A Rule Made to be Broken

By G.M. “Pooch” Pucilowski

I’m sure you’ve heard this old adage: Serve white wine with chicken or fish, red wine with beef. This has been the rule of thumb for years. But how true is it?

The short answer: somewhat true. White wine pairs well with chicken or fish because the delicate flavors of both tend to complement each other, while a heavy, tannic red wine would overpower chicken or fish. On the other hand, a red wine generally can stand up to hearty red meat.

But there are always exceptions to this rule. Recently, for a wine class I teach, I planned a five-course, 12-wine meal to demonstrate how to match food with wine. I purposely picked two or three wines for each course with the idea that one of the wines probably would not “marry” well with the food.

For example, I paired a caramelized three-onion torte with a Charles Creek 2002 Russian River Chardonnay and a Raymond Merlot Reserve 1999. I didn’t think both of these wines would work equally well with this incredible dish. But when my students voted on their preferred pairing, it was almost a tie.

The torte was made with blue cheese and crème fraîche and was served with a balsamic reduction sauce. The Chardonnay brought out the onions’ sweetness, while the Merlot stood up to the blue cheese and the balsamic sauce. It was an eye-opener.

When we got to the main course—duck—I thought I had it nailed. Pinot Noir is the perfect match for duck, and I had one of the best: Gary Farrell 2001 Russian River Pinot Noir. I also served two other wines: Sonoma-Cutrer 2000 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay and Beringer 2000 Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. I expected that the Chardonnay wouldn’t be rich or heavy enough for the dish, and that the Cabernet’s tannins would overwhelm the delicate duck. I was half-right: The group agreed that the Chardonnay didn’t work, but at least one-third preferred the Cabernet Sauvignon to either of the two other wines. Wow!

So, was it the dish’s horseradish mashed potatoes, its blueberry brandy reduction, or both in combination with the duck that made the Cabernet a perfect match for the dish? I don’t think it matters. What’s important is keeping an open mind and being willing to experiment—you surely will find your own matches made in heaven.

Wines of the Month
Eberle Winery 2002 Paso Robles Mill Road Vineyard Viognier ($17). A luscious apricot/peach nose is balanced between fruit and acidity. (805) 238-9607

Fetzer Barrel Select 2001 Sonoma County Merlot ($16). This wine, with supple cherry and berry flavors, is medium-bodied with soft tannins. (800) 846-8637, ext. 604

G.M. “Pooch” Pucilowski teaches wine classes at the Delta King in Old Sacramento. For more information, call (916) 961-6080 or e-mail gmpooch@pacbell.net.