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The tricky task of pairing wine and citrus
This is the perfect time of year for buying oranges and lemons but what effect do they have on the recipes you’re making? Quite a marked one, if truth be told. Lemons in particular have a high level of acidity which will make any wine you drink with them taste sweeter. If that’s counterbalanced in the recipe by sugar as in a lemon tart or lemon meringue pie, for example, the result is a dish that’s really quite hard to match.
Many wines have some citrus notes in them of course but I find the lemon flavours in the dish are usually stronger. So a lemony chicken or pasta dish, for example, can make a citrussy Sauvignon Blanc taste flat. Or, if it holds its own, can unbalance the dish by creating an overload of citrus flavours.
Surprisingly the answer is often to pick a red, particularly a red with marked acidity of its own. The Italians do that instinctively when they reach for a bottle of Valpolicella with a spaghetti al limone or squeeze lemon over a bistecca alla fiorentina and pair it with a tannic Chianti. The acid in the fruit subdues the acid in the wine. Lamb cooked with lemon and herbs tastes great with a rustic red. I’ve even found oak-aged Spanish reds such as Rioja reserva taste good with a chicken and lemon tagine.
There are occasions when red doesn’t ‘feel right’ though, especially with seafood and here I find a neutral Italian or Spanish white can work well - something like an earthy Verdicchio, an Albariño or Spain’s up and coming white Godello. A good Pinot Grigio can also do the trick.
Intensely lemony desserts are harder as you have to contend with both acid and sweetness, qualities you need to find in any wine you choose. I find top quality late-harvest Riesling does the job best but even then it’s a struggle. Some advocate ice wine but that can add to the intensity of an already intensely flavoured dish. I still have to find a perfect solution - mint tea, maybe. Or perhaps one of the orangey liqueurs mentioned below - orange and lemon being natural bedfellows. (Though I'm not sure it would work the other way round - Limoncello with an orange-flavoured dessert.)
With a lighter lemon dessert like a souffl or mousse a sweet sparkling dessert wine like Asti or Clairette de Die generally works well.
Orange is easier and more forgiving. I’ve noticed a lot of chefs putting orange into savoury dishes this winter and it almost always enhances the match with an accompanying red wine. Usually they’re meat-based such as the tagliatelle with duck livers, trompettes de la mort, orange and marjoram I had recently (ideal with a Barbera) but I’ve also had a couple of robust fish dishes with orange such as sea bream with hazelnut crust, fennel, chard, orange zest, capers and parsley and braised squid with fennel where a Mediterranean red also proved a good match. (Syrah, Mourvèdre and Tempranillo all seem to pair well with orange)
With lighter dishes such as some lightly cooked fish with a salad of fennel and orange I’d go for a light, lush white with some acidity such as a Semillon or Semillon-Sauvignon blend, in the latter case one without too many herbaceous notes. A fruity Australian Colombard can also work well with chicken dishes that are flavoured with orange.
With orange-flavoured desserts, one’s instinct is to think of matching orange flavoured wines such as an Orange Muscat but I tend to find that the orange in the dish wipes out the orange in the wine. For orange-flavoured cakes and richer puddings I find sweet - even cream - sherry a great match. With lighter dishes such as an orange fruit salad try a Champagne - or Cava - cocktail or a frozen shot of Cointreau (also a good match in dishes where chocolate and orange are paired together).
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