Food & Wine Pros
The lemon dilemma
I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about ingredients that cause problems for wine and have come to the conclusion that lemon is one of the major culprits. Of course we add lemon to many things for a subtle lift - I’m talking about recipes where lemoniness (if there is such a word) is the essence of the dish.
The effect of lemon, as of other sour ingredients, is to diminish the acidity of the accompanying wine, making it taste softer and sweeter. That used to be a bonus in times when many wines were thin and acidic or even just not quite up to the task ahead of them (think how a Chianti benefits from the lemon squeezed on a traditional bistecca alla fiorentina) but in an era when many wines are already soft, ripe and unstructured it can accentuate their jamminess, creating quite an unbalanced effect.
With intensely lemony desserts too like a tarte au citron, an accompanying wine can easily seem sugar-sweet by comparison, the acidity of the dessert cancelling out that of its own. You really do need a wine of both very intense sweetness and acidity - a top quality beerenauslese or TBA Riesling, an ausbruch quality wine from Austria to cope or even an eiswein and that can be just too much of a good thing.
It's a similar problem with savoury lemon dishes. A citrussy Sauvignon Blanc may hold its own with chicken in lemon sauce or a chicken and preserved lemon tagine but it may also result in lemon overload.
So what’s to be done? Well, two possible strategies, I think. One is to find a contrasting wine for lemon dishes and surprisingly that can be a red. A chicken tagine, for example, can work surprisingly well with a soft oak-aged Spanish red like a rioja reserva or a middleweight Grenache or Garnacha. Spaghetti al limone is unexpectedly good with Valpolicella (a high acid wine, softened and made more rounded by the sharp pasta sauce). You could also accompany chicken in a creamy lemon sauce with a Semillon, creating a similar effect on the palate to a Semillon-Sauvignon blend.
The other approach is to think what other ingredients you could introduce that would still allow you to drink the lemony white your instinct tells you would be good with the dish. If you included bitter or salty ingredients in your tagine, for example, in the form of olives or capers that would be something for the wine to latch on to, or if you upped the cream in your chicken with lemon sauce and added some chives that would make the sauce less acidic and a little more bitter. In fact herbs generally help stablise a lemon -dominated wine match - think of the effect mint or rosemary have in making a more balanced dish of lamb in a lemony marinade. Cumin too.
Serving some heavy pouring cream with your lemon tart might also enable you to pair it with lemony dessert wines such as young Sauternes or Sauternes-style wines such as Saussignac or other late harvest Sauvignons or Sauvignon/Semillon blends. Add some tart berries such as fresh raspberries or blueberries and it will work even better, I suspect.
Finally, think before you squeeze lemon lavishly over a dish like grilled fish or fried veal or chicken escalopes. Are you doing the job that would be better and more enjoyably done by the wine and stripping its flavours in the process?
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