By Eugene Magazine | Published April 2010

When you taste food and drink together that were paired with intention, flavors that you never would have imagined can reveal themselves. Eugene Magazine asked three local experts to share their knowledge about how to combine flavors to best advantage.

Bartender James West explains the cocktail-and-nibble pairings on Marché Restaurant’s aperitif menu, and what we should anticipate when tasting his magical combinations. In Boris Wiedenfeld’s work as Sundance Wine Cellars’ general manager, he gets asked on a daily basis to recommend wines for certain foods and dishes. While it’s certainly fine to ask a wine professional for advice, you can learn to pair wines with food yourself. Remembering a few simple guidelines will help you get great results in no time. A second generation native Oregonian, Andrew Harmon is also the current beer buyer for Sundance Natural Foods. He enjoys cooking Northwest cuisine, and he shares with us his picks for pairing brews with potluck food. 

To enjoy the full experience of a superb pairing, saturate your palate with the drink—swish it throughout your mouth, even if it tastes harsh by itself. Then while some is still in your mouth, taste the food it is paired with, allowing both food and drink to mingle in your mouth at the same time. Follow with another sip. The combined flavors should explode over your whole palate.

The spirit world

Bartender James West’s pairings change with seasonal availability, but all of them are designed to bring unexpected flavors to the palate. The flavors of West’s aperitif cocktails are completed by what the drink is served with. “An aperitif is meant to awaken your palate, so you’re refreshed and ready for a meal,” he says. “It’s satisfying to hit all aspects of a flavor profile with just a small amount of food.”

Wine and food made simple(r)

Ideally, the food should complement and enhance the wine and vice versa, rather than one overpowering the other. If you served a big Australian shiraz with a delicate sole with drawn butter, you would lose all nuances of the food. The sole would taste like shiraz and the wine wouldn’t be enhanced. But pair the same dish with a light, dry sauvignon blanc: you can still taste the fish, and the butter and the wine’s acidity enhance each other, making both wine and food taste better. You wouldn’t serve this sauvignon blanc with a hearty beef stew, either; the food wouldn’t be enhanced, and any nuances in the wine would be overpowered by the stew. Forget about clichés like “white with fish and red with meat.” Instead, think “salmon with pinot noir and beef carpaccio with soave.” With the following basic guidelines, you will become an expert in no time.

Big tannic wines such as barolos, barbarescos, nebbiolos, and young cabernet sauvignons blossom with protein and fat. The tannins become velvety and smooth, and the flavors, especially with red meat, enhance each other. 

If you’re selecting wine for a dinner party with a chicken dish, for instance, consider what sauce or preparation is planned. Plain? On the grill with rosemary? Maybe a chardonnay. A red stew with sausage? Try a red Côte du Rhône or pinot noir. If you have a dish with a heavy cream- or butter-based sauce, you need acidity to cut through the fat. Think pinot blanc, a dry vouvray, or a sancerre. As you can see, the wine selection depends much more on preparation than the fact that it is chicken.

While Oregon produces very high-quality chardonnays, rieslings, syrahs, and many other grape varietals, the two biggest wines are still pinot gris and pinot noir. Try pinot gris with vegetable dishes, light pasta dishes, or even pork. It is also delicious by itself as an aperitif. Pinot noir pairs exceptionally well with many of Oregon’s staple dishes, such as Pacific salmon and pork, especially when the dish also contains mushrooms.

Not many wines work well with spicy foods. The wine makes the food even spicier, and you won’t be able to taste the wine. In general, sweeter wines work best. Traditional pairings are gewürztraminer and off-dry to sweet rieslings. If it’s a heartier dish like a red curry, you can also try a red wine that is round, low in tannins, and jammy, such as a shiraz or petite sirah. Or try beer or sweet tea.

There are two vegetables that generally don’t work well with wine: artichokes and asparagus. They contain chemicals that, when combined with wine, will make everything taste sweet and even metallic. That is not to say that you can’t drink wine with any dishes that contain some artichoke or asparagus, but if the dish is based on either, save the wine for the next course.

—Boris Wiedenfeld

Beer and potlucks go hand-in-hand. By nature, the potluck showcases a wide array of courses, and the microbreweries of the Northwest and beyond can offer their own complimentary spectrum of flavors. Begin by snacking on light fare such as veggies with hummus or smoked fish, cheese, and crackers, accompanied by a lager, hefeweizen, or even a light ale, but nothing too strong. Turn to Oregon’s own Full Sail Brewing for such great beers as the gold medal–winning Session Lager or the medium-bodied LTD series—light enough to keep you on your feet but with enough flavor to compliment the food. 

Branch out to a cold rice and asparagus salad, shrimp cocktail, or a piece of fried chicken. Richer flavors will require a beer to match; something flavorful but not overly complex, like a golden or pale ale. Try the Terminal Gravity ESG (Extra Special Golden) Ale or New Belgium’s spring release Mighty Arrow Pale Ale.
The more assertive hop character of these beers will help to keep your taste buds active, to get the most out of every bite. 

Before getting stuffed, have a nice green salad and a Matéveza IPA. This organic, yerba maté–infused IPA has a delightful floral nose that is well-balanced with the herbal bitterness of real maté, and the small dose of caffeine will assure that you persevere into the next round of potluck glory.

A main course of bold meats like a burger or pulled pork needs a strong beer to match, something with an aggressive flavor that won’t get lost against the food. Try an Indian Brown Ale from Dogfish Head or any great Northwest red ale from breweries such as Oakshire (amber) or Ninkasi. They won’t let you down. 

To round things out, sip a nice, rich porter or stout paired with some dark chocolate and fresh fruit. When the day is done, and you’re full and happy, you can reflect back on the delicious food and great beer to match.

Sanguintini

Indio blood orange vodka and
fresh blood orange served with
green olives, goat cheese, and Champagne vinaigrette

This drink is a re-imagining of the Blood Orange Salad with goat cheese and olives on the dinner menu. West removes the orange from the salad and places that flavor profile in the cocktail. The Champagne vinaigrette, green olives, and oranges are harmonizing ingredients; the sugars and acidity in each enhances the others. The cocktail itself has only two ingredients—blood orange infused vodka and fresh blood orange. Coating your mouth with the drink, then taking a bite of the olives and goat cheese gives the complete taste, just as you would experience it in the dinner salad.

Negroni

Plymouth gin, Campari, and Carpano Antica Formula vermouth served up with a chef’s choice charcuterie bite

The Negroni’s preparation is as dramatic as the flavor combinations. A strip of orange peel is squeezed over a lit match held near the drink. A burst of flame singes the oils released by the peel, which land on top of the drink, lending a wonderful aroma and a deepening the sweetness of the drink.

The bitterness of the cocktail brings out the flavor of the fat in the house-made charcuterie bite (foie gras or pork terrine, perhaps). The combination allows spice flavors to pop: notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and coriander from the vermouth are enhanced. Though the charcuterie varies, it is selected to complement one of the main ingredients in the Negroni. 

The Sea

A glass of Michel Delhommeau Cuvée St. Vincent Muscadet 2008, served with an oyster on the half shell

Though The Sea aperitif is not a cocktail, when you have a glass of crisp Muscadet and a fresh, creamy oyster topped with a drizzle of Champagne-shallot mignonette, you don’t need anything else. “When you experience it you understand why we offer it this way,” West says. Muscadet offers subtle nuances of flavor: fresh herbal and citrus notes, a sweet creaminess, and a briny, minerality, which is also found in the oyster itself. “The resonating factor in the oyster and the wine is minerality, which crests on your palate like a wave on a rock,” he says.

—Vanessa Salvia