A reader recently asked me to suggest wine pairings for a dinner he’d soon be serving. The menu seems straightforward: lobster risotto, grilled cap steak (unmarinated, unsauced), salad. It is straightforward, but it’s a steep challenge wine-wise, even if you’re not preparing a meal like this very often (or ever). The nature of that challenge is worth considering on a number of levels because it comes up frequently.

The mix of components – rich, creamy, meaty, peppery, shellfishy and more – is boisterous but not rare, regardless of what sort of eater you are. Vegetarians, kosher-keeping Jews, dieters and others who would refuse this particular meal still like food that is rich, peppery, meaty, marine.

The hardest part is the reader’s note that the food will all be served together, not in separate courses, and he’s looking for “a white and a red that would work equally well with the meal,” in the $15 to $20 price range.

Wine pairing guides usually match one well-conceived dish to one wine, as if we all ate every night off a five-course chef’s tasting menu and paid the wine-pairings surcharge.

But we don’t eat that way. At every level we’re a mix of vegetarians, carnivores, gluten-free and vegans. The table is often set with a jumble of leftovers and online recipe discoveries. When we dine out together, you get the lamb and I get the scallops, and we share one bottle of wine. In all these contexts and more, we need the George Mitchells of wine – intelligent diplomats who can find common ground among all parties.

Let’s start with what I’d consider if we were eating each course separately. For the risotto, supremely rich with that striking kick from the lobster, I’d want a wine with a lot of cut. Body ought to be toothsome and well-upholstered to keep pace with each forkful, but there would have to be a part of the wine that could puncture the stuffing.


For the steak, I would want something peppery, earthy. And because there’s no sauce or marinade, I’d choose a wine that is texturally moistening rather than overly dry and austere. Tannins should be fine-grained and calm.

Most bright, lively, high-acid whites (think of Sancerre, grüner veltliner or albariño) would come at the risotto all wrong, trying to cut the richness but succeeding only at annoying it. Oaky chardonnay would be a hammer to a knife fight; unoaked chard a flute through a subwoofer.

For the necessary carving, vibratory counterpoint, use minerals. Minerality in wine presents as salt and smoke, rather than the citrus of acidity. We’re in luck, since salt and smoke (more than lemons and limes) taste good with steak, too.

Now, let’s get to the Venn diagram. Honestly, I would choose a rosé for this meal. The reader wants a red and a white, and I will abide. For the rest of you, though, the next time you’re trying to use wine to pull together a meal that simultaneously begs for white-wine and red-wine components, go pink.

Stay on the darker end of the rosé spectrum. The Villa Gemma Cerasuolo D’Abruzzo 2012 ($17, National), from the juicy/peppery Montepulciano d’Abruzzo grape, would be spectacular. Intense, dark and savory, it’s especially silken-textured from an extra year in bottle at this point.

But enough about me. Let’s look at whites that veer toward rich, full, mineral. Burgundian varietals from Oregon could be interesting. Foris’ winery, at the southern tip of the Rogue Valley (and thus of the entire Pacific Northwest’s wine-growing region), uses its sites’ relative warmth to produce tremendously ripe wines that remain on point.


The Foris Pinot Gris 2012 ($14, SoPo) is smooth and full, terrifically elegant, with salted-butter-tinged summer-fruit notes. The floral aspects will lift up the lobster; the stony ones will season the beef. The Foris Pinot Blanc 2012 ($14) is nuttier, and super plush, winter-spiced, long on the palate. It’s a risk to pair it with steak, but the match could be terrific.

Another approach could be through the well-endowed, mineral whites of France’s Rhône Valley. If you found or had one from three or four years ago, go with it: Rhône whites reduce relatively quickly and there’s a risk of oxidation, but if you catch them just before that phase they bring up tremendously complex secondary features of earth, ocean and plant.

Château Campuget Tradition Blanc 2012 ($12, National) and Domaine des Espiers Côtes du Rhône Blanc “Les Diablotines” 2011 ($21, Devenish) are both what wine professionals call overperformers: a lot of wine for the price. The former strongly suggests, at an amazing price, what the latter delivers completely: affluent robes of spice, smoke and stone. Especially at close to room temperature, these coat the mouth, set off bold visions, and bring up the inherent opulence of the meal at hand.

For the reds, an old favorite calls. Sella & Mosca Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva 2009 ($13, Pine State) has for a long time stood out for its combination of the sort of leathery, animal traits many of us love in a steak-friendly red with a remarkably medium-bodied, lithe freshness, low in alcohol. Cannonau is what the blue-zone Sardinians call grenache, and this wine’s velvety texture and relatively low acidity would sauce the meat while aligning with the risotto.

Another low-alcohol, succulent red, though with more herbal orientation and loads of pepper (black, white, pink) is the Domaine de la Chevalerie ‘Galichets’ Bourgeuil 2009 ($20, Devenish). Bourgeuil reds are from cabernet franc, the perennially under-heralded grape that almost miraculously effects a uniquely simultaneous doubling: on one level powerful pepper and woodsy depth; on another a high-toned leafiness. These would season the dishes at hand, and provide a lifting counterpart to their richness and fat. (I’ve seen more than one professional recommendation specifically against cab franc with shellfish, but the ‘Galichets’ is uncharacteristically smooth, settled and satiny.)

There are plenty of other choices, naturally – Vietti’s Barbera D’Asti leaps to mind, the Tre Vigne 2011 ($17, Wicked) marrying refreshing zip to a deeper, luxurious cloak from restrained used-oak aging. Pinot noir from Oregon, Austria and Germany (to unfairly lump a whole lotta wine into one sentence) generally makes of that malleable grape something I can only call damp: a lush, juicy presentation of cherries fresh out of the soil.

Whichever wines you use to bridge gaps among disparate foods and make peace at the table, you’ll be compromising. But what you’ll lose in precision, you have the chance to more than make up for in a new sort of harmony.

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at [email protected]

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