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Apr 1, 2008
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Wine With Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Tomato and Arugula

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas    

 

It was late, and we were famished as we drove home from the theater last Saturday night, after spending  the past few hours happily immersed in the wonderful lyrics and melodies of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music.  Since it would be almost midnight by the time we got home, our plan was to make a couple of quick and easy grilled cheese sandwiches for a simple supper in the kitchen. 

 

'One of the first things we need to do is open a bottle of Syrah,' one of us proposed as we sped towards our house. 

This was met with a skeptical:  'Why Syrah?' 

'It just seems like something that would be good with grilled cheese.' 

The doubter said: 'I think Syrah will be too heavy.'

'Hmph.  We'll just have to see.'

 

Once we'd taken our coats off and turned up the heat in the kitchen, one of us went down to the cellar and pulled out a bottle of decent Syrah, an inexpensive Shiraz, and a Zinfandel for good measure.  The other layered cheddar cheese, a couple of slices of tomato, a little thinly sliced red onion and some arugula in between slices of good sourdough bread; the bread was then brushed with olive oil and the sandwiches were cooked in a hot skillet until they were crispy golden-brown on the outside, and the cheese inside was mouthwateringly molten.

The sandwiches were sublime, although (sigh) they were somewhat overshadowed by the very gutsy Syrah.  The simpler, fruitier Shiraz was a slightly better match.  As for the Zinfandel-no way.  It was far too sweet and alcoholic.  So the midnight food and wine pairing was imperfect, but it was challenging enough to inspire us to repeat the experiment a few days later with another round of sandwiches accompanied by a broader range of wines, both red and white.  Reasoning that grilled cheese is a casual, low-key menu item, we made it a point to include only wines costing les than $20.

The reds in our lineup confirmed our impressions of the previous evening.  Those that were too rich, too tannic, too alcoholic and/or too oaky tended to distract the palate rather than creating a completely harmonious bond with the toothsome amalgam of melted cheese and toasted bread.   By contrast, juicy, fruity, uncomplicated red wines resonated beautifully with the sandwiches.  White wines proved a little trickier.  Only those whites with ample body and ripe fruit flavors truly meshed with the lovely, rich ooziness of the cheese (a Sauvignon Blanc and a Riesling, for example, each proved too meager for the match).

'Isn't it rich / Are we a pair…Isn't it bliss?'  Sondheim's lyrics in Send in the Clowns apply to star-crossed lovers rather than grilled cheese and wine, but the sentiment certainly can be tweaked to describe the perfect pairing of food and wine--a liaison that is, indeed, bliss.

Selection

Approx. Price

Comments

 

Climbing, Orange (Australia) Shiraz 2005 (Imported by Cumulus Wines)

 

 

  $14

 

Jammy and juicy, this uncomplicated red wine offered plenty of fresh cherry and plum fruit flavor, and more than held its own with the sandwiches.  Since subtlety can get lost with this match, its forthright character turned out to be a plus.

 

  

 

Kunde Estate, Sonoma Valley (California) Chardonnay 2006

 

 

 $17

 

Showing a veneer of vanilla-scented oak, this ripe Chardonnay made the sandwiches taste ever so slightly sweet.  It was very easy to sip and enjoy.

 

 

 

Domaine Matrot, Bourgogne (France) Chardonnay 2006

(Imported by Vineyard Brands)

 

 $18

 

The most nuanced of the wines we're recommending, this basic white Bourgogne lost a little of its complexity when tried with a bite of sandwich; but its rich, layered finish kept gaining force, and so prevented it from ever seeming insubstantial.

 

 

 

La Valentina, Montelpulciano d'Abruzzo (Italy) 2005

(Imported by Dalla Terra)

 

 

  $13

 

This ripe red turned firm and almost austere with the grilled cheese.  That was okay, because doing so gave the match definition. Moreover, the acidity in the wine helped keep the taste of the tomatoes in check. 

 

 

 

Writer's Block, Lake County (California) Grenache 2006

 

 

 $15

 

 

Much like the Aussie Shiraz recommended above, this red was very fruity and direct.  Its straightforwardness constituted its charm, and it seemed just right with what after all is a very casual dish to have for supper.