Pairing Wine and Food — What Wine Goes with Armadillo?

If we had to guess what we get asked most often, it would be questions about pairing wine and food.  Can red wine go with fish and white wine with meat?  What about chicken?  What does that pink stuff go with?  All good and reasonable questions.  We at first vine never tire of thinking about wine.  Or about food.  Or about pairing the two.  Or more about wine.  Mmmmmmm.  What were we saying?  Oh yes!  We’re here to help 😉

There are two different big ideas about pairing wine with food.  The first is that you don’t want them to clash – that is, the wine shouldn’t make the food taste bad, and vice-versa.  The wine also shouldn’t completely obscure the taste of the food, nor should the food hide the taste of the wine.  This is really a question of avoiding pitfalls: matching the intensity of the food with the strength or body of the wine, deciding if you need some tannins in the wine to carry it through the flavor of the food, and avoiding big contrasts in acidity, sweetness, or bitterness.  Within those parameters, there are a lot of wines that could make a perfectly good match with nearly any meal, and everyone would be happy.

The second is that properly paired food and wine can generate a combination that exceeds what either could do alone.  Sadly, this doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should.  But when it does, you definitely know it – it’s practically an out-of-body experience.  (And we all need more of those).   In that case, not only have you avoided the pitfalls, you’ve found something that causes the food and the wine to work together.  It’s possible they had similar flavors that just combined perfectly, or perhaps each supplied something that the other was missing, even if each one seemed perfect on its own.

Here are a few pairing hints to consider, whether you’re trying to reach nirvana or simply avoid making your guests spit and curse:

  • It might seem too obvious, but if the taste of a wine reminds you of something, try it with that food.  For example, if a white wine has a sort of apple flavor, try it with a salad of apple and walnuts.  (You could even try it with apple pie, if the wine isn’t absolutely bone dry).  Try a red wine with hints of fig with – what else – roasted figs stuffed with Gorgonzola.  Or a leathery, tobacco-y red with seared and roasted beef tenderloin, since the crust will have some of those flavors in it (you could also try the wine while eating leather and tobacco, but perhaps not when other people are around…)
  • A heavy meal (in terms of density, prominence of sauce, or boldness of flavor) needs a wine with more body or heft, and probably one with more flavor, too.  Likewise, try a lighter-bodied wine with lighter food, and each will seem even lighter.
  • Dairy products (cream and/or cheese) tend to take the edge off the flavor of red wines by binding to the tannins, and blunt the acidity of white wines.   So they can serve as a bridge between foods and wines you might not have thought of together, providing that neither overpowers the other.  By subduing the tannins and acidity, other hidden flavors in wines can often come through, making for some stunningly good pairings.  An example of this is our Camembert Doughnuts recipe paired with our Domaine de Montvac Gigondas 2005 – sublime!  The earthiness of the cheese and the wine together are indescribable.
  • Light-bodied, earthy red wines go with a range of foods you might not have considered, such as roasted chicken, grilled salmon (or other strong, fatty fish), or roasted pork.  Likewise, full-bodied white wines can go with some mildly-flavored meat dishes as well.
  • Acidity in a meal (like citrus or salad dressings) can make a slightly more acidic wine taste a bit sweeter, and add a new dimension to the meal.  Similarly, properly prepared shellfish has a mild sweetness to it, and a wine without too much acidity will taste sweeter when served with them.  This is why shellfish and French rosés are a good match – neither one tastes sweet alone, but they’re beautifully and mildly sweet together.  (Rosés also go wonderfully with Thanksgiving food, more about that next week).

This week’s recipe encompasses a lot of different pairing possibilities.  Beef Stroganoff was a childhood staple at home, made 1960s style with ground beef, condensed cream of mushroom soup, canned mushrooms (we can hear all those gasps across the ether, but fresh mushrooms were tough to find in the supermarket), and a ton of sour cream.  All the cans notwithstanding, it was tasty and brings back good memories.  But it’s even better made a bit closer to the original Russian dish, with sliced steak, less sour cream and more (real) mushrooms.  (Not to mention no condensed canned soup.  The tomato paste and Worcestershire aren’t original, but they sure make it taste good.  Also, we’ve given you a variation with leftover turkey, for when your 22-pound bird doesn’t get all eaten up and before your family revolts against more turkey).

The dish contains beef (strong), mushrooms (earthy), sauteed onions and red bell pepper (slightly sweet), and sour cream (slightly sweet and, well, creamy).  The turkey variation is lighter, but still has the earthiness, sweetness, and creaminess.  So think of what you want to emphasize:  if you like beefiness, try a full-bodied red that’s still earthy enough to bring out the flavor of the mushrooms, and not be completely subdued by the sour cream, like Domaine Fond Croze’s Cuvée Romanaise, made from 50% Syrah and 50% Grenache.  You could focus on the mushrooms with a medium-bodied earthier red that will still enhance the beef and not get lost in the cream, like Cave TerraVentoux’s Terres des Truffes, a mushroom-y scented wine that’s the same composition as the Romanaise, but less full-bodied and with softer tannins.  Or try a different track and go for Domaine de Mairan’s Cabernet Sauvignon, lighter than California Cabs but with enough flavor to hang in there with everything else.  For the turkey version, try a medium-bodied white, like Domaine Fond Croze’s Cuvée Confidence Blanc, a fuller-bodied pink like Domaine de Mairan’s Rosé, or a lighter red, like Cave la Romaine’s Rouge Tradition.

Whatever you choose, have fun.  It shouldn’t be an ordeal to pick a wine, and you’ll have plenty of other things to worry about – like getting your guests to leave after you’ve treated them so well! (Our preferred method includes the use of a fire extinguisher, but we’re sure you’ll find your own.)

Bon Appetit!


Beef Stroganoff
Serves 4

5 tablespoons butter
1 or 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 pound boneless sirloin or ribeye steak, trimmed of fat and cut across the grain into one-quarter inch slices
1 large onion, cut in half lengthwise and then thinly sliced into half-rounds
One half of a red bell pepper, thinly sliced (optional but pretty and tasty)
2 tablespoons flour
1 pound mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed, and thinly sliced
1 14- to-16 ounce can beef broth or stock
3 or 4 tablespoons dry sherry
One-half cup sour cream
1 tablespoon tomato paste
One-quarter teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Toss the steak with some salt and pepper.  Bring the beef stock to a boil in a small skillet, and then reduce it until the volume is about one cup.   This will take 10 to 15 minutes or so.  Off the heat, add 3 tablespoons of sherry and the Worcestershire.

Heat 2 tablespoons of butter and one tablespoon of oil in a heavy large skillet over medium-high heat.  When the butter stops foaming, add the meat and fry for a minute or so on each side, just until browned (It should still be a little rare).  Transfer the meat to a plate with a slotted spoon.  Add 1 tablespoon of butter and heat again, then add half the mushrooms.  Let them sit for about 45 seconds to brown, then shake the pan and cook the other side.  Transfer the mushrooms on the plate with the beef, then repeat for the remaining mushrooms.  Add the last bit of butter and sauté the onion and red pepper until quite soft and just beginning to brown (add the last tablespoon of oil if you need to).  Lower the heat, salt and pepper the vegetables, and then stir in the tomato paste and the flour.  Cook for a minute, then add the stock/sherry/Worcestershire mixture and raise the heat to medium, stirring constantly to make the sauce smooth and thick.  Stir in the steak and mushrooms, with any juices on the plate.  Turn the heat to low and add the sour cream.  You can add an extra tablespoon of sherry at this point if you’d like, or not.  Taste for seasoning and serve immediately.

Leftover turkey variation:  substitute chicken broth for beef broth, and one pound of sliced cooked turkey for the steak.  Saute the turkey just to warm it through and proceed with the rest of the recipe.  You can also use a cup of turkey gravy in place of the reduced chicken broth, heat it up and add the sherry and Worcestershire, and don’t use the flour called for in the recipe.

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