Wine or beer?
I'm basically a wine guy, but I'll rarely say no to a glass of beer, particularly if it's a good, artisan-style brew.
But when it comes to the characteristic that many of us consider wine's greatest strength - its natural affinity for food and the delightful way that it can complement and enhance just about anything on the table - can fermented barley malt stand up to the fruit of the vine?
In the interest of finding out, a small group of food-and-drinks enthusiasts got together at a local eatery last night for a friendly "shootout," matching a variety of casual American bistro fare against an eclectic group of wines ... and a selection of intriguing bottled beers supplied by the guy who came up with the idea, Roger A. Baylor, beer expert and publican of Rich O's Public House and New Albanian Brewing Co. in nearby New Albany, Ind.
I can't say that we reached any dramatic conclusions other than "beer and wine are both good," but I thought you might enjoy a quick diary of the dishes and drinks we subjected to friendly analysis during an evening at the Bristol Bar & Grille Downtown on Louisville's historic West Main Street.
In the first round, beer jumped out to an early lead, showing its affinity with fried foods. An offbeat and rather challenging Belgian lambic beer came into perspective with shared appetizers of fried calamari with Thai chili sauce, grilled chicken tapas with roasted pepper mayonnaise and the restaurant's signature green chili won-tons with guacamole, while an imposing Alsatian Riesling with a couple of years of cellar time was fine on its own but seemed a little too intense to make a happy match with the food.
Lindemans Cuvee Rene Gueuze Lambic
This Belgian beer made with natural wild yeast is a very hazy amber-orange color with a thin white foam. Characteristic of the style, it's sharp and citric, earthy, tart and very, very sour, an acquired taste on its own but one that seems to round out and become more mellow with the fried food.
Mark Tempé 1999 Burgreben Alsace Riesling
Clear gold in color, it's an impressive wine, with characteristic scents of mango and litchees lifted with a whiff of pine. Dry and acidic, there's lots of minerally older-Riesling "petrol" in the flavor. Although Riesling is one of the most food-friendly of wines, it just didn't seem to marry with these appetizers, riding over their flavors rather than complimenting them. U.S. importer: Michel-Schlumberger Wines Ltd., Healdsburg, Calif.
In Round Two, I was pleasantly surprised to find how well two offbeat Pinot Noirs went with a small Caesar salad. Shredded Parmesan and creamy, not-too-acidic Caesar dressing made the salad a surprisingly good match for both wines, while I found it less appealing with either of two European beers.
Puzelat 2003 La Tesnière Touraine Pinot Noir.
This Pinot Noir from a favorite small producer in the Loire is a dark and slightly hazy garnet color. Earthy and surprisingly herbaceous aromas are not as fruit-forward as I might have expected in a 2003, but this is a plus for me. Appropriately tart red-fruit flavors and natural acidity are well balanced, with that delightful stony Loire minerality in the background. U.S. importer: LDM Wines Inc. (Louis/Dressner), NYC.
Karl Joh. Molitor 2002 Hattenheim (Rheingau) Pinot Noir Trocken
Brilliant jewel-like garnet in color, this surprisingly hearty wine disproves the notion that Germany can't produce gutsy reds. Red fruit and aromatic nuances segue from almonds to "red meat" in a wine of good body, structure and balance. U.S. importer: Victoire Imports Co., San Leandro, Calif., for California Wine Club; Solera Imports, Dublin, Ohio, and other regional importers.
Young's Ram Rod Famous Ale
Amber in color, this is a good, typical rendition of British ale, crisp and dry, with fruity ale esters and good light hops bitterness. It seemed to fade against the salad, though.
Schneider Weisse Hefe-Weizen
A classic German wheat beer, it's rather dark amber in color and lightly carbonated, with a typical Weizen aroma profile of cloves and citrus that's fine for sipping alone, but I didn't find it compatible with the salad.
In Round Three, we started pulling corks in earnest, mixing up four excellent reds with our main courses. I chose a special, a bone-in pork chop topped with a sauce of fresh tomatoes and rosemary, with a baked potato and fresh asparagus on the side, and also copped a few bites of medium-rare ground beef from my partner's burger. In this round, I'd say the beers and the wines battled to a draw, some working well with the pork, others with the beef.
Bernard Dugat-Py 2000 Gevrey-Chambertin Ier Cru "Petit Chapelle"
This was an outstanding Burgundy, if a bit on the "international" side. I had to double-check the label to convince myself that I wasn't drinking a hot-summer Burg from 2003. Inky reddish-purple in color, it was very ripe and extracted in the aroma and flavor, lush red fruit enhanced by subtle herbal notes. Ripe and intense but nicely balanced, it made a first-rate match with the pork. U.S. importer: Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, Pa.
Clos Montirius 1999 Vacqueyras
This is a single-vineyard bottling from this Cotes-du-Rhone village producer, whose regular wine is labeled simply "Montirius." Black at the center with a ruby edge, it's drinking at its peak, blending ripe, plummy fruit with typical Rhone "grilled meat" and "smoke," a wine of excellent structure and balance that went very well with both the pork and the burger. U.S. importer: Michel-Schlumberger Wines Ltd., Healdsburg, Calif.
Viñaguareña 2001 Toro
This is a 100 percent Tempranillo from Spain's Toro region. Very dark in color with a day-glo violet edge, it shows "sweet" aromas and flavors of red cherry and oak, classic Tempranillo. It went particularly well with the burger beef.
Montirius 1999 Gigondas
Dark garnet in color, its typical Grenache raspberry aromas and flavors are drying out a bit, but it's still a big, intense and fruit-forward wine, excellent with the beef if maybe a bit too much for the pork.
Mojo India Pale Ale
This microbrewery beer from Boulder, Colo., is nicely made in the traditional "IPA" style, amber in color, dry and very hoppy, nicely structured with a long, appropriately bitter finish. One of the best food-and-drink matches of the evening for me, it was excellent with the pork.
Stone Smoked Porter
This heavy brew from San Diego is black in color and very sweet, with appropriate tart bitterness to offset the sweetness, with the smoky, "ashy" character of black patent malt. Its strong flavors were a bit much for the pork but made a mouth-watering combination with the burger.
Finally, a few dessert pairings served mainly to reinforce my belief that dessert wines (and beers) are better enjoyed on their own than with a sweet dish. I tasted the following with an excellent cranberry bread pudding with rum butter sauce.
Cossart Gordon 5 Year Madeira Bual
A good value at $5.95 on the Bristol's by-the-glass list, this is a dark bronze wine with good, characteristic aromas of walnuts and stone fruit; fresh-fruit sugars on the palate are well balanced by Madeira's classic tart, lemony acidity. A bit on the hot side, this was a good wine for after-dinner sipping, but the sweet pudding seemed to dampen the wine's sweetness while heightening its acidity, throwing the pairing out of balance.
The Shipyard Pumpkinhead Ale
This seasonal microbrew from Portland, Maine, is a clear amber color, medium-bodied, with light fruit aromas reminiscent of pears, subtly accented with pumpkin pie spice. A pleasant beer, it was a little too light for the dessert, good on its own but thin and watery in the combination.
Finally, also from the Bristol's by-the-glass list ($11), sipped on its own:
A.A. Fonseca Alambre 20 Year Moscatel de Setubal
Clear copper color. Sweet caramel, stone fruit and spice, sweetness and acidity in perfect balance, it's subtle and delicate, mellow and smooth, needing no food pairing to make it a delicious finish to an indulgent meal.
Thinking back over the experience today, I'm struck by the recognition that, as much as I enjoy good microbrewery and artisanal beers, when I actually have the opportunity to taste beers and wines side-by-side with food, I find myself consistently drawn to the wines, both for their innate subtlety and flavor interest and because, by and large, they seem more natural companions with the food.
But then, I'm a wine guy. More research is clearly called for, and I'm ready. I'd also love to know what you think.