The other day a buddy presented this wine-pairing challenge: What goes with homemade pickles?
This is fairly tricky. For one thing, vinegar can make wines seem thin and acidic on the palate. Hot spice tends to make alcohol seem hotter, not only throwing off perceptions of a wine’s balance, but also potentially neutering those qualities that make a good wine seem refreshing. Sugar, an ingredient common in many pickling spice mixtures, tends to make drier or less sweet wines seem sour.
In more real-world situations involving pickles — in which pickled vegetables tend to be condiments, side dishes or flavoring agents, rather than the entire meal — one can focus on the protein or entrée, so the range of appropriate wine options seems less tricky. The easiest solution is beer. But since the challenge was for wine, I went exploring.
My friend makes a variety of pickles at home as a hobby — one only semi-tolerated by his wife. If you are familiar with the smell of fermenting cabbage, it shouldn’t be too hard to guess why.
At any rate, we arranged to taste a bunch of wines with a few pickle samples to pick some agreeable options. The pickles were: fermented Brussels sprouts with curry leaf, garlic and fenugreek (lovely, spicy and complex); sauerkraut with dill (traditional and tasty); turnips pickled with vinegar and salt (tasty and very pickley); and pickled cucumbers (the kind you might eat with your pastrami sandwich).
On the one hand, I tried to select wines that I really thought would work well and also really enjoy drinking anyway. And on the other, I didn’t want to go for great wines and risk wasting them on an evening when the food might simply overwhelm and ruin the chance to enjoy them.
I pulled a bunch of corks in the endeavor. Here are the wine options that totally failed:
The variously styled sauvignon blancs I chose all failed; the acidity of wine and pickles combined rather than contrasted — neither wine nor food was improved by the encounter. Two usually enjoyable Moscatos, one from Italy (Bartenura) and one from Israel (Golan Heights Winery), also utterly failed: the pickles took away their sweetness, making them seem fat and milky.
Here were two of the wines that worked rather well:
Bartenura Prosecco Brut ($16; mevushal): This simple, lively, slightly fruity yet dry Italian sparkler paired very well with the assorted pickles, all the while cleansing the palate. Very enjoyable here.
Abarbanel, Lemminade, Riesling, Vin D’Alsace, Semi-Dry, Old-Vine, 2015 ($18; nonmevushal): This worked well with the Brussels sprouts and turnips, and worked brilliantly with the sauerkraut — choucroute (French sauerkraut) is very popular in Alsace, so I was fairly confident this would do the trick, and it did. Clean, bright, fresh and really lovely with citrus and refined floral aromatics followed on the palate with the fresh, racy tang of sour lemon, tart apple, great minerality, zippy acidity and a little spice — and all in fine balance creating an almost crystalline or delicate effect for a wine that otherwise has some nice heft and mouthfeel. Overall, this is vivacious and food friendly, with reserved, Old World charm. Serve lightly chilled. L’chaim!
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