Some food and wine pairings are easy to remember because they're so common, or, perhaps more precisely, they're so "established." You know - we could hardly think of one without the other. Like foie gras and Sauternes. On the flip side, there are wines and foods that we would not dream of pairing. Like fried eggs and malbec.
Macaroni and cheese is a common enough dish, but it doesn't really have a standby wine, does it? At least it doesn't have one that jumps to the front of the mind and the tip of the tongue the way cabernet sauvignon does when someone mentions a juicy steak. So, using JeanMarie Brownson's excellent and easy recipe for creamy bacon mac and cheese from her Dinner at Home column, I made some mac and cheese and opened a bunch of wine to find out what goes well with this comfort food staple. I started with bubbles, then moved to whites and eventually made it to a few reds.
I usually think of mac and cheese as a white wine dish, but after I had sliced, grated, sizzled and boiled an armful of ingredients, and when they were combined and steaming, creamy and fragrant in a bowl at my command, it made perfect sense to me that mac and cheese would also be good with red wine. We're talking about pasta (I used cavatappi), Parmigiano-Reggiano and two other Italian cheeses, onions, garlic and bacon. Um, yeah, we're going to drink some red wine with this dish.
Champagne goes well with pretty much all food, but I tried three non-Champagne sparklers and two of them were great matches. I also tried a couple of chardonnays that had spent some time in oak, and both missed the mark. However, through the years I have enjoyed exquisite chardonnay/mac-and-cheese pairings, so don't write off that combination just yet.
Six of the dozen wines I tried weren't so great: a sparkling rose, a riesling, a roussanne, the two chardonnays and a dolcetto. In reverse order, that's a red, four whites and a pink. They were all good wines on their own, but they clashed with the dish. Clash is bad. Great band, bad food-and-wine characteristic. If you are not shooting for a perfectly seamless blend, at least try to make your contrast interesting and balanced.
I love pairings that make it impossible to know where the food ends and the wine begins. When the flavors are in my mouth and they all seem part of the same whole, it makes me smile. I have nothing against food and wine accentuating one another, but when flavors join together to form one, new, unified taste, that's when you should ask me for a loan, or help moving a piano.
Years ago I spent an hour in a sensory deprivation tank filled with water so densely salted that I floated like a cork. The temperature of the water and the air was dialed in to be exactly the same, and when I lifted my arm above the water and then dipped it back in, I noticed no difference. I like my food and wine combinations to be like that.
The nonvintage Adami Bosco di Gica Brut Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore ($18) provided a nice match right from the start. Abbondanza! It was floral, with licorice and a refreshing tang that balanced the richness of the mac and cheese.
Another sparkler, the nonvintage Santa Julia Blanc de Blancs ($13) from Argentina's Mendoza region, was an even better pairing. Made from 100 percent organic chardonnay grapes, it started with beautiful honey aromas, moving on to citrus flavors reminiscent of Fresca in the best way, and then progressed to a satisfying bready finish. This was a richer, fuller wine than the prosecco, and that richness may have had something to do with its slightly greater compatibility.
The high acidity of riesling makes it a food-friendly no-brainer, placing it, under that criteria, in the company of Champagne. The 2014 Nine Hats Riesling ($12) from the Columbia Valley of Washington was a good match, dry with classic minerality and citrus notes, plus green apple; and the 2014 Dr. Loosen Blue Slate Riesling Kabinett ($22) from Germany's Mosel region was an even better match, offering flint, juicy pear and a lushness that complemented the dish's heft and zip.
Moving into reds, the 2012 Coquerel Pinot Noir ($29) from the Sonoma Coast was elegant and a touch reserved compared with a lot of Sonoma pinot noirs. The fruit was there, but it was not a mouth-socker. Fermented in 100 percent French oak barrels, this wine was layered, finishing patiently hand-in-hand with the food.
While all of the above pairings were good-to-great, the best pairing of the lot was the 2011 Criterion Chianti Classico ($15). With anise, cherry, leather and cedar, it was a natural partner for the tangy aged cheese and the thick-cut smoky bacon.
I actually went out and bought fresh thyme for the dish's garnish, but in the commotion of cooking food and cooling wines, it slipped my mind. I'm sure the pairings would have only been more interesting had I remembered to use it.