“And with your chicken mole, may I suggest…?”

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By Coty Dolores Miranda

Marissa Perez and her husband Bryan love entertaining at home. For the busy, 30-something professionals, hosting friends and family for a homemade weekend dinner at their Gilbert home is preferable to meeting them at crowded restaurants.

And whether they’re serving Bryan’s classic green Oaxacan mole or grilling pollo asada, what most often causes consternation is not the food preparation, but deciding what wines to serve with the meal.

“We used to just pick up a couple bottles of red and white, but as our cooking skills improved, we wanted to serve the perfect wines to complement our menus,” says Marissa. “We’re still learning, but I’d say now we’re on track, and all it took was a little research.”

“And losing our fear of asking for help,” adds Bryan.

The couple says they like to peruse local wine shops like Vine Expressions in Gilbert Town Square, the Wine Rack in Ahwatukee, or Kokopelli in downtown Chandler and Epicurean Wine in Scottsdale.

“We set aside some Saturdays and just make a day of it. We like visiting the many communities here in the Valley and stopping in at the smaller, independent wine shops. Learning about wines is a journey, not a destination,” she said.

They also take advantage of hosted wine tastings at wine shops and restaurants throughout the Phoenix metro area. For instance, at Scottsdale’s Epicurean(touted as having one of the largest wine selections in the state), wine tastings are a regular Friday night event, and wine pairing classes are offered periodically.

You, too, can learn how to pair wines with your foods. There are some simple suggestions to help you along, but, as many wine sommeliers and local chefs will admit, selecting wine is subjective.

“Yes, it is a science but it’s also a personal opinion — you don’t always have to go by the rules. Basically, the rule is, ‘It’s whatever you like’,” advises Superstition Mountain Resort Sous Chef Eric Emlet, who says he likes to pair a Shiraz with a contemporary Mexican entrée like shrimp and chipotle cream sauce. (His grandfather hails from Michoacan.)

Emlet concurs with the Perez’s observation that the more developed your palate becomes, the more aware you will be of what makes a “perfect pairing.”

With that said, here are a few starting suggestions:

For appetizers, even a simple antipasto plate of spicy meats, fine cheeses, olives and marinated artichoke hearts fancy up when served with a flute of French Champagne or sparkling wines produced worldwide.

Prices run the gamut, but reasonably priced Freixenet (Spain), Prosecco (Italy), Sekt (Germany) and the tried-and-true special occasion standard, Korbel. Interestingly this U.S.A. sparkler makes use of a loophole in the international law allowing it to label itself Champagne. (The French are not amused).

As cooler evening temperatures replace the memories of months of triple digits, our tastes move to heavier, more complex foods. Bubbling pots of soups and stews (pozole, anyone?), oven-baked enchiladas and lasagnas, pot roasts, potatoes, crusty breads – you get the picture. The result is seasonal pairings, and these heartier foods work well with merlots, cabernets, varietals and even bold zinfandels.

When entertaining, please any guest by offering red and white wine selections. For instance, spicy foods like chile relleno, mariscos or your favorite game-day chili recipe will find a perfect complement with a frisky Sauvignon Blanc or Pino Gris and a lightly spiced Pinot Noir. Your abuela’s best enchilada rojo dish served with either a Spanish Rioja or Beaujolais and Shiraz will be a sure crowd pleaser.

Arizona winters is grill weather, and your carne asada menu will be far from ordinary with the fruity plum-like flavor and smooth tannins of a Malbec wine – one of the traditional Bordeaux varietals that fall between a Cabernet and Merlot. The Argentine Malbecs are a great pairing with any grilled meats.

Seafood is no longer a seasonal offering, and your winter menu will doubtless include some variation – whether grilled, broiled or served in a pasta or ceviche. Look for a clean, dry wine like the Albarino of Spain or a California Chenin blanc.

Or, you may go with the low acidic and very versatile Riesling (which also happens to pair well with Thanksgiving turkey).

“There’s always something new to learn about wine pairings, and half the fun is tasting something new,” says Marissa Perez. “Let’s just say, we haven’t had a dinner guest complain yet!”

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