproduct of an ill-planned wine list or menu.

Fortunately, Boston is a city with an explosive dining scene.  More and more restaurants place an emphasis on food and wine pairing.  Many restaurateurs and chefs have even opened restaurants for which the wine list is the star and the food is prepared to accompany the seasonal wine offerings.  Pairing food with wine as the main feature, instead of the opposite, is an extremely trendy and successful venture, especially when backed with discernment and knowledge.

Despite the fact that such establishments are cropping up like crocuses in the springtime, the status quo still lends itself to the more traditional pairing of wine with food.  Choosing a good wine to accompany your meal can be difficult, but a restaurant with a reputable wine list is likely to jump at an opportunity to share their knowledge and provide suggestions.

When we are presented with a vast array of wisely chosen and smartly purchased options, it is as though a greater power is honoring our taste buds.  Eaters and drinkers alike can rejoice in knowing that not only does their wine of choice stand well alone but also is deserving of a good sidekick in food.

Now, once we have established that a restaurant has a reputable wine list, we are faced with several confounding choices.  Blindly choosing a wine off a menu may prove a risky undertaking.  Being faced with two Merlots, three Rieslings or two Chardonnays raises a few questions; for example, which wine is full-bodied and robust enough that it will stand well alone?  Which Pinot Noir will go well with my chicken dish?  Which Cabernet Sauvignon will back up my medium-rare steak?  Without a pocket guide to wines on hand, it might be difficult to decipher your options based on vintage, a wine’s place of origin or the vineyard’s grape blends.

As I stated before, many restaurants offer several versions of a varietal on their menu.  You may find yourself deciding between two Zinfandels, and without your server’s assistance or your own personal experience, it may prove extremely difficult to distinguish between the offerings.  For example, Dali in Somerville, which has a lengthy list of all Spanish wines, offers a 1998 Vega Sindoa Merlot (Navarra, $26 a bottle) and a 1999 Finca Luzon Merlot (Jumilla, $27 a bottle).  You may be aware that Merlot tends to posses lower tannins and higher sugar levels.  It is generally a fruity wine- a bit rounder than a Cabernet Sauvignon.  Therefore, you conjecture that it may pair nicely with a red meat or with acidic foods.

After choosing the former of the two, some of my expectations were met while I was simultaneously surprised by some of the wine’s characteristics.  Merlots often taste of black currants or cherries.  While this wine has an oaky, leathery nose with a hint of cherry, it tastes light and crisp like cranberries and is not as fat as I would have expected.  Merlots are generally supposed to be drunk young, and as a result, this wine is not fully developed.  Seemingly a bit more tannic and crisp and less fruity than the standard Merlot, it has a short finish and clearly could benefit from either a few more years in a wine cellar or proper decanting.

Since this wine is on the light side of the Merlot spectrum, it does not overpower food.  It is also very refreshing as far as fruity wines go and can act as a palate cleanser.  Off the tapas menu, I might choose the trucha al linto (farm trout with red sauce, $6), as the red wine in the dish brings out the flavor in the glass and vice versa.  The pato braseado (roast duckling with berry sauce, $7.50) would nicely accompany this wine.  Merlot beautifully supports gamey meats and foul, cutting their rich flavors.  The berry nose of the wine also backs up the sauce of the duck.  Tannic foods, like olives, also compliment fuller, fruiter wines with low tannins, such as the Merlot.

Washington Square Tavern in Brooklyn has an extremely varied and extensive wine list.  Wines by the glass are very affordable and bottles range from $24 to $55.  Unfortunately, I only allowed myself one wine at the Tavern.  I chose the 2002 Giesen Sauvignon Blanc (NZ, $6.50 by the glass or $26 by the bottle).  On the nose, this wine smelled of passion fruit and melon, with a hint of granny smith and a bit of sourness.  Most wines of this varietal are highly acidic and posses an herbaceous aroma and flavor.  The Giesen is fairy fruity with a long, drawn-out finish, almost resembling that of a sweet Riesling, also one of New Zealand’s widely produced wines.  I also tasted hints of citrus, characteristic of Sauvignon Blanc.

Considered one of the most versatile white wines, I might pair it with a sweet and slightly acidic food, such as the Boston bibb and watercress salad with roasted Bosc pears, toasted walnuts and Roquefort blue cheese ($8) or the crispy Duck confit with sour cherry compote and aged balsamic ($9).  The sweet/tart aspects of these dishes will make the wine appear less acidic and more well-rounded.  The acidic nature of the wine also cuts the richness of the blue cheese.  In addition, Sauvignon beautifully accompanies poultry.  A perfect wine for Asian-influenced food, I might order the seared sliced tuna with sesame spinach, crispy rice cake and a ginger port wine sauce ($12) to go with this wine.

Like the Sauvignon Blanc, the Bonny Doon Pacific Rim 2000 Riesling (CA, $7 a glass, $28 by the bottle) is an extremely versatile wine.  At Central Kitchen in Cambridge, I decided to go for this classic aromatic wine.  The restaurant has a small but notably diverse wine list, and I chose this wine due to its ability to stimulate the appetite and support food.  Rieslings are generally acidic with high sugar levels, which yield a delicate yet full-flavored wine.  The Bonny Doon has a light, fruity nose.  On the tongue, it has a spicy, clover quality with a hint of honey.  As you never want a wine to overpower your food, the Riesling is a great choice for many foods due to its marriage of sweetness and acidity.

The rock crab salad with scallops, mussels and shrimp with haricot verts, peas and spicy remoulade dressing ($10) is a perfect dish for a Riesling.  It pairs well with seafood and shellfish, and the sweetness nicely intercepts the spiciness of the dressing.  For a main course, I might suggest ordering the house brined half chicken with garlic chive spaetzle ($18), as Riesling is a good choice for chicken, as well as lighter meat, such a pork.

Wine is meant to interact with food and therefore support that which you are eating.  Although it is often nice to have contrasting flavors, a good wine should complement the flavors in the dish.  There are many ways to enjoy wine, but my suggestion is to mix and match and play around with your options.  The best way to learn is by experimentation, so drink up and make a toast to your health!