Charcuterie, the fancy French term for cold cuts and other preserved meats, is hot. Chic restaurants have been pushing platters of artisanal salami, ham and pâté as part of the nose-to-tail dining movement that celebrates every lardy, gamy globule of an animal. I predict there'll be plenty served at home this holiday season - charcuterie is anything but fussy, enabling cocktail-party hosts to dodge the burden of cooking or catering. Just shop and serve.
But what to pair with all that head cheese and cured pig's rump?
I have silently wept while bottles of France's finest, such as top red Bordeaux, met their ignominious end at the hands of a charcuterie platter. There are, after all, many flavours and textures on the typical plate. Think spicy sopressata, salty prosciutto, fatty terrines, possibly a selection of complementary cheeses. All that would make for a serious pairing challenge even without the puckery garnishes, such as pickles and mustard. Those flavours can throw off the balance of a low-acid wine and make it taste sour.
I've learned a few hard lessons. Chief among them: Keep things cheap and cheerful. Second: White wine can be surprisingly as good as red. Third: Get to know sherry and barbera.
I called a few restaurateurs for their professional take on the meaty debate.
"Spending a lot of money on a wine to pair is probably not the best idea," said Jake Skakun, the sommelier at L'Abattoir, a new Vancouver restaurant specializing in French-inspired food. Until recently, Mr. Skakun plied his trade at Salt Tasting Room, a nearby charcuterie bar.
His No. 1 pairing partner: sherry, particularly drier styles such as fino, manzanilla and amontillado. Spain's glorious fortified white wine is rarely considered a food partner in this country, but it's remarkably versatile and holds up against a broad assault of flavours. The acidity of dry sherry helps cut through the fattiest meats.
For saltier plates that may include prosciutto or Iberico ham and hard sheep's milk cheeses, Mr. Skakun likes fino, including the bone-dry and widely available Tio Pepe. And he likes fuller-bodied amontillado when serving a variety of meats. The Alvear brand, which makes a fino and amontillado, sells for less than $15 across Canada.
Some of the world's most popular wines, such as chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz, can clash with gamy cured meats because they're bogged down by excessive weight and lack the requisite acidity. Often, the best matches can be found off the beaten path.
For instance, Mr. Skakun's also favours the generally crisp, dry whites of northern Spain, such as tangy white Rioja. Among reds, he loves Beaujolais, the light-bodied wine from southern Burgundy based on the gamay grape. In time for this holiday season, the 2009 Beaujolais vintage, which was exceptional, has begun streaming onto shelves in Canada.
Like me, Mr. Skakun is partial also to medium-bodied barbera, the acidic Italian red whose best examples come from the northern Piedmont region and typically cost less than $20. In Italy, where there's a salami, often you'll find a bottle of barbera not far away.
At Murray Street in Ottawa's Byward Market, where charcuterie accounts for 30 per cent of the restaurant's sales, co-owner Paddy Whelan agrees that medium-bodied reds generally work better with a variety of cured meats than big blockbusters. The key is not to get hung up on matching individual meats, he advises, or you could end up with as many wines as items on the platter. "If you try to get very technical and overthink the thing," he says, "you're getting away from the simplicity of what the dish is about."
One of his favourite styles for noses, tails and everything in between is dry rosé. It tends to combine sufficient weight and fruit but finishes zippy and clean. Another advantage of rosé is price. The vast majority cost between $10 and $20.
And don't rule out a cold, crisp beer, he says. Though he's a fan of good-quality lager, such as Beau's Lug Tread lager from the Ottawa region, my preference leans toward India pale ale, a fuller-bodied, aromatic and bitter style.
Catherine Gerson, manager at Toronto hot spot the Black Hoof, endorses the IPA option. But the house favourite is riesling, whether a moderately sweet style from Germany or a generally juicier Ontario example. "This grape continues to steal our charcuterie-loving hearts," she said of the white variety. "I recall the taste of it with [chef Grant van Gameren's]lavender-cured duck prosciutto. Sold."
Riesling ranked highly in a charcuterie-pairing experiment led last year for a group of wine writers by British food-and-wine pairing expert Fiona Beckett. Ms. Beckett likes sparkling wine with charcuterie, largely because of its mouth-cleansing acidity. Not surprisingly, Lambrusco, a sparkling red, placed highly, too, just above riesling. The wine, popular in North America in the 1960s but now largely out of fashion, hails mainly from Emilia-Romagna, the regional home of Italy's famous Parma ham. "I loved its acidity, its dark bitter cherry fruit and its gentle effervescence, but it's obviously a 'love it or hate it' wine," she wrote on her website matchingfoodandwine.com. "Some didn't take to it at all, another group agreed that it was one of the best all-rounders."
Care to guess which wine style was voted best over all? Manzanilla sherry.