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Sweet Advantages

by Tara Q. Thomas
January 7, 2016

Back in 1989, Alexis Bespalo wrote an article for New York Magazine exploring the then-surprising idea of serving sweet wine with savory food. He began by describing how chef Alain Dutournier, then at Au Trou Gascon in Paris, often sent out a free glass of Sauternes or Jurançon with the foie gras. Occasionally, diners would ignore the sweet wine and order a red instead. That triggered an immediate reaction from the chef, who would storm out of the kitchen to the table and pronounce the meal over.

Today, sweet wine is considered a classic match with foie gras, yet sweet wine still rarely makes it past the appetizers to the main course. At the same time, as most anyone who has washed down fried chicken or a burger with a soda might attest, sweet drinks and savory foods are married all the time. And, in many places where sweet wines are grown, sweet wine is just what you drink. With that in mind, I began calling winemakers in sweet wine regions, and consulting my notes from past trips, compiling a file thick with reasons to drink sweet and eat savory. Here are a few.

Cabbage and Caraway
“In the winter, I have this dish once a week,” Heidi Schröck said as she stirred sliced onions, watching them slowly caramelize in a frying pan. Having heard about my interest in sweet wines and savory foods, Schröck had come over to my apartment while visiting New York from Rust, a town in eastern Austria where she grows grapes for her sweet wines on the banks of Lake Neusiedl.

“Burgenland has always been poor; there’s nothing fancy about the cooking,” she explained. “It’s potatoes, cabbage, meat only when you’ve slaughtered a pig.” And if you’re a simple farmer, she pointed out, you’re going to drink what you make, and eat what you catch or grow. “Where we are, by the lake, it gets hot, and we can keep the grapes on the vine very long,” said Schröck. Sweet wines are easier to make there than fresh, dry whites.

While the onions caramelized, she pulled out a package of smoked catfish she’d brought, another specialty from her hometown. “I had this dish in a café in Rust,” she said, whipping some lime zest into a bowl of crème fraîche (in Austria, she would have used quark, a ubiquitous sort of sour cream). She dolloped the cream on the plate and artfully arranged some chunks of smoked fi sh around it, then grated fresh horseradish over the top. It’s not a fancy dish, but it tasted like it was when it met her Spätlese 2013, a silky, citrusy blend of welschriesling and weissburgunder (aka pinot blanc). The rich textures intertwined in a sumptuous way, the lime zest highlighting the acidity that refreshed the match.

Sárga Borház in Tokaj Sárga Borház in Tokaj
By then the onions were soft and richly golden, and while a pot of water came to a boil, we smashed a box of lasagna noodles into shards to approximate the little “rags” of pasta Schröck would have used in Rust. “People think exclusive wines need exclusive dishes,” she said, as pasta shards went flying. “This is one of the cheapest dishes I know.” She allowed that bacon fat would have been the traditional medium for frying, but as a kid she had an aversion to the smell of pork frying with cabbage, the next ingredient we add to the onions. “This dish is great for wine,” she enthused, showering the mixture with caraway seeds. “There’s
something about caraway and botrytis, and about how the caraway plays with acidity.” Once the pasta was done and the cabbage was tender, we tossed them together and spooned it into deep bowls. “Sweet wines make a nice bed for food,” Schröck said, pouring her Beerenauslese around. A little richer than the Spätlese, with some dark, smoky botrytis character, the wine was, indeed, like a warm, cozy duvet, at once light and enveloping. The sweetness of the onions echoed the sweetness in the wine, while the caraway drew out an earthy side.

There was also a sort of perverse pleasure in eating something so simple, elemental and honest, and drinking something that is undeniably special, golden and warm. Forget foie gras; think cabbage.

Paprika and Pork
As in the vineyards of Austria’s Neusiedlersee, many growers in Hungary’s Tokaj region produce more sweet wine than dry. The widespread and consistent appearance of botrytis, in fact, can make it complicated to make a clean, dry white wine—something Tokaj vintners didn’t do very well until the last decade. And given the very high acidity and alcohols in the local white grape, furmint, sweetness was considered not only an asset; it was a necessity.

Cooking with Schröck reminded me of a trip to Tokaj a few years ago when sweet wine seemed to turn up at every meal. Tokaji Aszú was served with pork and served with dumplings, poured next to pasta and even fish. Most of the dishes incorporated paprika, which seemed, like caraway, to have a special connection with botrytis, playing up the smoky, earthy elements in the wine. It’s what made something as unlikely as catfish in a creamy, paprika-spiced sauce stand up to a glass of a lighter Tokaji Aszú. And the cream sauce provided the body to stand up to the glycerin richness of the wine. It was a terrific match.

Later, I met Laszlo Meszarlos of Disznoko at Sarga Borhaz, a restaurant the winery owns dedicated to regional cuisine. Almost everything on the menu can be paired with Tokaji Aszú, from mushroom risotto to roast duck; the chef also served a similar fish dish, but Meszarlos suggested the pork would be even better with Tokaji. As it turns out, Hungarian pork is not a white meat; it’s earthy and gamey, full of fl avor. Even when it’s braised in Tokaji Aszú, like the shank I ordered, the pork keeps its essential meatiness, the Tokaji just an echo of the sweetness of the meat itself. The wine in the glass, in turn, doesn’t read as too sweet, as it might were the dish entirely savory; as with the caramelized onions in Schröck’s pasta, an element of sweetness works as a bridge, while the richness of the meat stands up to the wine’s intensity.

Roast Chicken and French Fries
While the Hungarians like to call Tokaji “the king of wines, and the wine of kings,” the French would say that honor goes to Yquem, the most famous sweet wine of the country’s most famed sweet wine appellation, Sauternes. Though priced out of reach for most normal human beings, Yquem has been thoroughly documented, and there’s lots to be gleaned from studying it. Richard Olney once penned an entire book on Yquem, with 29 pages exploring Sauternes and food. While many of the dishes he mentions skew toward fattened livers and guinea fowl, he also points out that Sauternes has been the match for oysters since the 1800s. But why stop at oysters? He writes of the power of Sauternes when it meets calamari—bringing to mind all sorts of Sicilian fish dishes that deploy sweetness in the form of raisins to great, enriching effect—and advocates for pouring it with fish in a cream sauce. The advantages there are twofold: With sweetness battening the acidity, there’s little chance the wine will go metallic, like so many dry wines do when they meet seafood. And the viscous texture of a sweet wine stands up to dense, meaty things and rich sauces, upping the pleasure factor without sending the dish overboard.

What feels revolutionary, however, is the menu he’s reprinted from Chez Panisse in June of 1973, when Jeremiah Tower served a dinner than began with Virginia ham and prunes and crescendoed at an entrecôte of beef served with potatoes—the entire menu playing salt and earth o the sweetness and spice of Sauternes. That, and the revelation that Alexandre de Lur Saluces, manager of Yquem from 1968 until 2004, liked Sauternes best with Sunday dinners of roast chicken and french fries. I immediately pulled out the Zuni Café Cookbook, salted my chicken, and chilled down a bottle of Sauternes, if one considerably less exalted than Yquem.

I have to confess that I don’t find the match perfect; had the wine been older, with more nutty spice and a less unctuous texture, it may have worked, but the heavy sweetness of my young, affordable version makes the bird feel a little meager. Taking a tip from the Austrian and Hungarian dishes, I look for a little sweetness to bridge the pairing, and a little more richness, something complementary in texture. With some butternut squash purée on the side, lightly sweetened with maple syrup and sprinkled with toasted walnuts, the combination works much better. Then again, with the higher acidity of the Uroulat Jurançon I opened just for comparison’s sake, it’s even better.

Those bottles of sweet wine I’d been saving?
They are all gone.

> photography by Kent Lew

This feature appears in the print edition of December 2015.
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Recipe

Pork with Aszú

adapted from chef Gábor Soltész, Sárga Borház

Recipe

Butternut Squash Purée

from Tara Q. Thomas in Sweet Advantages