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Sep 5, 2006
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Wine With . . . Chicken Caesar Salad

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas

 

The dog days of summer are upon us as we write, and the east coast of the United States is sweltering under a blanket of heat and humidity.  It's the kind of weather that invites indulgence in gin and tonics, peach pie, and bowls of ice cream-not to mention lots of lounging in the hammock.  But after a couple of weeks of such immoderation, and with Labor Day done with by the time you read this, it's time to think about getting back into shape for fall.  All of the above-the hot weather, the flourishing love handles--suggests one thing: salad! 

 

To our mind, a good Caesar Salad is one of the best ways to beat the heat and combat the flab.  Crisp, cool morsels of Romaine (and it must be Romaine rather than some limp lettuce to qualify as a Caesar), laced with a creamy garlic-infused dressing and topped with shredded Parmesan and grilled shrimp or chicken for sustenance, makes a terrific dinner, either homemade or enjoyed at a local pub.

 

Though many salads clash with wine, one of Caesar's many attributes is that it is remarkably adaptable to a variety of different wines.  We hear a lot about food-friendly wines these days, but Caesar is a relatively wine-friendly food.  This is due largely to its creamy texture (created by both egg and mustard emulsified in the dressing), and by virtue of the dense protein in both the cheese and the chicken or shrimp topping.  The use of lemon (rather than harsher vinegar) in the dressing is another bonus, and the hint of anchovy or Worcestershire adds a depth of flavor that enhances the wine. 

 

There are certainly occasions when a glass of youthful, fruity red might be just the thing to have with Caesar Salad.  But when the temperature and heat indexes are edging into the high 90s, a fresh, chilled white wine holds a lot of appeal.  When we sampled thirteen different wines on a muggy evening with our Chicken Caesar, we included one rosé, but otherwise opened only whites.  Not surprisingly, heaviness-whether from discernible oak or too much residual sugar-proved to be a deterrent.  The rosé seemed clunky (though a drier one might have fared better), as did both a California Chardonnay and an off-dry Proseco.  At the same time, while crispness and verve were appealing, overt acidity (which came off as sourness in an Italian Pinot Grigio we sampled) went to war with the lemony dressing.  In the final analysis, harmony counted for a lot more than grape variety or specific stylistic differences.  The wines that paired best were those with fine flavor but also fine balance.

 

 

 

Selection

Approx. Price

 

 

Clos la Chance,

Central Coast (California) Estate Viognier 2005

 

 

 

 

  $20

 

Very fruity and floral, this peach-scented wine enlivened the salad, making it seem somehow softer and sweeter than it did otherwise.  We thought the wine was a bit blowsy on its own, but found that it gained definition and focus with the dish. 

 

 

 

Jermann, Venezia Giulia (Italy) Pinot Bianco 2005

(Imported by Empson USA)

 

 

 

 $35

 

This wine was superb on its own and almost as good with the salad.  The lemony dressing did obscure a few of its nuances, but the wine was so tasty that we didn't mind.  It's also beautifully textured, with just the right balance of fruit and acidity, leading us to suspect that it will pair well with a wide variety of foods.

 

 

 

Jean-Paul Paquet,  Burgundy (France)

Bourgogne-Chardonnay 'Chateau de Chaintré' 2004

(Imported by Elite Wines)

 

 

 

 $18

 

A fantastic partner for our Chicken Caesar, this wine showed pear and apple fruit flavors, with just enough spicy oak to add interest but not so much as to interfere.  It was much better than a California Chardonnay costing twice as much, in large measure because it didn't try so hard to strut its stuff.

 

 

 

Sartori di Verona, Soave Classico (Italy) Soave 2005

(Imported by VB Imports)

 

 

 

  $12

 

This wine surprised us.  We thought it would be too light-bodied and delicate for Chicken Caesar, but it turned out to be a very pleasant partner.  That's because its fruit flavors, while subtle, seem juicy.  They provided a nice counterpoint to the citrusy dressing.

 

 

 

Rodney Strong, Sonoma County (California) Sauvignon Blanc 'Charlotte's Home' 2005

 

 

 

 

 

  $14

 

The herbaceous character of this Sauvignon Blanc paired nicely with the Romaine, and its grapefruit character complemented the dressing.  At the same time, the wine isn't too lean, so easily held its own with the grilled chicken in the salad.  Curious to see how an even more assertively-flavored Sauvignon would fare, we opened one from South Africa.  Sadly, the bottle was badly corked.