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White Wine is Ready for its Moment

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With chefs expanding our global palates and including more vegetable-heavy dishes, white wine—still and sparkling—is poised for center stage.
By Beverly Stephen February 2018 Wine

The world has changed since the days when servers could rely on the adage that what grows together goes together. It was easy to pair Italian wine with Italian food and French wines with French food, but in a world of increased interest in other cuisines—as well as vegetable-driven dishes—wine pairings have become a bit trickier. 

“Sommeliers today are working with chefs with much wider and global palates, which makes it more challenging and more interesting to find the right wines,” says James Beard award–winning Chicago sommelier Belinda Chang. “Restaurants here in Chicago like Parachute (Korean), Fat Rice (Macanese), and Bad Hunter (vegetable-forward) are writing a new language for us.”

A glass of white, however, might be just the answer to our pairings problem.

The exotics

In Indian restaurants, customers have often been inclined toward beer rather than wine. But that’s changing. Look at a wine list at a restaurant like Floyd Cardoz’ Paowalla in New York City and you will see Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Albariño, and Grüner Veltliner. “Anything with a curry, including meats such as lamb, would pair best with a white wine that dances with the curry, such as an Alsatian Pinot Gris or Gewürz,” says Andrea Immer Robinson, author and master sommelier.

Villányi

Gere Attila Pincészete Kopár Villányi Cuvée 2012
The product of extreme seasons, this full and fruity red wine delivers the fine, concentrated flavor of sour cherries and raspberries, with hints of chocolate, cinnamon, and pepper.
Villány | Hungary

Two Birds/One Stone in St. Helena, California, went so far as to have local winemakers blend exclusive wines for its Japanese-inspired menu. For example, a bright and acidic Vermentino from the Las Brisas Vineyard in Carneros is paired with okonomiyaki savory Japanese pancakes.

And, once exclusive margarita territory, upscale Mexican restaurants are now selling more wine. “With the growing understanding of Mexican cuisine, there’s an appreciation of accompanying it with wine,” says Barbara Sibley, chef/owner of La Palapa in New York City. “The balance of fruit and acidity in wines with grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc marries well with the flavors of moles and salsas.”

Vegetables at the forefront

As vegetable-forward restaurants proliferate, they pose a challenge to wine pairing. Amanda Cohen, chef/owner of Dirt Candy, one of the first vegetable-focused restaurants in New York City, has developed a few guidelines. “Rule one: Only pair vegetables with wines you actually love,” Cohen says. “I see so many people order a Riesling and then seem lost. I ask if they like Riesling, and they say ‘not really.’ But they feel they have to order it with vegetables, which is crazy.

“Second,” she continues, “pair heavy whites with heavy dishes and vice versa. If you’re having a salad or roasted vegetables, go for a Pinot Grigio or a Pinot Gris. If you’re having pasta or a vegetable pot pie or stuffing, go for a heavier white, like a Chardonnay or a Chablis.”

Holly Malfitani, winemaker/sommelier at The School of Wine at Kennedy Cellars in Hammonton, New Jersey, says she is “always experimenting with wines and plant-based dishes.” Riesling is one of her favorites. “It’s such a gorgeous varietal that can complement any dish,” she says. “The searing acidity cuts through fat, the sweetness can mellow spice, and the refreshing citrusy fruit enhances both fruits and veggies.” She’s also partial to Txakoli wines from Getariako Txakolina, Spain, for vegetable dishes using broccoli rabe. 

Tara Gallina, co-owner of Vicia in St. Louis, says one of her favorite dishes right now is Rutabaga Carbonara, which is rutabaga noodles cooked in a garlic cream with lots of lemon juice and served with an egg yolk, charcuterie crumble, and SarVecchio cheese. “The richness and acidity of this dish pair really nicely with a white Burgundy, particularly from Meursault,” she says.

A little sparkle goes a long way

“I love Champagne with everything,” says sommelier Tonya Pitts of One Market Restaurant in San Francisco. “There are those [Champagnes and sparkling wines] that can carry through the entire meal even with pork or beef. If you do Champagne with popcorn and truffle oil and have some caviar with it, it’s awesome.”

For an aperitif, French sommelier and wine educator Julia Scavo (who’s also a brand ambassador for Reveal’Up Chef & Sommelier glassware) prefers “Champagne most of the time, because it is airy and has all you need to tilt your taste buds: bubbles, freshness, savoriness. Mouthwatering and caressing, it can pair with a large range of canapés, whether you have something salty, crunchy, unctuous, or light and silky. Imagine when you have some Parmigiana, or cured ham, or even foie gras.”

Chris Cullina of Oregon’s Argyle Winery explains why he thinks bubbles are better. “We make sparkling wines that are predominantly composed of pinot noir. Even though the finished wines can be white or pink, they have substantial body that can stand up to richer entrées like pork, duck, and other game,” he says. “Almost any Asian cuisine or most modern pasta dishes are compelling pairs for sparkling wines as well. Pay attention beer drinkers: Almost everything you eat with your lager would taste better paired with bubbles.”