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For a great dinner at home, be a smart matchmaker with wine and food.
Opposites attract when it comes to culinary pairings, local wine expert explains
 
(SAVANNAH) –  Just like romantic couples, wine and food pairings can either bring out the best in each – or not, with the wrong match.
 
Christian Depken, proprietor of Le Chai – galerie du vin, says a good meal at home with a nice bottle of wine can be one of life’s greatest joys. And when the wine is paired well with the food, the experience is heightened. The combination brings levels of flavor that would have remained hidden otherwise.
 
“You can have it at home, a quality of life,” with a little attention to good ingredients and wine, he said. “It’s a better life, a better experience.”
 
How much better does a wine and a meal become, with the right pairing?
 
“It’s exponential,” Depken said. Borrowing a phrase from a customer, he says don’t limit your experience by making a bad match: “I don’t go to a museum with sunglasses on.” A poor pairing can literally mute both the food and the wine, he explains.
 
When it comes to wine, Depken says, don’t get tied down. “Too often people put themselves in a corner (about a type of wine they like). “There’s so much variation. To not take advantage of that is unfortunate.” Depken, who specializes in European wine, said you could stock an entire store just with wines from the Loire region of France. He will explain the various facets of European wines and the role these traits play when pairing with food March 20 as part of Celia Dunn Sotheby’s International Realty Masterpiece Series.
 
Depken’s advice on pairing food and wine:
 
Experiment – try different wines. “There’s no substitute for that,” Depken said. Build a working knowledge (and notice how a wine evolves an hour or two after opening). Keep a wine journal and keep notes about what you’ve tried and what you think of it.
 
Develop a relationship with merchants. Don’t just read the wine magazine ranking taped to the store shelf – talk to the wine merchants, who will get to know your likes and dislikes and cater suggestions to you.
 
Wines with higher acidity pair well with fattier foods: Cabernet Sauvignon with steak;  Sauvignon Blanc and goat cheese. As in love, opposites attract. 
 
The residual sugar in German Rieslings makes it a good match with spicy foods.
 
Pinot Noir and duck are great together. “Like Oreos and milk,” Depken said.
 
Oysters pair well with Chablis or Muscadet.
 
Perhaps the most common poor pairing? Chianti and red sauce. The acidity in both of them means the match doesn’t put either in the best light.
 
The earthy quality of Italian wines such as Valpolicella, Ripasso, and Amarone lends itself very well to a red sauce.
 
There are many reasons why wine tastes the way it does, such as the soil and climate the grapes were grown in. Depken uses the analogy of the Vidalia onion – plant one in a different location, and the resulting flavor will be completely different.
 
The foremost characteristics to consider when pairing wine with food aside from the basic varietal characteristics, Depken says, are the level of acidity and alcohol in the wine. Acidity helps a wine pair well with food, especially with fattier foods and rich foods. The match heightens the enjoyment of both the wine and the food.
 
Alcohol levels that are too high, though, can make a wine a bad match with food.
 
“Trying to pair a high-alcohol wine with food is almost impossible,” Depken said. “It’s almost like pouring gasoline on a fire. It will augment pepper or spices – it’s very uncomfortable.” High alcohol levels can also undercut the wine, Depken said, since it’s difficult to keep the alcohol in balance with the fruit and other aspects of the wine.
 
Some companies in Australia, California and elsewhere are making wines with 15-16 percent alcohol (to put the number in context, port is 20 percent alcohol). European wines tend to have lower alcohol levels, about 11-13 percent, with German Rieslings sometimes as low as 7 percent. Alcohol levels are a result of climate and also design by the winemaker. A lower alcohol level tends to mean the wine will pair better with food.
 
Wines with too much oakiness (from being aged in oak barrels) often don’t pair well with food. European winemakers tend to be much more reserved with oak in wine, keeping it in a supportive role rather than a dominant role as it is in many New World wines. As for the creamy, buttery characteristics that one finds in many Chardonnays for example, often winemakers go too far fermenting the tart malic acid into lactic acid, making the wines less able to pair well with food, Depken said.
 
Out of curiosity, Depken sometimes glances at other wine and beer bottles when he recycles his own. On a recent recycling errand, he spied a bottle he had recommended to a customer and remembered his own wonderful experience with the wine. It’s made in France in a region where truffles are harvested around the vineyard. You don’t smell the truffles when you open the bottle, but paired with a dish such as wild mushroom risotto, the earthiness of the dish brings out another level to the wine that would be missed otherwise. Depken appreciates such nuances and loves finding pairings that bring the experience of both the wine and food to another level.
 
Lauren Tomhave, an agent with Celia Dunn Sotheby’s International Realty, first met Depken when he was director of wine at the former restaurant Café Metropole. She and her husband have a wine cellar and most of their wines come from California and Oregon.
 
“Through Christian’s expertise, we have begun to broaden our cellar to include Old World wines — Christian’s passion,” Tomhave said.  “He has been a wonderful resource when I need gifts for clients, or advice about the best wine to serve with a certain food.”
 
About the Celia Dunn Sotheby’s International Realty Masterpiece Series lecture-luncheon:
March 20, 2008
“Pairing European Wines with Food”
Christian Depken
 Christian Depken, proprietor of Le Chai – galerie du vin, will explain the various facets of European wines and the role these traits play when pairing with food. Learn the reasons European wines taste the way they do and how those characteristics lend themselves to particular food pairings. Proceeds will benefit Savannah Technical College.
To make a reservation:
 Each lecture-luncheon will be held at 12 noon at the Chatham Club. To make a reservation, $25 payment must be received by the Monday prior to the luncheon. Checks should be made out to CDS Lecture Series and sent to Lori Combs, Celia Dunn Sotheby’s International Realty, 17 W. Charlton St. Savannah, GA 31401.
See the lineup of Masterpiece Series speakers by visiting www.celiadunnsir.com and clicking on News.

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