Traditional Wine Pairings Thrown Overboard

Natalie McLean, author of Red, White and Drunk All Over, joins Host Liane Hansen to discuss how to select the best wine for dinner. Modern fusion cuisine and new wines throw traditional rules to the wayside.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

For every dish, whether popcorn, steak, or smoked salmon, there is a wine. And today, we're going to save you the hours it would take to cruise the aisles of your wine shop in search of the perfect bottle. We've invited the accredited sommelier Natalie McLean into the studios of the CBC in Ottawa to give us some tips. McLean is the author of "Red, White, and Drunk All Over." Welcome to the show.

Ms. NATALIE MCLEAN (Author, ''Red, White, and Drunk All Over''): Thanks, Liane. Good to be here.

HANSEN: First thing, does the recommendation white with fish, red with meat still hold?

Ms. MCLEAN: It does to a certain extent, in that it's based on some fundamental principles of matching food and wine. It's mainly, you know, complement or contrast, weight, texture and flavor. But, you know, there's a lot more experimental cooking these days. We're getting wines from different regions. So the potentials for pairing wine and food have really exploded. And I think that makes it very exciting.

HANSEN: Let's talk about some of the foods other than the fish and the meat. What goes with cheese? I mean, there are so many different kinds.

Ms. MCLEAN: There are. You know, there are lots of different wines that will work with cheese. Some of my favorite cheeses for wines are the harder cheeses. So if you think of Gruyere, cheddar, Beaufort, those cheeses are often mature by the time we eat them.

So their flavor elements, like the salt and the acidity and even their dairy fat content, have come together. They're more in balance, and they start to taste like the flavors we find in mature red wines, like Bordeaux. And that's why one of the classic matches is Bordeaux with cheddar.

HANSEN: With the trend toward healthful eating, vegetarian meals are becoming popular. Vegetables, I think, this is a whole new field for pairing with wine. Let's start with salad. Because sometimes, if you get the wrong wine with a salad that has a dressing, for example, the whole thing goes bad.

Ms. MCLEAN: It does. It does because, of course, wine is next door to vinegar when it goes off. And some foods or salad dressings can bring out that in a wine. My theory is that green wine and green food go together. Again, crisp whites that have an herbal aroma to them, like a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. To me, that's like salad in a glass. It's got those aromas that are complementary. It's got the acidity to stand up to a vinaigrette or a dressing. So I really love the pairing between those two.

HANSEN: What about corn on the cob or sweet potatoes, where you're doing more a starchy vegetable?

Ms. MCLEAN: Well, I think that these vegetables are one of the few dishes that actually work very well with a big old buttery, oaky California Chardonnay. This wine is usually a tough match with most dishes. It can overwhelm a lot of dishes, delicate fish and so on, but when you've got starchy vegetables, again, you're echoing those flavors and that texture in the glass.

HANSEN: Hmm. Can we stay on the menu?

Ms. MCLEAN: Sure.

HANSEN: Nachos, come on. You don't drink wine with nachos or popcorn.

Ms. MCLEAN: I do. I'm a determined hedonist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: All right, what do you drink with it then?

Ms. MCLEAN: I love snack foods like nachos with a simple very ripe red wine like a California Zinfandel. It's got some zing to it. It's not going to get ruined by the nachos. You know, I wouldn't dare bring out a nice mature Bordeaux or a delicate Burgundy. That would just be a waste. But those wines do work. If you're talking about popcorn, you've got those buttery flavors again.

HANSEN: Right, right.

Ms. MCLEAN: And, you know, the same principles can still apply to casual foods as they do to fancier meals. So look for the buttery California Chardonnay.

HANSEN: How did you learn what goes with what? I mean, trial and error? Training?

Ms. MCLEAN: Absolutely, trial and error mostly. I'm not a good cook. In fact, I really can't cook much at all. But I can certainly dress up meals with wine. And so that's why I got into a lot of these shabby-chic pairings of high-low wine with everyday casual meals.

My son, who's nine years old, would be having, you know, mac and cheese. And I'd be sharing a bowl with him, and I'd think, oh, I wonder what works with this? You know, Chilean Chardonnay, brilliant, with the cheese. You know, I just experiment a lot. But it's also part of my philosophy that we don't need to save wine for fancy meals, special occasions. Wine should be an everyday drink. And that's where I put it on my table.

HANSEN: Sommelier Natalie Mclean is the author of ''Red, White, and Drunk All Over.'' She spoke to us from the studios of the CBC in Ottawa. Thanks a lot.

Ms. MCLEAN: Thanks, Liane. Cheers.

HANSEN: Next week, we'll hear more from Natalie McLean about the merits of organic wine and what climate change means for wine makers.

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