Pairing Wine with Mushrooms
The pairing of food with wine can be intimidating, especially when it comes to festive occasions or special events. Mushroom dishes can be particularly challenging, because both the type of mushroom and the preparation of the dish with its spices and sauces, play an integral part in determining which wines will complement them.
The basic concept of wine and food pairing comes down to determining which combinations complement or enhance the aromas and flavors of both the food and wine. Wine and food can complement or contrast each other, as long as they do not mask each other's unique flavors and characteristics. Some general guidelines are:
• Sweet foods taste less sweet when paired with tannic wines.
• Salty foods emphasize the tannins in wine.
• Salty foods mask the sweetness while pronouncing the fruitiness of a wine.
• Salty or sweet foods will soften wines that are acidic.
• Acidic wines will have a cleansing mouth-feel with foods heavy in oils.
• Proteins soften harsh tannins, which is why red tannic wines work well with beef and game.
• Spicy foods often pair well with fruity, low-alcohol wines like riesling and gewurztraminer.
• Sweet foods generally go well with wine that is slightly sweeter.
• A wine high in tannins (like cabernet sauvignon) paired with a food high in tannins (spicy tomato sauce) will make the wine taste very dry and astringent.
Simply put, light white wines like sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, semillon, or chardonnay generally go well with delicate, light foods (light cream sauces, simple sautés and other lightly seasoned mushroom dishes). Heartier dishes involving red meat, wild game, or rich stews are usually best paired with fuller bodied red wines like pinot noir, nebbiolo, or cabernet sauvignon. Dishes that fall somewhere in between may pair well with a lighter red, like a beaujolais, or a fuller bodied chardonnay. You are trying to achieve balance: a good pairing is one where the food and wine do not overshadow each other.
Mushroom variety also plays a role in choosing a wine. Again, delicate varieties, like lobster, enoki, maitake, and oyster, are best served with lighter white wines, such as sauvignon blanc, semillon, riesling, a light chardonnay, or light, fruity reds, like beaujolais. Earthy, hearty mushrooms like shiitake, portabella, porcini and morel pair well with fuller bodied wines, like a barrel-aged chardonnay, pinot noir, nebbiolo, syrah, cabernet sauvignon or zinfandel.
It's important to note that in creating or choosing dishes featuring mushrooms, the best advice is to look for simplicity. Less is more when it comes to drawing out and highlighting the flavors of the mushrooms. Keeping things simple can also make wine pairing easier, as there are fewer elements involved that may affect your choice. For example, sautéing mushrooms in a little butter or olive oil, with light seasonings and served over pasta is a great way to emphasize the flavors of mushrooms, and is easily paired with a pinot grigio or chardonnay.
There are times when your mushroom dish includes other ingredients that make pairing difficult at best (like artichokes or asparagus). If you are stumped with what might work with your menu, ask one your "local" wine experts (the wine purchaser at your local market, the sommelier or head waiter at your favorite restaurant, or your wine geek friends). They're generally experienced in pairing and eager to provide recommendations (and maybe some recipes too!).
Keep in mind that there are many exceptions to the rule. Use the guidelines given in this post as merely a starting point. My best advice: drink what you like and don't sweat the details (after all, wine should only give you a headache if you've overindulged, not before you've even decided what to drink). Half the enjoyment is in the experimenting: invite a group of friends together with a variety of dishes and wines to taste. You'll soon discover your personal pairing style (complementing or contrasting), and have some favorite combinations of your own to share!