Meggan Robinson on July 17, 2015 1 Comment When food and wine are properly paired, it’s sublime. Every sip enhances every bite. Food tastes better. Wine tastes better. But the culinary gods don’t always make it easy to achieve pairing perfection. Some foods are just…well…difficult to pair with wine. What we ideally hope to achieve when pairing wine with food is a balance–a relationship between the food and wine that is seamless and enhances both components. That balance can either be achieved by matching attributes of the dish with a wine displaying those same characteristics, or by playing on a contrast between the two. Take the classic pairing of raw oysters with Muscadet. The briny, mineral quality of oysters is mirrored in the wine. Or look at a rich, buttery cream sauce paired with a bright, lively dry Vouvray. The acidity of the Vouvray cuts through the rich sauce and prepares the palate for the next bite. So we understand how food and wine pairing is supposed to work. But what happens when it doesn’t work so easily? Let’s take a look at some of the trickiest foods to pair with wine. We’ll examine why the foods are problematic, and find the perfect wines to balance these tough challenges. Asparagus Asparagus makes it onto every list of foods that are difficult to pair with wine. The trouble is asparagus is a vegetable that is…well…very vegetal. It has strong grassy notes, and the sulfur compounds it contains can make wines taste metallic and bitter. Whether you grill asparagus, steam it, or roast it, most wines just don’t work. The solution: Grüner Veltliner. Most Grüner comes from Austria, and this dry, bracing white displays crisp acidity with lime, lemon, white pepper, and herbaceous notes. Grüner is one of the few wines that can stand up to asparagus, as its acidity cuts through the vegetal notes and actually enhances the delightfully earthiness of fresh-cut spring asparagus. Vinaigrette While vinaigrette dressing livens up salads, it slays most wines. The acidity of the vinegar completely overpowers the flavors in many wines without sufficient acidity of their own, and when a vinaigrette has a sweetness to it–think balsamic vinegar or raspberry purée–wines can also present as unpleasantly tart or bitter. One solution is to skip wine with a salad course, but it’s far more fun to rise to the challenge the vinaigrette presents. The solution: Champagne or Cava. Champagne and Cava both have super high acidity that provides the perfect foil for vinaigrette. Grapes for these sparkling wines are harvested early, before acid levels fall and balance out with the sugars developing in the ripening grapes. The refreshing effervescence also marries well with the lively acidity of vinaigrette. For salads that feature grilled chicken or poached salmon, a sturdier rosé Champagne is the ideal choice, as it provides enough depth to balance the protein, while still retaining the acidity to handle the vinaigrette. Sushi The paradox that is sushi makes it tricky to pair. Sushi is fresh, delicate, rich, and frequently accompanied by strong flavors: wasabi, ginger, spicy mayo, ponzu, and miso. The challenge is finding a wine that doesn’t cover the delicate flavors of high quality fish, but can still stand up to the myriad flavors on the plate. Any time you have sweet, spicy, tangy, and subtle flavors all in one meal, you’re setting yourself up with a challenge. The solution: Rosé d’Anjou. Most European rosés are dry, but the little Rosé d’Anjou AOC within France’s Loire Valley produces lovely, slightly sweet wines that retain enough acidity to balance sushi perfectly. Most Rosé d’Anjou is made of Grolleau, but the AOC also permits Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pineau d’Aunis, Gamay, and Malbec. While Rosé d’Anjou may be sweeter than you like on its own, it is a revelation with sushi. Much like sushi itself, the wine is a playful mélange of sweetness, acidity, and delicacy. Bleu Cheese Strong, pungent, earthy bleu cheese can wreak havoc on wine. It overpowers delicate wines, and it can make wines without enough up-front fruit taste sour and unpleasant. Bleu cheese is frequently paired with port, but the high alcohol of the fortified dessert wine coupled with the high sugar content can simply overwhelm the palate, functioning as a palate-dampener, rather than actually playing with the flavors of the cheese. The solution: Sparkling Chambourcin. No, really. I know of only one sparkling Chambourcin in the world, but wow, is the pairing with bleu cheese divine! Produced in small quantities, D’Arenberg’s The Peppermint Paddock from Australia is the strangest and most wonderful fusion of a hint of sweet, deep purple fruit, a foxy wildness, lively effervescence, and–surprisingly–tannin. Strong, funky bleu cheese works with every single one of this wine’s unusual qualities. Barbecue Sauce Barbecue sauce can be a nightmare. The combination of sweetness, vinegary tanginess, and spice can either overwhelm a wine or make it taste bitter or tart. Whether you’re in North Carolina with its abundance of vinegar-based sauces, or South Carolina sampling mustard-influenced barbecue, or in Texas, where smoke dominates the style, it can be hard to find a wine that works. Luscious, jammy Zinfandel is the classic choice for barbecue, as it typically has a bit of residual sugar. But there are barbecue sauces that overwhelm even high-alcohol, super-ripe Zins. The solution: Riesling. When your sauce is super spicy or super sweet, German Kabinett or Spätlese Riesling is really the only option. Riesling’s perfect balance of high acidity and pronounced residual sugar makes it the perfect foil for even the sweetest and spiciest barbecue sauces. You may get pushback from guests who think only a red can stand up to such flavorful sauces, but the pairing is truly sublime. Artichokes Artichokes get nearly as bad of a rap in the wine-pairing world as asparagus, though the reasons are quite different. Cynarin is an acid present in artichokes that is notorious for throwing off flavor perception in wine. Cynarin frequently makes dry wine taste sweeter than it is, disrupting the balance of the course. The solution: Vinho Verde. Vinho Verde hails from northwest Portugal, and while red and rosé versions do exist, most of us know the wine as fresh, light white wine with a slightly greenish hue. Often bottled with a slight, natural effervescence, Vinho Verde is primarily made from the Loureiro, Trajadura, and Alvarino grape varieties. Artichokes and Vinho Verde work because the wine is fresh, vibrant, relatively low in alcohol, yet still high in acid. Chocolate I’ll say it outright: I don’t think chocolate ever pairs well with dry red wine. Though some folks disagree, the combination of bitterness, acidity, sweetness, and earthiness present in good chocolate wreaks havoc on dry reds. Chocolate just makes red wine taste bitter. The solution: Port. Everything about port–particularly a vintage or a late bottled vintage port–works with chocolate. The sweetness and unctuous texture of port create perfect harmony with rich, dark chocolate, a balance no other wine achieves. For lighter chocolate desserts, like a chocolate mousse, a wonderful alternative is Brachetto d’Acqui, a sweet, light, effervescent red produced in northwestern Italy. When you set out to pair wine with a dish, keep an eye out for problem ingredients. Identify the courses and components that may give you trouble and manage those first, before moving on to the dishes that are more straightforward. If you have a course of grilled artichokes with a citrus vinaigrette, for example, it’s best to tackle that course first, as you’ll have a much easier time finding a wine to go with herb-crusted lamb chops. Understanding why a pairing doesn’t work is the first step toward matching tricky foods with the perfect wines.