Wine with Salad
By John Ash
Some dishes seem to go naturally with wine - grilled lamb chops with
a big Cabernet; briny oysters with bone-dry Chablis; sweet, ripe pears
with Sauternes; Caesar salad and... well, it's not so easy with salad.
In this category there are few classic food and wine partners because
traditionally salad has been considered "unfriendly" to wine.
Acidic dressings and raw greens and vegetables don't flatter wine, so
why bother? Conventional wisdom said just skip wine for the salad course,
or sip a glass of sparkling water.
But there's no reason to deprive yourself of a great glass of wine
with a great salad, especially now that salads are much more than a
plate of mixed lettuces that act as a palate cleanser. Today's salads
are main events, full of fabulous flavors and intriguing textures. When
built with the right ingredients, they can be the perfect partners for
a full range of wines, from crisp Sauvignon Blanc to buttery Chardonnay
to earthy Côtes du Rhone. Even off-dry Rieslings and Gewurtzraminers
can match salads that have sweet notes.
As with any food and wine matching, it is crucial to think about the
relative weight and body of each half of the partnership. You don't
want a rich, oaky wine to accompany a crisp, light cucumber and watercress
salad. Nor would a crisp grassy Sauvignon Blanc necessarily be right
for a salad loaded with grilled shiitakes, duck breast and walnut oil.
For me, however, the two keys to good salad and wine matches are making
sure that there isn't too much acid in the dressing and that the salad
contains lots of "bridge" ingredients ingredients whose flavors
and textures complement and contrast with (and in some cases mitigate)
Lose the Acid but Not the Zing
Let's first talk about what a salad is. The simplest way to define a
salad is dressing and lots of other stuff, usually but not always including
some greens. The salad dressing is one of the most difficult components
to coordinate with wine because of its very nature, which is acidic.
A straight "one part red wine vinegar to three parts olive oil"
dressing is too sharp to work with wine. Too much aggressive acid will
make the wine taste flat and dull, even when the wine starts out bright
and crisp. The best advice is to avoid starting a "war of acids"
between the two partners. A little bit of acid can harmonize beautifully
with wine; just keep acids in balance.
The easiest thing to do is to just cut down on the amount of vinegar
in the recipe, but you don't want to leave your dressing without enough
zing to taste good. Try using a more mellow vinegar, such as balsamic
or rice wine, or look to other tart ingredients like fruit juice instead
of vinegar. Or even use wine as the tart component in the dressing.
Also think about alternatives to oil used in traditional dressings.
Try using liquids that pack a lot of flavor, like a few tablespoons
of rich stock. One of my favorite tricks for reducing fat and adding
rich flavor is to reduce good unsalted chicken stock by one half and
substitute it for part or all of the oil in the dressing. When you do
use oil, pay attention to the oil you choose. A super fruity olive oil
or a toasty note from nut oil can make an important link with wine.
Going Beyond Lettuce and Tomato
Now let's look at the body of the salad to see where it can become more
wine-welcoming. Pay attention to the flavors of the greens you choose.
Most grocery stores today offer more than the old standby Iceberg, Romaine
and Bibb selection, and if you grow your own or have access to a good
farmers' market, you know that there is a wide variety of greens to
choose from with all kinds of flavors spicy, peppery, nutty, tart. Keep
these flavors in mind; too much of a good thing can overwhelm a subtle
Key ingredients link the salad and the wine. Earlier I mentioned building
a salad using "bridge" ingredients, which have a number of
functions in a good salad and wine match. They can echo the flavors
in the wine, such as fresh berries that pick up the ripe berry flavors
of Beaujolais, for example, or a slice of sweet pear that's similar
to the sweetness in an off-dry Chenin Blanc or Riesling. Another type
of bridge ingredient might contrast with - not echo - the wine. The
heat of a serrano chile-laced dressing will play nicely off a slightly
sweet, spicy, lower alcohol Gewurztraminer (the chiles' heat tends to
heighten the taste of alcohol in wine). Sometimes bridge ingredients
can play down troublesome characteristics of the wine. For example,
the tannins in a robust red wine would be too much for a simple salad
of greens and vegetables, but some slices of rare grilled beef or a
round of smoked mozzarella will make the tannins much milder and more
Most of all, remember that pairing salad and wine is not rocket science.
Experiment and have fun with it.
Dressings with More Flavor and Less Acid
A major problem in pairing salad and wine is the high acid level of
most vinaigrettes, which wreaks havoc on wine, making it taste flat
and flabby. You can avoid this conflict by making dressings that are
less sharp but still vivid, with some of the following techniques.
Replace part or all of the red or white wine vinegar in a recipe with
balsamic, sherry, or rice wine vinegar, which have fuller, mellower
Use fruit juice instead of vinegar. Obvious choices might be lemon or
lime juice, but think also of orange juice, apple cider, cranberry juice
or any fruit juice with a bright flavor.
Replace acid ingredients with other liquids that are intense, but not
sharp, such as rich chicken, veal, fish or vegetable stock, Worcester
sauce, soy sauce, juices from roasted meats or vegetables or roasted
"Bridge" Ingredients that Make Salad
When designing a salad, be sure to include ingredients that have a natural
affinity to wine. They'll create the link that makes the combination
Herbs - Lots of wines have herbal notes in them, including Sauvignon
Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Greens - Strong peppery greens will want a wine with some spiciness
to it, like Zinfandel or Petite Syrah.
Vegetables - Roasting vegetables concentrates their flavors and
brings out their natural sweetness. Vegetables in this mellow state
work well with deeper, richer wines like Zinfandel and barrel-aged Sauvignon
Blanc. Grilled vegetables want a wine that¹s "seen some oak"
to link the toasty, woody flavors, so try a barrel-fermented Chardonnay.
Mushrooms in particular make a salad more earthy and full-bodied, making
a red wine, such as Pinot Noir, welcome.
Fruit - So many fresh and dried fruit flavors and fragrances
are found in wine that fruit is a natural bridge ingredient. Apple,
pear, melon, and even tropical fruit flavors are common in Riesling,
Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon or Gewurztraminer. Ripe fresh
berries and cherries dominate many Beaujolais and Pinot Noirs and even
hearty Cabernets can have similar flavors. Dried fruit, like figs, dried
cranberries, apricots and raisins will link to wines with bright fruit
notes, such as Grenache or Gamay.
Croutons - Toasted or grilled bread in a salad also works nicely
with slightly oaky wines.
Nuts - Toasted nuts complement slightly oaky toasty wines.
Cheese - Wine and cheese is almost a cliché, but why does
it work so well? One reason is that the milk proteins in cheese tame
the tannins and acidity in wine, making the combination smoother. If
the cheese is very salty, like a blue cheese, pair it with a slightly
sweet wine, such as an off-dry Riesling. Dry aged cheeses, like Parmesan
or Asiago, with their toasty, buttery flavors, link wonderfully to barrel-fermented
and aged Chardonnays.
Meats, Seafood, Poultry - These ingredients can tame tannins and
acids in the same way cheese does, and their fuller flavors and textures
make a salad bolder and more substantial. Think of grilling these ingredients
and going for an oakier wine.