Balance basic flavors for wine-pairing freedom

Step into a food and wine pairing seminar with Jerry Comfort,and you'll see the expected semicircle of partly filledwineglasses. But Comfort ― director of wine education atBeringer Blass Wine Estates in St. Helena, California ― grinsover a plate of less-than-standard foods: a slice of apple, a lemonwedge, salt crystals, a cup of mysterious clear liquid. It's allvery austere. "Don't worry," Comfort says. "This isn't lunch."

The foods represent basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter,and umami (the fifth taste, savoriness). In Comfort'sunconventional approach to pairing, by balancing these fundamentalflavors, you can make a food match almost any wine. He dubs histheory "food and wine in balance."

Cause and effect

Comfort, who began his career as a chef and found himselfconcentrating on wine pairing while cooking at Beringer's privatedining room, explains that each of the five flavors in food has adifferent effect on how the wine tastes. As we taste our waythrough the wines and foods, these effects become clear. A bite ofapple makes a slightly sweet wine impossibly sour; a lick of lemonjuice makes tannins almost disappear from a Cabernet Sauvignon.Comfort explains that sweetness in food makes wine flavorsstronger, so it may highlight characteristics you don't like, suchas harsh tannins. A sip from the mystery cup ― a solution ofmonosodium glutamate, representing umami ― also strengthensthe wine's textures and reduces aromas. Acid in food, conversely,makes wine's basic structure and flavor profile milder. A saladwith a tangy vinaigrette, for instance, might wash out a delicatewine, but it would soften a big, tannic one.

Salt softens the effect of both sweetness and acid. When wesqueeze lemon on the apple and sprinkle it with salt, each wine wetry it with returns ― almost like magic ― to tastingmuch as it did before we started testing all the effects.

If seasonings are in balance, Comfort contends, almost any winecan be paired with any food. "My wife is a Chardonnay-aholic," hesays. "When I grill a steak, that's what she wants to drink. But ifthe steak is properly seasoned, you can drink Chardonnay with it."Top the steak with a tangy sauce, like salsa verde, or even asqueeze of lemon and a sprinkling of salt, and it matches a widerange of wines. Ironically, an acidic red-wine sauce can make thesteak taste surprisingly good with white wine.

Comfort's unorthodox experiments are "really a freedom act," hesays. "Of course, some pairings are natural fits and some you haveto work at. But if your food is properly seasoned, you really candrink the wine you like with the food you like every night."

INFO: Attend seminars and tastings at Beringer Vineyards(2000 Main St., St. Helena, CA; www.beringervineyards.comor 707/963-7115).

Speaking of pairing...

Here's a tip: Two particular wines, Sauvignon Blanc and PinotNoir, set off more foods than almost any others. Sauvignon Blanc'sfresh mouth-feel, crisp acidity, and herbal flavors make it thebest all-around white for everything from grilled seafood toherb-roasted chicken. Pinot Noir's earthy flavors, medium body, andgood acidity make it the most flexible red. Think sushi to sausagepizza.

Rancho Zabaco Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2002(Sonoma County), $18. Lovely herbal and slightly tropical aromas.Exotic mint and mango flavors.

St. Supéry Sauvignon Blanc 2003 (Napa Valley), $18. Adependable thirst-quencher and terrific food wine. Herb and greenfig flavors, with a crisp, zingy lime finish.

Beringer Founders Estate Pinot Noir 2002 (California), $11.A steal. Sweet, earthy aromas give way to classic Pinot flavors― dried cherry, mocha, grenadine ― and an irresistiblesilky texture.

Sanford Pinot Noir 2001 (Santa Rita Hills, Santa BarbaraCounty), $26. Luscious flavors of earth, pomegranate, mocha, andcherry preserves, plus a plush, silky texture. ― Karen MacNeil-Fife

Sunset's Wine Club

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