The grapevine and the olive tree
Its twisted but sturdy trunk is far too large to reach your arms around, and it stands in contrast to the tree's light, pale-grayish-green and fragile looking leaves. Said to be 500 years old, it has watched over this craggy Provence landscape and the Mediterranean far below since the time of Christopher Columbus.
In many parts of the world, from Provence to Tuscany to Napa to the Adelaide Plains, olive trees and wine-grape vines are often found growing together; and like wine grapes, olives come in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors, each intriguing and all reflecting nature, the climate and the soil.
I've rarely met a wine lover who doesn't like olives ... so it seems a bit odd that you rarely hear much discussion about matching olives and wine. Perhaps this is because olives rarely show up in a main-course setting. If you're like me, you think of them mostly as snacks: Pick a few from the buffet table, enjoy them, fret about how to politely dispose of the pits.
So what wines do match with olives? This idle question became a serious one this weekend as participants in our interactive Food Lovers' forum joined in its friendly and non-competitive monthly culinary event, "SiliconChef" ("Silichef" for short). Participants were challenged to come up with complete dinners featuring olives as the theme ingredient, and then to choose wine to match.
As my entry, I dressed a Greek salad with green-olive and walnut pesto; then built risotto "towers" topped with a black-olive and miso tapenade and pan-seared scallops; and yes, we finished with an olive dessert, kalamata olive and mascarpone whip on shortbread. I won't take up your time with the details here, but if you'd like to read them, I've posted a complete report with recipes and photos on the Food Lovers' Discussion Group at http://www.wineloverspage.com/cgi-bin/sb/index.cgi?fn=2&tid=19245.
The wine? Red Bandol, of course! Memories of that ancient olive tree in Provence made this choice obvious for me. But it works objectively, too, with the dark, earthy qualities of the Mourvedre grape marrying beautifully with the similar flavors in both green and ripe olives. Of course, Bandol is not the only choice with olives: Just about any wine made in regions where both olive trees and grapevines thrive will do, from fruity-but-acidic Italian reds to similar reds or roses from around the Mediterranean rim in France's Provence, Rhone and Languedoc, not to mention Spain, Yugoslavia and Greece. Try wines with similar flavors from Down Under, especially Grenache-Shiraz-Mourvedre blends or Grenache roses. If you like a white, consider Sauvignon Blanc with its characteristic herbal green-olive flavors; or look for an aromatic Rhone Valley white like the modest French Lirac featured below.
Do you have a favorite wine match with olives or olive dishes? I'd enjoy hearing your experiences and hope you'll drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. I regret that the growing circulation of the "Wine Advisor" makes it difficult for me to reply individually to every note. But I'll respond to as many as I can and do my best to address specific questions. Please be assured that all your input helps me do a better job of writing about wine.
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Modest white from Lirac
Clear gold in color, pale but bright, this blend of Clairette and other local Rhone grapes offers an aroma that's simple, light and fresh, lemons and an intriguing flowery-herbal note like honeysuckle. Crisp and quite tart in flavor, a snappy lemon-squirt of fresh citrus fruit and acidity makes it a good accompaniment with food. U.S. importer: New Castle Imports Inc., Myrtle Beach, S.C. (Aug. 5, 2001)
FOOD MATCH: Fine with a green-olive and walnut pesto on fusilli bucati corti pasta. The wine's zingy acidity helps cut through the natural oiliness of olives, while its slight herbal character makes an intriguing flavor match.
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Falesco "Vitiano" Umbria
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Vol. 3, No. 29, Aug. 6, 2001