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Apr 28, 2009
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Wine With . . . Paella

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas       


'You bring the wines, I'll make paella,' said our friend Lisa.  And so, on one of the first warm days of spring, we showed up at her house with fifteen bottles of wine and our taste buds primed for paella. 


Possibly Spain's most famous dish, paella's origins can be traced back to eighth century Valencia, a region ruled by the Moors who introduced rice and many other new crops which they brought from North Africa and the near East.  The Arabs also brought saffron (azafrán) to Spain.  This essential paella ingredient is expensive compared to most herbs and spices because it is a very labor intensive crop, and its harvest has a very short window (about 10 days in the fall).  The spice is extracted from the stigma of the purple Crocus sativus, and it takes about 200 crocus flowers to produce a single gram of saffron.  Cheaper substitutes may impart the proper golden hue, but they never will give the haunting aroma and flavor of the real thing.  But don't be tempted to be too generous with the saffron, for an overabundance in the dish can turn paella bitter.


Paella was originally a humble peasant dish, cooked by farm workers at midday in the fields using available ingredients such as rabbits (when one could be snared) and/or snails (relatively easy to gather up).  Paella marinara was a coastal variation on the same theme.  The most familiar paella today combines meat and fish, and is a tasty, easy to assemble one-dish dinner that has the further advantage of being deliciously wine-friendly.


There were six of us enjoying Lisa's paella, and we were just about evenly divided between white and red wines.  A couple of us had a slight preference for the former to highlight the seafood in the dish, while the rest thought the red wines showed better with the full flavored chorizo.  We all agreed, however, that the paella had enough complexity of flavors and textures to be a good fit with wines of any color.



You can be as versatile as you want with the chicken.  Poach up a couple of chicken breasts and/or roast some thighs, or for a quick and easy approach use the meat from a rotisserie chicken.


2 Chorizo sausages cut into chunks

About 1 pound chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, diced

1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into thin strips

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped (use fresh or canned)

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon thyme

2 cups medium to long-grain rice, preferably Spanish Valencia

2 teaspoons saffron threads

Salt and pepper

6 cups chicken stock or water

1 pound calamari (squid), cleaned and cut into rings

1 pound large shrimp

1 dozen mussels

½ cup green peas (frozen is fine)

3 or 4 lemons, cut in wedges

In a paella pan or wide, heavy skillet, lightly brown the chorizo and chicken in the olive oil.  Remove them with a slotted spoon and reserve. Drain off excess oil and add the onion and pepper to the pan.  Cook until they begin to soften.  Add the garlic and tomatoes and mix in the paprika and thyme.  Stir in the rice.  Soften the saffron in ¼ cup hot water for 5 minutes; then stir it into the rice mixture.  Season with salt and pepper.  Add the stock or water and simmer, uncovered, about 10 minutes, stirring once or twice to keep rice from sticking to the pan.  Add the chicken, chorizo, and the seafood.  Simmer, uncovered, until the rice is al dente and the mussels have opened.  Scatter the peas over the top of the dish and continue simmering for a few more minutes, until the rice is fully cooked and all the liquid has been absorbed.  Remove from heat and let stand about 5 minutes before serving.  Garnish the dish with lemon wedges.



Approx. Price



Cono Sur, Colchagua Valley (Chile) Pinot Noir 'Vision' 2008

(Imported by Vineyard Brands)




We found that wines of all colors work well with paella-with, of course, a few caveats.  First, because the dish contains so many different ingredients and flavors, the wine can't be too subtle or nuanced as it runs the danger of getting lost or obscured by the food.  Second, while soft, supple reds can make fine partners, fuller-bodied ones can turn bitter, the tannins clashing with the shellfish.  Finally, whether red, white or pink, all the wines that showed best with our paella also showed plenty of fresh, forward fruit flavor, This is a dish, then, that calls for youthful exuberance rather than refined elegance.


This Chilean Pinot (oh how the wine world has changed; ten years ago even the idea of recommending Pinot Noir from Chile would have seemed laughable) is marked by bright cherry fruit, hints of spice, and a velvety texture.  That soft feel made it an especially enjoyable partner with this dish.




Martin Codax, Rioja (Spain) 'Ergo' 2006

(Imported by Martin Codax USA)





The second red wine we are recommending, while a bit more substantial on the palate than the Pinot Noir, offered similar advantages-fresh fruit flavor and a seductively soft texture.  For red wine especially, these characteristics seem to be the hallmarks of a successful paella pairing.




Jean-Luc Colombo, Coteaux d'Aix en Provence (France) Cape Bleue Rosé 2008

(Imported by Palm Bay International)






A bright, vivacious southern French rosé, this wine had enough heft to stand up to even the chorizo in the dish, yet never seemed overwhelming or heavy.  Everyone at the table agreed that it was a definite paella winner.



Hoopla, Yountville Napa Valley (California) Chardonnay 2007





This full-fleshed Chardonnay, with tropical fruit flavors and more than a hint of sweet oak, had just the right body and succulent mouth feel to complement the paella nicely.  Though a couple of tasters were skeptical of its sweetness, others found that quality to be an attractive complement for the sweet shrimp and saffron in the dish.





Ponzi, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Pinot Blanc 2007






Much like the California Chardonnay, this Oregon Pinot Blanc worked well with the paella because of its weight and texture.  A fair number of other whites that we tried with the dish seemed thin and insubstantial with our paella.  This rich, autumn fruit-flavored wine had enough substance to hold its own.