John JuergensA bottle of wine, a plate of catfish
and hush puppies, and thou

I recently was given the challenge of coming up with a selection of wines that would go well with our traditional catfish, hush puppy, and cole slaw dinner. Of course, my immediate response was to suggest the traditional house wine of the South, ice tea. But, I decided to take on the challenge to see just what kinds of real wines would, in fact, work with this menagerie of spices and flavors.

Whenever I am confronted with an investigative task involving food and wine I convene my standing panel of epicurean consultants so that I can get a representative cross-section of the taste preferences of the community. In other words, I have a rowdy gaggle of folks at my house consisting of Oxford Wine Club members and groupies who like to eat and drink, and who are not shy about telling me what they think of my cooking and wine selections.

The way I approached this task was to consider first the main ingredients, in this case, a very mild white fish and lots of corn meal. Iíll deal with the cole slaw later. So, basically, we have some fairly bland main ingredients; what really makes catfish and hush puppies so appealing are the spices. This is what you have to play to with your wine selection. The fish and the corn meal certainly bring something to the table, but, letís face it, they also function as substrates to carry the spices, onions, bell pepper, etc. to our palates. And, of course, we canít forget the flavors and texture contributed by the cooking oil.

When selecting a wine to go with fried foods or foods that contain oils, such as fish, you want to look for wines that are crisp, that is, have a fair amount of acid. The acid cuts through the fats and oils, helps to disperse them, and has a cleansing effect on your mouth.

Most white wines have relatively high acid levels, and Sauvignon Blanc usually is a good choice for oily foods. The Sauvignon Blancs that seemed to go well with our meal included R.H. Phillips and Kendall Jackson, but there are lots of others, American and French, that would do just as well in the $8 to $12 price range. Of course, if you want to go high end, we all thought the Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc was simply to die for. Thanks, Katharine.

What about Chardonnay? It depends on which type you buy. Most French Chardonnays tend to be lean and crisp and might go well with oily foods. American and Australian Chardonnays, however, tend to be a bit too rich and fruity, giving the perception of a bit of sweetness. These Chardonnays also tend to have a lot of oak flavors that could overwhelm the food flavors.

Another ingredient in the food and the wine that you have to consider is sugar. Some hush puppy recipes have a lot of sugar in them. If you have a very dry, crisp wine with these, such as an Italian white wine, you could accentuate the tartness of the wine to the point of making it taste sour. This happened with the white Luna di Luna Chardonnay-Pinot Grigio blend that we tried.

What about red wines? Yikes! Has he lost his mind? Well, letís think about this. Although most red wines have considerably less acid than white wines, some reds such as French Beaujolais have the crispness of white wines. They also tend to be light, lively wines without a lot of tannins to bind up the delicate fish flavors, and the fruit flavors can match up nicely with the peppery spices in the meal.

Another red wine that might work here is a red Zinfandel (but certainly not the white or blush Zinfandel; itís too sweet and doesnít have nearly enough acid). But you have to select a red Zinfandel that is made in a lighter style, such as that produced by Cline or Bayless and Fortune. Both of these wines are closer to the Beaujolais style than the traditionally massive California style. I would suggest one of these red wines if you know you are working with a fairly spicy fish coating with lots of red and black pepper, and with a hush puppy recipe that not overtly sweet.

What if you have a sweet hush puppy recipe? This is where things can get a little difficult. When you have foods with a certain degree of sweetness, you usually need to have a similar degree of sweetness in your wine to avoid conflicts. But you donít want so much sweetness that you kill all the other flavors. For this I turn to things like American Johannesburg Riesling, a dry Chenin Blanc, or maybe a French Vouvray. These wines tend to have a nice touch of sweetness to deal with the sugar in the hush puppies and sufficient acid to cover the oils.

A Riesling we had that worked very well was from Mirassou of California. Some people might like a Gewurtztraminer, but you run the risk of it being too sweet. The one wine that was my all around favorite was the white Rosemount Traminer-Riesling blend from Australia. It was able to deal the best with the wide range of recipe variables, plus, itís dirt cheap. If you are the adventuresome sort you might want to try a new arrival in town, Karly Pokerville red Zinfandel, but it might be a bit too sweet and rich.

Iíve been avoiding the issue of the cole slaw since it turns the meal into a real menage. I can sum it up very easily by saying that I have not found a wine that can marry up with the fish and hush puppies and still have enough stamina to take on the cole slaw mistress in all of its variations.

My advice is to simply avoid taking a sip of wine right before or after you shovel in the slaw. In fact, thatís why you always want to have a chaser of ice tea on stand-by at a catfish dinner. The tea will clear your palate of all those aromatic cabbage, mayo, and vinegar flavors and the sugar so that you can get back to the serious stuff. No wonder it is called the house wine of the South.

I think this method of matching of wine and food based on the character of the most dominant ingredients works well whenever you are faced with a new wine or a new dish. If you have both a new wine and a new dish, you had better be the adventurous type. Of course, when dealing with something like catfish and hush puppies, there is a way you can avoid the uncertainty and trouble altogether: Itís called "beer."

Note: Thanks to Kris, Kelly, and Neville for putting the claws in the cats and the bite in the puppies.

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