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Wine and Food Wednesday
It’s Lamb Stew Tonight—And Bring Me A Big, Rich Wine With It

By Stephen Eliot

I like savory, long-cooked meats. And I refuse to drink wimpy wines with them.

It seems that the best and quickest way to get an argument started among wine-interested folk these days is to bring up the topic of alcohol. As is the case with any hot-button topic, the debate is rife with silly simplifications that defy reason, and one of the silliest is that high-alcohol wines (14.0% or so seems to be the level above which offense begins) are impossible to drink with food.

A couple of weeks back, I wrote about what I like to call the four “quantifiables” of tannin, alcohol, acidity and sugar that most directly affect a wine’s ability to pair well with one food or another and of just how someone might know which wines were most likely to show which traits. Of the four, the one most easily determined is alcohol…you simply need to look at the label. Now, bearing in mind that the legally required declarations of alcohol do come with fairly liberal plus-or-minus parameters, a quick check of the label can nonetheless give you a fairly good idea as to what to expect.

As a very general guideline, higher alcohols typically predict bigger, bolder wines that want drinking with appropriately richer, more flavorful foods. We have long argued that such wines can be balanced and compelling bottlings in their own rights, and that alcohol in and of itself should never be the sole measure of failure or success. It would be well to remember there are plenty of poorly crafted efforts that seem coarse and hot despite lower levels of alcohol. That said, those whose alcohols begin to edge higher are more likely to favor richness and intensity over refinement and restraint, just as a good many recipes do the same.

Although I am the last to argue for hard and fast rules, I have always thought that the most obvious criterion for a successful wine-and-food pairing was the alignment of relative intensities, that neither the wine nor the food should overpower one or the other. Big flavors on the plate want big flavors from the glass, and a lilting, light-bodied, acid-crisped wine is probably not the thing for matching up with heartier stews and slowly braised meats. Similarly, a very ripe, high-alcohol, powerhouse offering will overwhelm the subtleties of more delicate fare. To damn or praise one wine or the other solely on the basis of its alcohol content, however, seems tantamount to saying that lighter foods are necessarily better or worse than those of substance and spice.

Alcohol numbers do not predict quality, but they can often serve as signposts of style and afford useful clues as to whether a wine speaks in softer tones or with a full-throated voice.


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