Quick. What’s sweet, pink and simple as candy? Think ZIP! Or dry, purple-red, packed with rich flavor and ageworthy? Think ZING! Or inky, dense and as berry-jammy sweet as port? Think ZAP! And so varied and versatile you can pour a glass with just about everything? Think ZEST- FOR- LIFE- IN- A- WINEGLASS!!!
You guessed it. Zinfandel! No contest. California’s heritage wine puts its so-called “noble” French-pedigreed cousins to shame when it comes to flavor, food-friendliness and pure drink-it-down fun. So what if we can’t pin down its European origins? Who cares? Zin tastes great. And whether you’re splashing soda into tall ice glasses of blush-pink white zin for a laid-back, fried-chicken-by-the-pool party; uncorking some mainstream claret-style bottles for a rainy day chili bash; or doling out weensy portions of your most precious late-harvest version for a ’round-the-campfire S’more-a-thon, zin, and zin alone, can do it all.
Matching food with zin is as easy as it gets. Practically anything goes. Pizza, pasta, ribs, Cajun-style blackened steaks, spice-rubbed chops, fast-food bacon cheeseburgers, ham and cheese sandwiches, gooey chocolate indulgences, popcorn, picnic fare, even such ethnic esoterica as pork tamales, tea-smoked duck, chicken teriyaki and peanut-sauced beef satay.
Sic those flavor bombs on a $50 cabernet or the latest megatrendy, oh-so-elegant merlot and you’d be wasting your big bucks on a no-win outcome. As it happens, we at Wine X — seasoned professionals that we are — have already done this grueling research for you. And trust us, the pricy demigods-in-a-bottle just didn’t stand a chance.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with cab or merlot. Quite the contrary, in fact. By themselves they’re generally ranked among the very top wines anywhere. But at the table they take a royal pummeling alongside sweet, salty and spicy foods. With these macho perps-on-a-plate to deal with, you need something much gutsier in the glass. Something like zinfandel.
Why does zin work so well? Well for several reasons. First, it comes in so many styles that you’re just about guaranteed of getting a good match. Even white zin, on which many — perhaps even most — wine writers refuse to waste ink, has its place. Second, zin’s typical flavor profile suits tough-to-pair flavors well. Even a bone-dry standard-issue (red) zin can have so much fruitiness going on that it can make you think it’s a bit sweet. This helps zin match up nicely with food that’s also slightly sweet. What’s more, zin can also do an “opposites attract” number with both salty flavors and low-to-moderate doses of spice. Third, zinfandel’s image and typical low-to-medium price go better with robust, hearty foods than those of cab or merlot ever could. Whereas zin wouldn’t normally be your best bet with classic French preparations of, say, lamb, duck or venison (here’s where the upscale Bordeaux reds shine), heap on the hollandaise, trot out the hottest Chateau du jour or its American equivalent and make sure your credit card is nowhere near maxed out), zin is right at home with mid-priced casual fare. Zinfandel, in all its incarnations, works like a charm with easy going “peasant food” that’s so readily served up — free of wine snobbery fanfare — at bistros, trattorias and other bastions of rustic dining. Things like lamb shanks. Veal osso buco. Oxtail soup with toasted cheese bread. And as a very welcome bonus, the bill won’t send you to the loan sharks.
If it goes with beer, it probably goes with zin, too.
Here’s a radical notion. Check out all the zin-friendly foods I’ve mentioned so far. If wine didn’t exist, and you had only one choice, what would you drink with them? Beer, that’s what. Talk about varied and versatile. And, just as you’d do with wine, you’d match the body of the brew to the body of the dish so that neither would take the upper hand.
But we’re talking about zin here. So let’s start with foods that we’d typically enjoy with beer, work a little simple kitchen alchemy on them, Wine X style, and pull some corks on a wine that’s as easy to like as your favorite, fresh-from-the-keg brewski. And to prove that pairing zin with fun food is as easy as 1-2-3, let’s divide our zins and our eats into three simple categories. Here goes.
1. White Zin with Light Snax
There. I’ve said it. White zin. Though the “serious” wine world might turn its collective nose up at this stuff, America loves it. And what’s not to like about it. If all you’re after is an alternative to soda, Sangria or light (even “lite”) beer for lunch in a T-shirt, apps on the deck or a picnic at the beach, it’s perfect. If you need to rationalize it, think of it as berry Kool-Aid with a gentle kick. Then quit thinking about. Just enjoy it, and try all three of these easy finger foods with an iced-down glass or two.
Wrap strips of good deli ham, or the spiral-sliced kind, around chunks of canned pineapple, and spear with toothpicks. Put on a baking sheet, top with a couple of baby marshmallows and some shredded coconut, and heat under a broiler or in a hot oven ’til warmed through and a bit toasted.
Smear slices of pastrami with whole-grain or brown mustard. Lay on sliced Swiss cheese and some drained sauerkraut, roll up and cut into bite-sized pieces. Stab with toothpicks. Serve as is or heat in oven or nukebox to melt cheese.
Salsa Shrimp Crisps
Spread cream cheese on tortilla chips. Spoon on some salsa, and top with some cooked baby shrimp. Make plenty. They disappear fast!
2. “Claret” Zin with the Main Event
White zin may come and white zin may go, but the real thing — mainstream claret-style zin — endures. (And it keeps getting better and better, too.) Made with as much care and attention to quality as the finest cabernets, but with all the spice and juicy, ripe berry fruit that zinfandel can muster, this could easily be a desert island wine, just as long as the desert island has fennel sausage and calzone with garlic and prosciutto and meatball lasagna and…
Get a good baguette or two, or one nice crusty deli roll per person. Slice in half. Heap with rare roast beef and salami, and top with roasted red peppers, your favorite smoked cheese (go for Gouda if you can find it), sliced tomato and Dijon mustard or horseradish.
BBQ Pork & Beans
Pick up a slab of pre-cooked, vacuum-packed baby back ribs. Slice the ribs between the bones and save all the sauce. Spoon out a few cans of baked beans into an overproof baking dish. Stir in some chopped red and green onions, some shredded cheddar and some zin — if you can spare half a cup. Top with the ribs and sauce. Cover and bake until bubbly hot.
Spicy Chicken Penne
Stir chunks of leftover cooked chicken (your own or from a deli) into some homemade or store-bought spaghetti sauce. Add black pepper, basil and oregano, or cinnamon, cumin and cayenne, to taste. Heat and serve over cooked penne pasta. Better yet, use ridged penne rigate.
3. Late Harvest Zin for Afterwards
When left on the vine past normal harvest time to ripen further, zinfandel grapes can build up outrageous amounts of sugar. The winemaker can turn these grapes into three different types of wine: dry, with stratospheric (up to 18 percent!) alcohol levels; semi-sweet to sweet (usually 13 to 15 percent alcohol and 5 to 12 percent residual sugar); and fortified with brandy (or neutral grape spirits) to produce a port-style wine with both high alcohol and sugar content. Blockbusters all, they make a great nightcap, especially with one of the following after-dinner nibbles.
Spoon bits of blue cheese (don’t skimp — get the good stuff) into split dried figs and dates. Top with toasted nuts (preferably hazelnuts and/or pecans). This is the best choice for the dry late-harvest zin, though it’s just dandy with all three.
Scoop some coffee ice cream (even better if it has chocolate chips, cookie bits or other chunky stuff in it) into individual bowls. Top with warmed chocolate syrup and some freeze-dried coffee crystals, and pour the sweet late-harvest or port zin.
Spread storebought or homemade chocolate brownies with boysenberry or blackberry jam. Put a big bowl of chocolate pudding (from scratch, from a mix or readymade — warm it if you like) in the center of the table and let everyone dip. Again, bring on one of the two sweet zins — and don’t even think about using the good tablecloth!
See you next time. Go zin!