A loaf of bread, a jug of wine
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
So familiar is this well-known verse that it only recently occurred to me (while baking the baguettes featured in yesterday's Wine Advisor FoodLetter, in fact) that it incorporates rather dubious food-and-wine matching advice.
But bread and wine together, playing off each other as a direct food-and-wine pairing? It's not a concept that would occur to the average wine lover. Naturally, once I thought about this, I had to try it. I started my dough rising at lunch time, and by dinner had a pair of pretty reddish-brown baguettes ready to go. Uncorked a good, earthy red Rhône wine, and let the tasting begin!
This wasn't quite as crazy as it sounded. Fresh-baked French bread, made with care and given plenty of time for a slow, cool rise to develop its subtle, sweet-nutty wheaten flavor, is a treat good enough to enjoy contemplatively - not unlike a fine wine - and that's even before you slather on the butter. The wine was on the simple side, but it, too, showed enough subtlety and balance to justify at least a moment's intellectual scrutiny.
Put them together and give them a little attention, and the results were ... interesting. The flavors certainly didn't war against each other, nor did either overwhelm the other. One spoke of grain, the other of the grape, but there was no hint of a jelly sandwich in the pairing. The bread certainly didn't wake up or amplify the wine's flavors the way a bit of meat or cheese might have done; if anything, it seemed to provide a neutral backdrop that allowed the wine to show itself exactly as it is. Which may, after all, help explain why bread makes a good palate-cleanser in wine judging.
From the standpoint of sheer hedonistic enjoyment, though, the combination was almost too austere. So I brought out a little Italian mortadella (the original Bologna sausage) and some provolone cheese to go with the bread. Now we were talking! The meat and cheese quickly reminded me what food-and-wine pairing is really all about: The pursuit of culinary combinations that exceed the sum of their parts.
The wine I chose, by the way, is a bit of a stereotype-breaker: A dry, red Beaumes-de-Venise from Domaine de Durban, it's from a village and producer better known for sweet white wine made from Muscat grapes. Despite a name that seems oddly evocative of canals and gondoliers, Beaumes-de-Venise is actually one of the score of communities in the Côtes du Rhône that's permitted to append the village name on the label (as discussed in the Jan. 19, 2005 Wine Advisor). We visited Beaumes-de-Venise during my last tour of the Rhône with French Wine Explorers in 2002, an itinerary that we'll be traveling again in June. For details see
Like all of its Côtes du Rhône neighbors, Beaumes-de-Venise is permitted to make dry red wines from any of the 13 grape varieties permitted in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, although this one - like most of the genre - seems to be largely Grenache, perhaps with a touch of oak added as the label's subtitle "Cuvée Prestige" suggests.
It went well enough with fresh, warm French bread, but Omar Khayyam to the contrary notwithstanding, I still suggest the meat and cheese option.
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Domaine de Durban 2000 Beaumes-de-Venise Côtes du Rhône Villages ($10)
Clear, dark garnet in color, its aromas focus on black cherries, a whiff of raspberry, and a subtle mix of pleasant earth and warm brown spice. Red fruit and sharp acidity create a bold first impression, but on the mid-palate it seems more medium-bodied than weighty. It's not overly complex but well-balanced, clean and lasting, with good cherry and red-berry fruit and a light lemony tang in a long finish. Subtitled "Cuvée Prestige." U.S. importer: Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, Berkeley, Calif. (March 3, 2005)
FOOD MATCH: Used as a test subject in an experimental tasting with freshly baked baguettes, it shows up well against the neutral backdrop of the delicately flavored bread. For wine-pairing synergy, though, it needed the Italian mortadella and provolone served alongside to make a more traditional match.
VALUE: Perhaps shipped before the dollar plummeted so badly against the Euro, this 2000 vintage is a fine value at the $10 price point.
WHEN TO DRINK: Although not styled as a cellar keeper, it doesn't seem to be going anywhere if you don't drink it soon.
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Friday, March 4, 2005