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07.09.2006

Messages In a Bottle: The Cook's Wine Cellar

win-cellr.jpgWhenever people find out that I write about wine, the first question is always "Wow. Do you make a living at that?"

The answer, people, is no.

The second question (if I get one and people don't smile knowingly and start discussing the weather) varies, usually with the intellect and sensitivity of the individual. Inevitably, no matter how subtle a conversationalist or how knowledgeable a wine lover, the questioner poses some variation of "So what do you like to drink?"

Which really, most of the time, means "So what do you recommend for me to drink?"

And this is the question that I almost always try to avoid answering " and always fail miserably, guilt inevitably pushing me to offer some advice, even against my best instincts. It's not that I don't want to be helpful, it's that I'm afraid I can't really be very helpful. Wine is such a subjective thing that even with the time to sit and find out what wines people like and don't like (they usually can't remember), it's hard to make a recommendation.

But people still want them; and in particular, the folks who cook really seem to want them.

So here we go. I'm caving in. I don't know you at all, except for the fact that you like to cook, and you want something to drink with dinner that will go well with food.

So if you were just going to go out and buy thirty bottles of wine, here's what I think you should get. Of course, these won't be recommendations for specific wines; I have no idea where you live, or when you'll be reading this, or what your budget is -- but I'll give you as specific a recommendation as makes sense. Then, if you're so inclined, you can print this out and take it to the wine shop whose selection and staff are the best, and they'll be able to work with it.

Why thirty bottles? Well that's about how many a small family might reasonably drink over the course of a few months, assuming they have a couple of friends over occasionally for dinner. Thirty bottles also seems to be what a lot of medium-sized kitchen wine racks will hold.

So, without further ado, and with more than a little trepidation, here's my ideal wine cellar list for people who love to cook:

Two Bottles of White Burgundy
Chardonnay pairs fabulously with all manner of foods, but you wouldn't know it from drinking heavily-oaked California wines. Crisp, mineral and lightly fruity white Burgundy will suit a million and one dishes: most any kind of fish, cream based soups, chicken, pasta in white sauces -- the list goes on and on. Did I mention goat cheese? Oh my, goat cheese, yes. I always make sure to have several bottles of White Burgundy on hand no matter what the weather or occasion. Those on a budget can find excellent inexpensive Pouilly-Fuisse or village wines, while those who want to spend more can opt for wines from places like Chablis, Macon, or Montrachet.

Two Bottles of Alsatian Whites
I'm tempted to say there's not an Alsatian wine I've met that I haven't liked, but while that would be a lie, it wouldn't be far from the truth. Of course these recommendations aren't about my palate, they're about food matching. From that infamously disputed valley between France and Germany that manages to be both and neither at the same time come slightly off-dry, complex flavors of Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and various white blends that are excellent matches for more complex dishes that incorporate more exotic spices or many layers of flavors. In a pinch, they also make a lovely aperitif.

Three Bottles of Austrian or German Riesling
It takes a while for most wine lovers to get past their fear of Austrian and German wines; most ordinary consumers simply turn away in horror. It's mostly due to the twelve syllable, eight word names on the bottle that don't resemble any grape or place most people have ever heard of. I'm here to tell you it's OK to be a bit overwhelmed, but you simply can't miss out on some of the best fish wines on the planet, not to mention the only wines that really consistently go well with Asian spices found in Vietnamese, Thai and Indonesian recipes. For German Rieslings, I recommend searching out wines designated as Kabinett or Halbtrocken (ask your friendly wine store for help), and for Austrian Rieslings there are no extra words to remember, except perhaps for Kremstal, which is a region that produces some nice ones.

Four Bottles of White Rhone Wine
The more white wines I have from the France's Rhone Valley, the more I'm convinced they are some of the most overlooked, versatile food wines on the planet. Usually blends of various grape varieties like Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier, these wines are completely overshadowed by their red brethren. Very few people know the joys of opening a white Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc with dinner. These southern whites, as well as other Rhone whites from either North or South, may be a little less common in wine stores, but try opening one anytime you think you have a dish that needs a white wine.

Four Bottles of Pinot Noir
Good Pinot Noir has the interesting property of turning some wine drinkers into raving lyric poets, so much do some people like these wines. Much of their appeal has to do with their aromatic character, but some certainly has to do with their compatibility with the dinner table. Short of a grilled steak or blood sausage, there are very few meats that Pinot can't accompany well, and it's a slam dunk with most any fowl, as well as richer vegetable dishes that include eggplant or squash. The adventurous and well-financed can carefully explore Pinot Noir in the form of Burgundy, but for most people the easiest access comes in the form of countless excellent wines from California, New Zealand and Oregon. Keep an eye out for alcohol levels (always printed on the label) which have crept up in the last decade and which, when high, can make a Pinot harder to match with food. Wines in the 13% to 14% range are a good target.

Four Bottles of Southern Rhone Red
If the whites of the Rhone are overshadowed by Rhone reds, then the reds of the Southern Rhone Valley are certainly overshadowed by their cousins in the North. Some wine lovers and food lovers alike have heard of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and with good reason -- it's a fabulous wine to drink with foods of all kinds -- but far fewer have heard of Gigondas, Vacqueyras or the various smaller areas that get classified as Cotes-du-Rhone Villages. These wines are fabulously versatile with dishes as heavy as lamb or pork tenderloin or as light as mixed vegetables. They do wonders with anything grilled.

Two Bottles of Sangiovese
If you're going to cook pasta with tomato sauce or make your own pizza, you've got to have some Sangiovese around. There's just no substitute for wines made from this grape when it comes to tomato based dishes of all kinds, as well as Italian food in general. You can find wines called Sangiovese in stores, though those are usually from California and a mixed bag, if you ask me. Instead you can go for Chianti, Vino Nobile de Montepulciano and Rosso di Montalcino at reasonable prices, or for bigger budgets Brunello di Montalcino is always nice.

Two Bottles of Provence / Languedoc Red
There are always those dishes that are darker and more complex than others; maybe they've got lots of mushrooms, or a dark rich sauce, or they incorporate wild meats like venison or boar. While these dishes can be matched with a red from the Southern Rhone, or even some Pinot Noirs, sometimes it's nice to have a wine that has a darker character. For this reason, I think it's always a good idea to have a couple of bottles hanging around from the south of France. These wines, which come from appellations like Minervois, Bandol or Languedoc-Roussillon, are usually a mix of Syrah, Mourvedre, Carignane, Grenache and any number of other dark, earthy grapes. I recommend everyone experiment with these wines anytime they've got a hearty meat dish to pair with, not to mention anything you might have on the barbecue.

Two Bottles of California Cabernet
Sometimes there's nothing like a charcoal grilled rib-eye, and sometimes there's nothing like a good Cabernet. There's a reason they call it the King of Grapes. These days, the key to finding wines that actually pair well with foods is to keep an eye on alcohol levels and to avoid the big tannic wines unless you have time to properly age them. A good wine shop will be able to steer you toward wines that will reward drinking sooner than later, and which will provide good value for the money. Of course, if you have the time, money and cellar for it, you can also buy the big guns from California and Bordeaux, and then drink them when they're ready. I don't know about you, but I don't really have the patience for that.

One Bottle of California Zinfandel & One Bottle of Australian Shiraz
There's one time I find really huge wines food friendly, and that's when I'm having cheese. If your dinner parties regularly incorporate a cheese course it can be worthwhile to have a big, dark, heavy, bold Zinfandel or Shiraz hanging around to match. I'll tell you a little secret, though -- those Alsatian whites can also be excellent cheese wines as well.

Two Bottles of Bubbly
There's just no substitute for a little sparkle, whether it's as a welcome to guests or alongside the delicate flavors of raw fish. Champagne can be intimidating and expensive to buy (but oh-so-rewarding), so I always encourage people to try the more accessible Cava or Prosecco as well. The adventurous can explore Txakoli, the sparkling wine of the Basque region, and careful buyers can also find excellent Muscadets from France's Loire Valley for dinner.

One Bottle of Dessert Wine
Sometimes it's really nice to have something sweet at the end of the meal. There's a huge variation in what's available out there, and everyone likes different things. With food pairing in mind, however, I tend to look for wines that have higher acidity. This can mean Sauternes, the famous dessert wine of Bordeaux, but more often it means wines like Riesling Berenauslese from Germany, Vin Santo from Italy, Jurancon from Southern France, Icewine from Canada or some of the Tokay from Hungary. It's especially important to taste these wines before you buy so you know the flavors you're dealing with.

So there you have it. A nice little collection of thirty bottles to play with that can be purchased on budgets both large and small. The wines I've selected tend to be those I grab when I'm in a hurry because I know from experience that they really are fabulous with food. Most, you will find, are also very forgiving, which I hope will take some of the stress out of food and wine pairing, which is a daunting thing for most people. It's hard to go wrong with most of these wines.

Bon appétit.


This article originally appeared in The Gilded Fork.

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