Pairing wine and salad tricky, but reds can work

  • By Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, Special to The Washington Post
  • Saturday, June 16, 2007 9:00pm
  • Life

It was a wine lover’s laugh-out-loud moment on ABC’s “Brothers &Sisters.” Sally Field and Ron Rifkin’s characters were sitting at a restaurant table set with simple green salads – and glasses of dark red wine. Unless the show’s prop masters also happen to be cutting-edge sommeliers, we suspect they chose the food and wine more for their camera-friendliness than the appropriateness of the pairing.

Even though conventional wisdom points to high-acid whites, red wine with salad isn’t always a laughing matter. Yes, we were surprised when a sommelier recently poured a glass of red wine with our truffle and salsify noodle salad featuring arugula, wild mushrooms, artichoke and asparagus. However, we were even more surprised to discover that the wine, a 2003 Domaine Karydas Naoussa ($25), was so well-balanced with acidity and tannin that the pairing worked beautifully.

“Artichokes and asparagus are known to be red wine killers, but the richness of the truffle dressing and the rich meatiness of the mushrooms make this wine sing,” the sommelier, Spanish native Ruben Sanz Ramiro, told us.

We’ve since come to expect the unexpected from Ramiro. During his previous tenure at the Fat Duck, a Michelin three-star restaurant in England, Ramiro mastered the art of edgy, inspired pairing while matching wines to chef Heston Blumenthal’s signature dishes, such as scrambled egg and bacon ice cream.

More recently, Ramiro brought his infectious passion for wine to the United States to showcase his offbeat wine pairings, which are developing something of a cult following, at a 25-seat lounge with a speak-easy-like ambiance in Manhattan called the Monday Room.

The rule of thumb when matching wine with salads? Acid loves acid. Tradition honors safe bets such as sauvignon blanc, roses or – if you insist on a red – Beaujolais. A crisp 2005 Bollini Pinot Grigio Trentino ($14) delightfully offsets a Caprese salad of mozzarella, tomatoes and basil.

At the wine-theme Baltimore restaurant Corks, which last month marked its 10th anniversary, chef Jerry Pellegrino, a Johns Hopkins-educated molecular biologist, is more sensitive than most to the fact that vinegar and wine are a tough match because few wines have the acid levels to stand up to those of salads.

“When we make a vinaigrette, we’ll go very light on the vinegar,” Pellegrino says. “Instead of the typical 1-to-3 or 1-to-4 ratio (of vinegar to oil), we will use a 1-to-10 ratio, so the salad will have the flavor of vinegar without the usual acidity.”

A tarragon vinaigrette dresses a salad at Corks for which local cucumbers are cut into long threads like spaghetti and served with peeled baby tomatoes resembling meatballs. “We pair this salad with an herbaceous Honig Sauvignon Blanc ($17, 2005) from Napa Valley,” Pellegrino says. “The freshness of the cucumber and tarragon match the cold sauvignon blanc nicely.”

What about exceptions to the rules? Consider Caesar and pasta salads. With their creamy dressings and Parmesan cheese, they tend to pair better with chardonnay.

So, too, does Corks’ baby arugula salad, served with sliced duck breast and what Pellegrino describes as a “retro-1980s” mango vinaigrette. “It’s great with a Basignani Chardonnay ($16), which is local to Maryland,” he says. “The wine is fermented in old oak barrels, so it is nice and round, and its citrus notes play well off both the mango and the duck.”

What’s the next pairing frontier? Matching salads with the new global array of red wines is our bet. Later in the summer, Corks serves a salad with blue cheese and candied walnuts dressed with a port wine dressing made with a peppery extra virgin olive oil. Pellegrino says it is “great with a big red, like a Ravenswood Vintners Blend Zinfandel” ($11, 2004).

Corks also serves a salad made with baby red romaine, poached pear, bacon and toasted almonds, dressed with a red wine vinaigrette. It’s paired with a Cristom Mount Jefferson Cuvee Pinot Noir ($30) because, as Pellegrino explains, “the bacon and almonds marry really well with this Willamette Valley wine.”

Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page are authors of “What to Drink With What You Eat.”

Salad tips

* When pairing wine with salads, make your salad dressing more wine-friendly by using less vinegar than usual.

* Experiment with wine-friendly vinegars, from Banyuls to sherry, to achieve the best match for a wine. While verjus is often cited as wine-friendly for its lower acidity, beware its higher levels of tannin.

* Use lighter oils (such as canola or nonvirgin olive) when pairing with lighter wines, and stronger oils (such as extra-virgin olive, which has stronger olive and pepper flavors) with bigger wines.

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