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The Surprise of Sauternes

Sure it's sweet, but Sauternes is complex enough to pair with all kinds of savory dishes, from Roquefort terrine to fried chicken.

A fine Sauternes can live a lifetime or two. Layer upon layer of honey and exotic fruit, great acidity and a good jolt of alcohol make it a spectacularly complex dessert wine. Yes, it's sweet and it's big, but that doesn't mean it can be served only with cheese or dessert. The sweetness and richness are balanced out by the acid, making the wine more accommodating than you might think. The right match--a sip of Sauternes followed by a bite of something, say, buttery and salty--is a wonderfully intense experience.

It isn't hard to pair Sauternes with savory dishes as long as you keep a few guidelines in mind. Look to the classic pairing of Sauternes and foie gras, usually with a tart sauce--sweet, rich and flowery with meaty, rich and sharp--for a hint: the idea is to find flavors and textures that will stand up to the wine. For instance, dishes with components that are creamy (cream sauces, high-fat cheeses), salty (cured hams), briny (seafood), mineral (oysters), acidic (lemons) and even spicy (chiles) make fine matches. Similarly, the right textures cut through the wine's honey-like body: dense, flavorful fruits (pineapples, apricots), beef, meaty fish and crunchy fried foods all do the job beautifully.

Each of the following dishes makes a superb (if not always a classic) pairing with Sauternes. A terrine of Roquefort and toasted walnuts served with a mustardy apple salad serves the same purpose as the cheese course that so often accompanies the wine. Salty cured ham baked with leeks and crunchy pistachios in a cream sauce evens out the wine's sweetness. Fried chicken with Sauternes? You bet! With a squeeze of lemon, it's perfect. And a sauté of pork tenderloin with a spicy habanero pan sauce tamed with a touch of Sauternes seems to add even more complexity to the wine.

The point of all these pairings is to help the Sauternes along, to bring out as many of its qualities as you can. The wine becomes a different experience with each of these dishes. So open a bottle--and revel.

Published October 1998
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