Not Bread Alone: Old-world wine and food matchups are classic

Oysters and Chablis are a classic food and wine matchup recognized around the world.

Oysters and Chablis are a classic food and wine matchup recognized around the world.

Frank Whitman / For Hearst Connecticut Media

Oysters and Chablis, lobster and Chardonnay, steak and cabernet — complementary pairings of good wine and well-prepared food add up to more than the sum of their parts.

I was reminded of this during our recent tasting of Premier Cru Chablis. The wines are dry, acidic, lean and tart, not necessarily enjoyable to sip before dinner, but magnificent with food.

The French, Italians and Germans, along with the rest of winemaking Europe, figured this out generations ago. Before there was modern transportation and marketing, wine (with a few exceptions) was a local product. Over time, local cuisine and winemaking adapted to be compatible and complementary.

Boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin are never more delicious than when made with pinot noir from Burgundy. Pork schnitzel is a natural with German riesling. Alsace, along the Rhine in the border region between France and Germany, is famous for pairing its dry rieslings with choucroute garnie, a seemingly un-wine-friendly mix of sauerkraut and sausages. In Tuscany, bistecca fiorentina is a natural with the local chianti classico.

These days, the majority of wine is made for sipping. We’re all accustomed to a glass of wine before dinner, but this is a recent trend. Just a few generations ago, restaurants that served wine by the glass were considered cutting edge.

Over time local cuisine and winemaking have adapted in old-world winemaking regions to be compatible and complimentary.

Over time local cuisine and winemaking have adapted in old-world winemaking regions to be compatible and complimentary.

Frank Whitman / For Hearst Connecticut Media

Winemaking styles have evolved to accommodate this change in our habits. Wines that are the best with food tend to be crisp and fresh with higher acidity, lower alcohol and modest tannins, unlike the high alcohol (14+ percent) richly oaked and slightly sweet sippers.

I’m with Julia Child, who said, “Wine is meant to be with food — that’s the point of it.”

With our Chablis, plump oysters were a classic pairing. The tart, citrusy wine is a perfect foil to the briny, salty oysters. It’s a time-honored matchup that the French have enjoyed for generations. Oysters are not a local food in land-locked Chablis, but the fossilized oyster shells in the limestone vineyard soil must have pointed the way.

We tried to have local Copps Island oysters with all of our Chablis to establish a comparative flavor baseline. The wines all complimented the oysters, but each experience was a little different.

But it’s not just oysters that match up with Chablis. The wine is well-suited to a wide range of rich foods, from Burgundy and beyond.

At the Rive Bistro in Westport, manager Danny Campoverde suggested menu choices to pair with the Chablis. The wine sliced right through the fatty, flavorful pate. Pan-seared sea scallops and buttery trout almondine were winners too.

For another dinner, Ken Skovran, master cheesemonger at Darien Cheese, picked two French cheeses to pair with the Chablis. A richly-flavored raw-milk comte from the Jura was a surprising success. Soumaintrain berthaut, a farmhouse washed rind cheese from Burgundy, has a wrinkly, edible exterior and a rich, runny texture. The local cheese for Chablis, it is an excellent match with the wine.

The bracing acidity of still another Chablis was a perfect foil for our dinner of paella from Basso Restaurant in Westport, cutting through the richness of long-simmered rice and shellfish like a hot knife through butter.

Chablis is just one example of an old-world wine that is better with food than on its own. Check out the local cuisine from any European wine region and you’ll discover the dishes that pair best.

Good restaurant wine lists strive to compliment both the chef’s style and the restaurant’s menu. Steak restaurants like Blackstone’s Steakhouse in Norwalk are heavy on new-world cabernet; wines on the Basso Restaurant list come mostly from Spain; Italy is the focus at Oak & Almond; and France, of course, stars at the Rive Bistro.

On the other hand, wine by the glass selections (like those at Bruxelles Bistro in SoNo) include some wines that are delicious on their own.

New-world wines are also finding their own best pairings, although geography is not always a factor. Hearty, spicy zinfandel is great with slow-cooked barbecue. Fruit-driven, slightly tart California pinot noir is best friends with salmon, a rare seafood and red wine matchup. Chardonnay has become a classic with lobster, despite the cross country distance between their sources.

Old-world wines are also finding new matchups. Riesling, in particular, is the best bet for almost any Pacific rim cuisine. With tropical fruit notes, low alcohol, and a touch of sweetness, it’s a winner with spicy food from Mexican to Thai.

Don’t get me wrong, I like a glass of wine before dinner. But when planning a dinner menu, I think about a style of wine that will compliment the food and enhance the experience.

Frank Whitman can be reached at