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Which Wine With Fish Sticks?

September 16, 1993|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

When most wine critics talk about matching food and wine, all they talk about is chi-chi foods. Not long ago I received a missive from Ken Forrester of Little Rock, Ark., asking why we can't make suggestions for wine that goes with the foods most Americans eat--fish sticks, hamburgers and tuna casserole.

That got me to try various food and wine combinations to see what worked. The results of this informal investigation were interesting, though not definitive by any means.

Hamburgers: The one wine I think of when hamburger is mentioned is Beaujolais, though some people push for Zinfandel. I like Beaujolais because its flavors seem to go well with the condiments that dominate most burgers. Especially if you use a slug of catsup, Beaujolais is your choice. Zinfandel works best when the burger is adorned with little--if any--sweetening sauce and really shines when the burger has grilled onions.

Fried chicken or fish sticks: Mild fried foods call for a crisp white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc or Sancerre. Even a dry Chenin Blanc would work. If the chicken is loaded with pepper, try a lighter-styled Zinfandel.

Barbecue: Whether it's beef, chicken, pork or ribs, this kind of food is sure to be fairly sweet and spicy. Beer (or, preferably, ale) is the best choice, but if you like wine, I have found that white wine works better than red. I know this sounds a little weird, but the best combinations I tried with spiced ribs and corn on the cob were off-dry Rieslings and Gewurztraminers. These wines had a trace of sweetness to cut the pepperiness of the sauce. Served cool they refresh the palate. The only difference is when you have brisket with a barbecue sauce that is neither very sweet nor spicy. In that case, try a lighter Rhone wine or a California Syrah made in a lighter style, such as Qupe or an R. H. Phillips Rhone blend. The latter makes a stylish wine called "Night Harvest Cuvee Rouge" at $4 for a 500-milliliter bottle--simply excellent.

Spaghetti: I'm a fan of a rich, spicy Zinfandel with pasta dishes sauced with tomatoes, herbs and cheese. But, then, I like a lot of garlic and red pepper flakes in my spaghetti. For less spicy but still hearty tomato sauces, Chianti is perfect, with the tartness of the wine balancing the acidity of the tomatoes. For creamed pasta dishes such as Alfredo, I like Semillon, preferably an older wine with nuances of hay and honey.

Tuna casserole or macaroni and cheese: If the cheese is mild and the spices subtle (or non-existent), a dry Riesling might work. Otherwise, try Sauvignon Blanc.

Sausages: A tough one unless you know the sausages. (Weisswurst and kielbasa differ widely.) But for most spicier pork sausages, especially when grilled on coals, I like dry rose wines to cut the grease along with some raspberry or cherry fruit, offsetting the smoke of the link. Light, veal-based sausages would work well with Gewurztraminer. Try any of California's off-dry versions.

Chicken-fried steak: I admit to having had only one of these in the last year, and that one was pretty tough and not particularly memorable. The steak itself is fried with only pepper as a main spice, and the sauce is a fat-and-flour-based thing with little to recommend it except high cholesterol. The wine should be something very crisp, to cut the fat, and all I could think of (besides French Chablis) was a Vinho Verde from Portugal or a Pinot Grigio/Gris from Italy or Oregon. Of course, if you ask for Vinho Verde in a roadside diner in Buffalo, Tex., you will likely be laughed out of the place.

\o7 Now, how about pairing wine with ethnic foods, which have become so important in our culture but which were essentially non-existent two decades ago? Here are a few suggestions from my experience.

Thai: The wide variety of flavors and aromas in Thai food calls for exotic wines. I prefer Alsatian white wines, and if you can find a Muscat made dry, the combination is stunning. One exciting wine is 1992 Domaine Weinbach Muscat ($15), a remarkably fine wine with Thai food. Another wine that would work well here is a young, fresh Sauvignon Blanc, preferably one not aged in oak.

Mexican: Tex-Mex palaces that offer tacos, enchiladas and burritos should also offer beer, a good complement to such fare. But when the dishes focus on the complex tastes of the various regions of Mexico, try sparkling wine. Good-quality bubbly exists in a variety of styles and at very reasonable prices--no more than $12 a bottle for some of the best. (However, restaurants usually mark up sparkling wine by unconscionable amounts, so expect to spend $30 to $40 for sparkling wine when dining out.)

Indian: If the curry is well seasoned, the first rule is to not choose a wine high in alcohol or tannin. Thus, most red wines are out (though a sparkling wine or even a fresh fino Sherry would work). My pick would be a German Spatlese or Auslese.

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