If I had to give up either sweet or salty foods forever, I wouldn't think twice about my choice. Even as a kid, I had a salt tooth. While my sister ordered a sundae at our neighborhood Dairy Queen, I opted for French fries. My preference for salty treats is likely due to the influence of my mother--a transplanted Southerner--who taught me to sprinkle a little salt on cantaloupe to make it taste extra delicious. For years, people told me that was disgusting--now guess who's wrapping melon slices in salty prosciutto and calling it 'gourmet'?
Actually, I couldn't have been happier when the rest of the country finally came around to my way of thinking about salt. Goodies like salted caramels and fleur de sel ice cream would have been unthinkable to Americans 10 years ago, but today they're available all over the U.S.
A recent visit to the Dean & Deluca store in the Napa Valley confirmed salt's elevated epicurean stature. Next to the cheese counter stood two dozen jars of specialty salts from around the world, from Chardonnay-and-oak-smoked salt to a black truffle variety priced at $75 a pound.
As I perused the astounding array of salts on offer, I couldn't help but wonder: What are you supposed to do with this stuff? Sprinkle it on French fries? The answer, as it turned out, was waiting for me in Sonoma.
On one glorious night each year, the Carneros Bistro & Wine Bar hosts its Salt Dinner--a six-course menu devoted to the many incarnations of salt, and the wines that love them. For the restaurant's third-annual Salt Dinner, chef Janine Falvo created an adventurous menu featuring flavored salt accents--she even makes her own infused salts--and salt-cured dishes.
Falvo and sommelier Christopher Sawyer created this concept dinner as an alternative to the standard winemaker dinner. And, Sawyer admitted, 'We have a thing for salt.'
This year's dishes and wine pairings included:
- Potato latke, smoked salmon and quail egg napoleon with caviar (Domaine Carneros 2005 Brut Vintage, Carneros)
- Strawberry salt-cured foie gras torchon with strawberry compote (Domaine Carneros NV Brut Rose 'Cuvée de la Pompadour', Carneros)
- Marlin sashimi with popcorn-chardonnay salt (Domaine Carneros 2002 'Le Reve' Blanc de Blancs, Carneros)
- Dr. Pepper-braised pork belly seasoned with hazelnut salt, served with sweet potato fries (Buena Vista 2006 Carneros Estate Pinot Noir, Ramal Vineyard)
- CK Lamb with salt-cured olive custard and morel mushrooms (Atlas Peak 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, Mountain Vineyards, Napa Valley)
- Chocolate-covered pretzel-caramel tart and fleur de sel ice cream (Domaine Carneros 2004 Vermeil Demi-Sec, Carneros).
While all of the night's pairings were superb, a few stood out as being particularly inspired. The brut rosé, with its fruity wild strawberry flavor, was a seamless match for the foie gras with its balsamic-accented strawberry compote. The pork belly was served under a smoke-filled glass, which brought out a wonderful smokiness in the Pinot Noir. And the combination of the semi-sweet sparkler with the salty/sweet pretzel-crusted tart and fleur de sel ice cream was wonderful--the wine tasted lightly sweet, in perfect harmony with the tart's salty accents. Now this was my kind of dessert!
Sawyer and Falvo chose mostly sparkling wines to complement this year's menu, due to their natural affinity for salt-kissed foods. 'Bubbles are fantastic with salt,' Falvo said.
'One of the greatest things about sparkling wines is that they're great with French fries,' Sawyer added. 'There's a chemical process between salt and wine that brings out different elements in the food.'
The Domaine Carneros sparklers we sampled during the Salt Dinner covered a wide range of styles--from the crisp, green apple character of the 2005 Brut to the yeasty richness of the 'Le Reve' Blanc de Blancs to the fruity rosé--which allowed them to pair with a diverse array of salt-infused foods.
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes for the bubblies and Pinot Noir came from the Domaine Carneros estate vineyards in Carneros. Spanning the southern ends of both Napa and Sonoma counties, the Carneros region is known for its long, moderately cool growing season, fog and maritime breezes. The AVA is a bit cooler than Burgundy and a little warmer than Champagne, which makes it a prime California region for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. The acidity that results from the region's coolness makes the Domaine Carneros wines a great match for salty foods, because acidity cuts through salty flavors.
When pairing wines with salty foods, Falvo recommends wines that are acidic, fruity or crisp. (Think of the classic pairing of briny oysters with Sauvignon Blanc.) One of Falvo's favorite everyday pairings is popcorn with Chardonnay.
Other salt-friendly wines include Pinot Grigio and crisp rosé wines. Off-dry and sweet wines can also be a delicious foil for salty foods (think kettle corn). In general, red wines aren't great matches for salty food. Salt tends to accentuate alcohol in red wines, making them taste "hot." Tannins enhance salty flavors in food, so unless you're looking to bring out the saltiness in a particular dish, it's better to opt for softer wines.
With all the delicious wine options available for salt freaks like me, there's really no need to reach for a beer when the basket of fried calamari, bowl of potato chips or plate of fried chicken comes your way. You can even keep the bottle out for the dessert course--especially if it happens to be a slice of ripe cantaloupe, lightly sprinkled with salt.