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Nov 25, 2008
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Wine With Goulash

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas

In a recent magazine interview, NBC anchorman Brian Williams described a favorite childhood dinner as "one can of Spaghetti-Os with one half pound ground chuck."  He called it "Mom's goulash," and recalled that he "loved the international flavor of the name."  Well, we like that Hungarian name too--from gulás, meaning cattleman--but we prefer the real thing--a slow-cooked beef stew spiked with plenty of paprika, with chewy chunks of meat (none ground), and no Spaghetti-Os. We particularly like the mouth-watering aromas that fill the house as the goulash cooks, and of course we delight in the rich, complex flavors of this old-fashioned dish.

One of the best things about goulash is its ability to tame, charm, wrap itself around and bring out the best in almost any red wine. Even wines that did not end up on our list of top five favorite partners for this dish had plenty of redeeming qualities. A well-made Oregon Pinot Noir, for example, though light and delicate by nature, nevertheless connected with the goulash because of its inherent sweetness.  Ditto with both a South African red blend and a Malbec from Argentina.  In fact, one characteristic that each of our winning wines shared was a measure of ripe, fruit-forward charm.  Like many stews, traditional goulash has an edge of sweetness due to ingredients such as carrots, onions, and tomato paste, which all add depth and personality to the dish, but which are themselves fairly sweet.  Wines that lack the balance of a sweet fruit presence--wines that are overwhelmingly dry, leathery, and/or tannic, for example--failed to bond as convincingly with the stew on the palate.

There are plenty of variations on recipes for goulash in books, magazines and on the Internet.  True Hungarian goulash is a beef-based stew or soup that must include paprika among the other ingredients, with sour cream--a dash, not a boatload of it--stirred in at the end.  We adapted our recipe from the current (November/December 2008) issue of Cook's Illustrated.  We browned onions in a Dutch oven, then stirred in a blend of paprika, roasted red peppers, tomato paste and vinegar. Carrots, beef and bay leaf were added; then the pot was transferred to the oven to cook slowly for a couple of hours.  At that point we poured in some beef broth and returned the stew to the oven for 20 minutes.  Just before serving the goulash we stirred in a teaspoon of vinegar and ¼ cup sour cream, adjusted the seasoning, and dished it up over egg noodles.

If you have any food and wine pairings that you think are outstanding, or if you've encountered any glaring mismatches, we'd love to hear from you.  Drop us a line at winewith@winereviewonline.com




Approx. Price



Artezin, Dry Creek Valley (California) Zinfandel 2006






Showing a classic Dry Creek profile, this Zinfandel offers bright berry fruit enhanced by briary spice.  That combination worked especially well with our goulash, as the fruit enhanced the stew's sweetness while the spicy notes added an element of intrigue.  Adding to its appeal, the wine is very well-balanced, so not at all hot or heavy.




Capel Vale, Mount Barker (Australia) Shiraz 2007

(Imported by Vintage New World)






Plum-like flavors constitute this harmonious wine's primary appeal, but dark peppery accents emerge in the finish.  When sipped with the goulash, those secondary notes added depth to the pairing, making the wine especially enjoyable.





Castello di Corbara, Lago di Corbara (Italy) Cabernet Sauvignon 2005

(Imported by Vintage Brands)






From a DOC in Umbria, this Cabernet offers genuine varietal character enhanced by dusty, leathery notes.  Its tannins seem somewhat pasty, something that might be off-putting were it sipped on its own, but that gave it structure and backbone when paired with the rich goulash.





Vina Robles, Paso Robles (California) Petite Sirah "Jardine" 2006





More restrained than many Petite Sirahs, this wine still has plenty of muscle.  It more than held its own with our goulash.  Subtle notes of dark licorice and savory spice boosted its bright blueberry-scented fruit, making it a fine partner for what after all is a full-flavored dish.





Zaca Mesa, Santa Ynez Valley (California) Syrah 2004




Dark berry fruit augmented by hints of dried herbs (especially thyme and sage) enabled this wine to do what all the successful goulash partners did--echo the dish's sweetness while at the same time adding an earthy or savory element all its own.