In the midst of summer's heat, wine provides a refreshing accompaniment to the crisp coolness of a salad. In honor of the season, I decided to investigate salad and wine pairings. During the course of a month, I prepared four basic salads and tasted each with more than 60 wines from around the world. Here's what I found.
With basic green salads, lettuce is not the issue-the dressing is. Vinaigrettes are often so vinegary that they make most wines taste bitter or flat. But if you make a vinaigrette with lemon juice or a "soft" vinegar-such as good quality balsamic vinegar-you'll get that bright flavor you want and have a dressing that complements wines. White wines with a similarly bright, clean flavor are the best matches for green salads. Among those to try: California sauvignon blanc, French Sancerre, Australian riesling, and one of my favorites with vinaigrette-laced green salads, Spanish albariño.
Many diverse ingredients make chef's salads intriguing to eat, but they also make them a challenge to pair. Plus, compared to a basic green salad, the addition of protein foods (chicken, ham, cheese) changes the wine equation completely and opens up the possibility that a red wine-rather than a white-will be the star. Ham is tricky when it comes to wine, and its bold salty/cured flavor can make many wines taste washed out.
Here, the results really surprised me. While many well-balanced chardonnays would be a nice match, the two best partners were both reds: a Spanish tempranillo (Marques de Arienzo) and a Chianti Classico (Cecchi "Teuzzo" Chianti Classico Reserva). What made these red wines work? Both are light to medium in body, have good acidity, are low in tannin, and have red fruit flavors that contrast brilliantly with the proteins in the salad.
As I liberally laced the dressing for my classic Caesar salad with garlic and anchovies, I braced myself. Could any wine stand up to this? As it turns out, Caesar salad is wonderful with all sorts of wines. Light- to medium-bodied whites with good acidity work beautifully. But my favorite choices were just the opposite: full-bodied whites with low acidity. Three types of wine that fit this bill: chardonnay, gewürztraminer, and viognier.
I love mayonnaise-based salads like chicken salad and shrimp salad as main courses this time of year. But mayonnaise is usually deadly as a wine partner. I tried every white wine I could think of-even Champagne-but none worked. When two of my colleagues suggested I try a dry rosé, I found the "wow" I'd been looking for.
Cooking Light wine expert Karen MacNeil was named Ecolab Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional of 2004 by the James Beard Foundation. She is chair of the wine programs at the Culinary Institute of America in California's Napa Valley. Wine prices may vary.