A Midsummer Night's Wine
WHEN THE WEATHER TURNS WARM, our food turns cold. And so does our wine.
Gone are the chilly days and nights of stick-to-your-ribs stews and big red wines. Welcome lots of salads, sandwiches, soups, veggies, cheeses and fruits, all of them served cold. Here, we'll look at how lighter, cooler foods work with lighter, cooler wines.
It may sound easy to match cold salads with cold wines, but in a way it can be quite difficult. If you want to enjoy a light, bright, fruity white wine with a salad, there are a few things that you need to know. First, never use vinegar in the dressing for a wine-friendly salad. Vinegar is, in a sense, spoiled wine that is so high in acidity that it will kill the fruit and nuance of just about any wine. The exception to this rule is a good, aged aceto balsamico—balsamic vinegar—which is not really vinegar at all, but grape must (juice and skins) reduced over time. A good balsamic vinegar, with a beautiful balance of acidity and sticky sweetness, is a perfect foil for a salad served with wine.
But really good balsamico is an expensive ingredient, and can be successfully replaced with a citrus vinaigrette using orange, grapefruit, lime or lemon. Other ingredients that can add a bit of subtle sweetness or fruitiness to your vinaigrette include papaya, mango, or avocado for richness.
There is another issue with wine and salad that is easily addressed: Unless your salad is slathered wih a fatty sauce (which kind of kills the whole idea of a light meal), some protein is needed to make the wine pairing shine. Let's start with a basic green salad: local, crisp greens dressed in a fruit vinaigrette. If you pair even a simple white wine with this dish, you will taste the bitterness of the greens, the acid in the dressing, and the alcohol in the wine—not a match made in heaven. How to switch it up so that your wine provides a delicious enhancement to your salad?
There are lots of solutions. An easy one: Crumble some fresh local goat cheese, liberally mix it into the salad, and both the salad and the wine come alive! The subtle richness and acidic tanginess of the goat cheese creates a lovely complement for a lighter unoaked white (like Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, South Africa or California). Suddenly, the wine is now a second dressing for the salad, bringing out the earthiness of the green and the creaminess of the goat cheese.
But why stop at cheese? The goat cheese salad could work beautifully with smoked tofu, cold grilled chicken, or cured hams such as prosciutto or jamon Serrano. And then you can get really creative: Smoked fish, poultry, or pork will turn a cold Thai beef salad, redolent of lime and peanuts, into an elegant meal that will work beautifully with a myriad of wines—consider brut or extra dry sparklers such as Cava from Spain or Prosecco from Italy, Chenin Blanc from South Africa or California, Vinho Verde from Portugal, or Muscadet from France, among others. if you do decide to make a cold beef salad, consider a crisp dry rosé from France or Spain, or the lightest reds—and serve them chilled! Wines such as Valpolicella from Italy, Carmenére from Chile, Beaujolias from France (or our local Gamay—the same grape), young (Crianza) Rioja from Sain, and the lightest local-and-elsewhere Pinot Noirs all take to chilling for about an hour before drinking when you're eating cold food in warm weather, especially outdoors. (Incidentally, if you decide to make a spicy fish taco salad, a good wine to consider is local Seyval Blanc, which works so well with salty, spicy and smoky flavors.)
One white wine that is ideal for salads is Grüner Veltliner, made from its namesake grape, mostly in Austria. Austrian "Grüner," with its fruits but dry attack on the palate and its lingering, thirst-quenching acidity and minerality, make it an ideal partner for almost any salad. Ironically, however, I think my favorite Grüner is not from Austria, but from New York's own Finger Lakes. Konstantin Frank Grüner Veltliner is a revelation—if you like a crisp, clean, light summer wine, it's a must-try. (Some day, perhaps, some Hudson Valley wineries might consider growing Grüner Veltliner—we've got the cool climate for it.)
In the late spring and summer, the garden often rules the kitchen. A garden-fresh cold tomato gazpacho served with good local bread makes a wonderful lunch or light dinner. And it's a very wine-friendly dish: The tomatoes, the garlic, the bread (drizzled with excellent olive oil) becomes an addictive meal, so make sure there's plenty. Wines to go with gazpacho? Sparklers, especially Cava, but also some great still whites: dry to semi-dry Riesling or Gewürztraminer (from New York, Washington State or Alsace, France, come immediately to mind). You might also try Verdejo or Abariño from Spain and, of course, dry rosés from France, Spain or the United States. These wines will work beautifully with any cold soups that feature seasonal produce, but especially tomatoes.
Speaking of tomatoes, we can't forget the caprese. Layers of garden-ripe tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cheese, basil, salt and pepper—summer on a plate. The white wines for caprese mirror the wines for gazpacho, but because of the subtle textural richness of the mozzarella, caprese, an Italian classic, is really good with a light- to medium-bodied dry rosé, or even a chilled red Valpolicella from Veneto, or cool light bubbly Freisa from Piedmont (Friesa is hard to find, but worth it).
Cold sandwiches, anyone? Roast beef sandwiches and potato salad at a picnic is where light-bodied, chilled reds really shine. There's no better choice for cold meat sandwiches (red meats and poultry) than Beaujolais, made from the Gamay grape. But go a little deeper into Beaujolaism at this picnic by choosing one or two of the cru Beaujolais, such as Fleurie, Morgon, Chenas or Moulin-Á-Vent. (There are actually ten crus in total; you won't go wrong with any of them.) The wines are a bit more complex than the ubiquitous Beaujolais-Villages, but still take to chilling. As an added bonus, these quality wines are great values, usually selling in the $15 to $20 range.
A local cheese plate, adorned with seasonal fruits and berries, can be a wonderfully light meal (or dessert) in warm weather. One note: Don't serve the cheese cold—let it come to room temperature, or even a bit warmer, so you don't lose the nuances of the flavor. But do serve the wines cold. With cheeses, we often think red wines are the automatic choice, but with a few notable exceptions, cheeses work better with whites, often semi-sweet to sweet whites. Try your cheese plates with late-harvest whites from anywhere in the world, or with Icewine from Canada or the Finger Lakes. Even if you're not usually a fan of sweet wines, when paired with the right cheeses (especially soft to semi-soft cow, goat or sheep cheeses), the combination creates a party on the palate.