Thursday, August 14, 2008

Salad Days

Summertime. Fresh vegetables and herbs. All the natural yumminess you’d ever want, there for the taking at your local farmer’s market or in your backyard if you’re lucky enough to be able to keep things a’growing.

I know that I focus a lot on what to eat with grilled food during seasons like this, but I’m just as likely to want something light when it’s blazing hot. I’m perfectly happy with a big ol’ dinner salad most nights, but that doesn’t change the need to indulge my little oenological fixation.

Salads are tough for wines, though. Greens of almost all sorts have at least a hint of bitterness in their flavors. Some, like arugula, can be absolute wine killers that make a decent bottle of chardonnay taste like turpentine. Also, as delicious as fresh vegetables can be, flavors leap off in any number of directions and throw off many flavors in wine. Roasting certain veggies can markedly change food flavors, mushrooms add earthiness, asparagus almost always sets wine on its ear, and so on.

Heck, we haven’t even started talking about different kinds of dressing. Or perhaps you want to add meat to your greens to soothe the carnivorous beast within. How can you set up a pairing for optimal dining pleasure while not either making a boring salad or ruining a perfectly good bottle of wine?

When I think about wine pairings for salads, I follow three simple rules:

1) Go with the acid. Without veering headlong into Timothy Leary Territory, I’ll simply give assurances that powerful hallucinogens and romaine generally do not mix. However, tartaric and malic acids generally work much more effectively. The acidity of tart, crisp wines tends to cut through the bitterness that most greens have, as well as working to effectively dissolve the oils in most dressings, which allows both the flavor of the wine and the other flavors in the salad to make a stronger impression. Almost any crisp wine will work with a salad. And when in doubt, as with any number of other foods, rosé works well. For instance, the Saintsbury 2006 Carneros Vin Gris -- A French-styled rosé from California. It reminded me a great deal of Tavel. The wine has a pleasant nose of strawberries. Body is slightly acidic and quite fruity. Finish has a nice fruit, followed by a crispness that would make it a wonderful pairing with almost any kind of salad you might come up with. $12-14.

2) Pair with the dominant flavor. The idea here is similar to the rule of thumb used when pairing wines with pasta. You wouldn't want to drink a pinot grigio with a heavy tomato and meat sauce, but a big ol' Montepulciano works splendidly. Think about the major flavor in the salad -- or if there's one ingredient that, even if it's just an accent flavor, would be the first thing people taste. For instance, we recently made a tomato salad with lots of Mediterranean flavors: parsley, pistachios, mint, and scallions. While light, the tomatoes and herbs certainly took center stage. After some discussion with a knowledgeable staff person at a local wine store, we came upon the Pierre Boniface Apremont 2006 Vin de Savoie -- This wine from the French Alps is made from a local grape called Jacquère. The nose is cream and apples and the flavor is somewhat acidic and grapefruity. However, much like the wines from the neighboring Loire Valley, you get a some minerality, although not as much as a Muscadet. The body is light and crisp with a slighty flinty finish. A wine like this will cut through strong herbal flavors as well as the acid of things like tomato. $11-13.

3) Spice can be nice, but always think twice. While many think of salads as simply cool and green, adding spice and heat to a salad is becoming more and more common. If you look at the ingredient list for almost any salad in a cooking magazine these days, you're going to run into ingredients in either the dressing or the salad itself that adds peppery, savory flavors to the mix. Thankfully, there are a number of wines that balance those flavors. When it comes to pairing food with spices, Riesling immediately jumps to mind, especially dry Rieslings. The better dry Rieslings are often from Alsace, and one I had recently was The Furst 2006 Riesling – a wine with an interesting twist. The nose is perfumey and appley, much as I expected from a Riesling. Most Alsace Rieslings I've tasted have been bone dry, but this one has a pleasant amount of sweetness, which works wonderfully to balance the flavors you'd find in a salad. Also, the body wasn't as heavy as some Rieslings I've had. If you're doing an Asian-flavored salad, you'd be well-advised to spend $12-14 here.

The other major varietal that pairs with almost any salad is Beaujolais, but I'll hold off on discussing those in depth since they'll be the central theme of the next entry. But if you want a red wine with a salad, that should always, always be your first thought.

So, enjoy that fresh produce straight from garden to plate -- and confidently pour something that stands up proudly alongside.

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