Remember the old chestnut "white wine with fish; red wine with meat"? Besides being too dogmatic, that so-called rule implies that wine is meant for only fish and meat. But what about vegetables? What about bountiful salads?
As I scanned the recipes for main-course classics, I started thinking about how, after pairing salads and wine for almost 20 years, I not only choose wines I've discovered work well, but I also instinctively tweak my salad ingredients to maximize the match. Here's what I've found on both sides of the equation.
- With green salads, think "green" wines. The wine with just about the greenest flavors in the world is Sauvignon Blanc (also called Fumé Blanc), which has a sassy, bold, herbal tilt. For a lighter green note, go with Pinot Grigio.
- High-acid salad ingredients (goat cheese, tomatoes, citrus fruits) pair best with high-acid wines like Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, sparkling wines, and Champagne.
- Salty and pungent ingredients like anchovies present fewer partnering problems than you'd expect, as long as the wine is very fruity and possibly even a tad sweet to offset the saltiness. With a classic Caesar, for example, one of the best choices is a California or Washington State Riesling. Chinese chicken salad needs a fruity wine as a counterpoint to its soy sauce.
- You can improve the wine compatibility of any salad by adding or increasing protein (meat, seafood, eggs, and cheese). That's why a Cobb salad, with its roast chicken, bacon, eggs, and blue cheese, works effortlessly with many wines, especially those in the fruity, low-tannin range, like a Beaujolais.
- Certain "bridge" ingredients can connect the flavors in a salad with those in a wine. My favorites are roasted nuts (especially hazelnuts and walnuts), avocados, aged gouda or dry jack cheese, and mayonnaise.
- There are also bridge techniques - adding grilled vegetables rather than uncooked ones, and roasted garlic instead of raw.
- Since bold vinegars make wines taste harsh, use softer vinegars in dressings. Balsamic is the softest of all, but aged sherry vinegar is also fabulous. Or consider a substitute for the vinegar (or at least part of it): orange juice, lemon juice, or even the wine you plan to drink (if it's white).
- Finally, dress salads with the very best extra-virgin olive oil you can find and afford. As European winemakers (many of whom also produce olive oil) have always known, supple, peppery, citrusy olive oil is one of the greatest partners wine has ever had.
Most good wines for salad have two things in common: They're not very oaky (which eliminates most Chardonnays), and they're not very tannic (which takes care of many Merlots and Cabernet Sauvignons). Here are some of my favorites.
Delamotte Brut nonvintage (Champagne), $30. Cold Champagne on a warm summer night turns a salad into a feast. Delamotte has all the finesse, balance, and personality you could hope for.
Château Carbonnieux Bordeaux Blanc 1998 (Pessac-Leognan, France), $28. This wine isn't cheap, but it's sensational with salads. Minerally and sharp, with pinpoint freshness, it has a shower of lemon drops, hints of honey, and a wonderful touch of pear.
Chateau Souverain Sauvignon Blanc 1999 (Alexander Valley, CA), $12. With wonderful aromas and flavors reminiscent of snow peas, grass, herbs, and green figs, this Sauvignon is as zesty and crisp as a salad itself.
Zenato Pinot Grigio 2000 (Veneto, Italy), $10. Gertrude Stein's infamous quip about Oakland, California ("there is no there there"), could be applied to many Pinot Grigios as well. Not this one. Floral and creamy, it's laced with light peach, almond, and herbal notes.
SUNSET'S STEAL OF THE MONTH:
Columbia Winery: Cellarmaster's Riesling 2000 (Columbia Valley), $8. One of Washington State's best-kept secrets is its Rieslings, virtually all of which qualify as steals. This one's all apricots, honey, and citrus, with a faint echo of sweetness (just waiting for a salad with some spice).