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The Acid Test
Comparing Sauvignon Blanc with Riesling
by Randal Caparoso

Although I do not fear low acid wines for food, there’s a lot to be said for crisply balanced, elevated acidity of varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. Case in point: In the fall of 1992, I invited Peter Merriman, one of the founders of the Hawaiian Regional Cuisine movement, to prepare a meal for me in his style. Whether he’s aware of it or not, Peter’s palate tends to veer on the acidic side. So his style of cooking was just the thing I was looking for. His quesadilla of Puna goat cheese, Kahuku shrimp and roasted macadamia nuts; fresh Sharwell avocado, pomelo and orange salad with watercress and arugula in fresh lime with honey; and sesame-crusted onaga (Hawaiian ruby snapper) with papaya relish, spicy mango sauce and organic Big Island greens I elected to match with Bonny Doon "Pacific Rim" Riesling (California) and Cloudy Bay (right), Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand).

Although the possibilities offered by the unusually dry yet flowery, fruity qualities of Bonny Doon’s new-wave style Riesling (from grapes grown in Washington St. and Germany’s Mosel) are intriguing, experience and instinct told me that the higher acid wine, the powerfully aromatic Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc—from one of the world’s coldest climate growing regions—might prove to be the more natural partner for these acid-driven dishes. What I didn’t predict, however, was how well both wines would do what they’re supposed to do, which is make a dish taste better than it would without wine.

Ideal Sauvignon Food Matches:
There's More than Chèvre

More Successful Sauvignon Blanc Food Pairings

How's that? A classic example of how this works is Chèvre, French goat cheese matched with Loire River-style Sauvignon Blancs (such as Sancerre). Sharing common qualities of sharp acidity and somewhat earthy grassiness, Chèvre and Sancerre have long been considered one of the best, if not predictable, food and wine combinations in the world. The goat cheese produced in the Big Island of Hawaii, however, is milder and less acidic than traditional Chèvre of France. In the same fashion, the taste of Hawaii’s Kahuku-raised shrimp is somewhat milder than shrimp raised in most parts of the mainland United States.

So if it was just a mild dose of acidity and flavor that Merriman’s goat cheese and shrimp quesadilla needed, it certainly was found in the moderately crisp, fruity-scented Bonny Doon Riesling. But the exuberantly zested, melony, citrusy and grassy qualities of Cloudy Bay seemed to slice, dice and beg the palate to come back for bite after bite of shrimp and goat cheese in the quesadilla.

In the second course, the dominant factors were the buttery avocado, the pomelo’s plump, pink grapefruit taste, and the slightly bitter edge of the greens. With the lime infused vinaigrette acting as a conduit, the Riesling’s crisp, fragrant fruitiness did a neat job of balancing out the leafy, citrus taste of the salad. But again, it was the more intensely flavorful Cloudy Bay that added a more palate-freshening dimension to this tropical style dish.

With the onaga—a meltingly soft, mild and lush white Hawaiian fish—Merriman snuck in a Malaysian chili spice into the mango sauce, and so this sweet/spice interplay as well as the crunchy freshness of the green beans all seemed to benefit equally by the steely edge of the Riesling and the lavish, leafy greenery in the Sauvignon Blanc. These two wines, from two different grapes from different parts of the world, both make light, contemporary tropical island dishes even fresher and livelier to the taste.

Conclusions:

• Dishes utilizing vinaigrettes, citrusy (higher acid) fruits, chili spices, and slightly bitter edged mesclun and other greens could definitely benefit from higher acid varietals like Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc (and maybe to a lesser extent, medium acid varieties like Pinot Gris and Albarino).

• Although one may be conditioned to reach immediately for authentic Loire River grown Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé when served a good Chèvre, you can also find a good match in any number of the world’s newer, crisp acid styles of Sauvignon Blanc, such as those of New Zealand and the West Coast of the U.S.—especially when goat cheese is used as a component in a dish with other ingredients.

• Dishes utilizing tropical fruit as a component, or in a relish or sauce, do particularly well with more highly perfumed, tropical fruit toned varieties—beginning with exuberantly fruity Rieslings, and extending to the aromatic, fruit driven styles of Sauvignon Blancs from the New World.

Randal Caparoso


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