Making the Match With Mushrooms

(By Margaret Thomas For The Washington Post)
By Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

In the old days, pairing wine and food was made easier by rules such as "white wine with fish" and "red wine with meat."

But every rule has its exception. After chefs started serving fish in red wine sauces, wrapping them in prosciutto or dusting them with powdered porcini -- all of which call for an accompanying red wine -- things got a bit more complicated.

However, red meat has stood firm: It almost always calls for red wine.

We've come to think of mushrooms as the red meat of the vegetable kingdom (even though we know they're technically fungi) because -- almost invariably -- the sometimes-earthy, sometimes-meaty flavor of mushrooms says "red wine" to us. In fact, it's hard for us to think of mushrooms without immediately having pinot noir come to mind. The two are a match made in heaven.

This time of year, as the markets fill with spring vegetables and seafood calling for lighter-bodied whites, mushrooms offer red-wine lovers the chance to pull a favorite out of their wine rack -- pinot noir or otherwise -- for an exceptional pairing.

Of course, mushrooms don't have a singular flavor profile, as they range from the mildest of button mushrooms to porcini that pack a punch. Each suggests a different wine pairing, from lighter-bodied and more delicate for the former to fuller-bodied and more powerful for the latter.

Patrick O'Connell, chef-proprietor of the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va., works magic with mushrooms, turning portobellos into a vegetarian-fantasy equivalent of filet mignon. The greatest dinner of our lives took place two years ago in his dining room in Washington, Va., where -- through equally magical wine pairings -- we learned that O'Connell's then-sommelier Scott Calvert had a way with mushrooms, too.

Calvert, now a fine-wine consultant to restaurants and private collectors (, was happy to share some of his mushroom pairing secrets with us.

"Earthy mushrooms pair best with earthy wines," Calvert advises, in explaining why he pairs black trumpets, chanterelles and shiitakes with earthy reds such as Burgundy, nebbiolo and pinot noir. We've found earthy mushrooms a great match with one of the best-value earthy reds around: Kenwood Russian River Valley Pinot Noir.

Likewise, meaty mushrooms -- such as cremini, morels, porcini and portobellos -- pair best with meaty wines, among which Calvert counts pinot noir (which "can go either way" as earthy or meaty), sangiovese and syrah/shiraz. We recently sampled a meaty Kenwood Jack London Cabernet Sauvignon that shined with a portobello-topped steak.

If you want bubbles with your mushrooms, turn to blanc de noirs champagne, a white wine made from a red grape, pinot noir. Mumm Napa Blanc de Noirs is a sparkler offering impressive flavor for the price, about $18.

As you can imagine, the mushrooms themselves are only the starting point: What you do to and with them matters, too.

With more ambitious dishes, such as O'Connell's signature Portobello Mushrooms Pretending to Be a Filet Mignon, other dominant elements of the dish come into play. Calvert recalls, "I found it was best with a sangiovese that was brightly acidic to match the tomato, with a bit of a gamey scent to play with the meatiness of the portobello, plus nice, sweet fruit to bring out the sweetness of the caramelized shallot.

"As a pairing, I found that Fossi Chianti Classico -- which had perfect acidity and sweet fruit plus an amazing, almost roasted-meat quality on the nose -- truly transported this dish to filet mignon status."

With simpler fare, such as a mushroom pizza, we tend to think regionally -- the first rule of food and wine pairing. While such food goes well with wines as varied as red Burgundy and Chateauneuf-du-Pape, we like to opt for an Italian red, such as a sangiovese. We're happy to accompany our pizza any day of the week with a simple, fruity wine such as Da Vinci Chianti, or even a Chianti Classico from a top producer such as Antinori, Dievole, Felsina or Ruffino.

Now for those exceptions: We'll admit that we once loved a steak tartare served to us with a golden glass of off-dry Riesling, deliciously breaking the old "red wine with meat" rule. And even Calvert likes a pinot gris (which he says can have "a smoky, bacon quality") with meatier mushrooms.

When we encounter milder mushrooms in butter or cream sauces, a full-bodied white can be the way to go. For special occasions, a 100 percent chardonnay-based champagne or sparkling wine such as a 2003 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs works beautifully. But keep an eye out for the new release of the delicious, gently oaked -- and gently priced -- 2005 Chateau Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley Chardonnay, an exceptional value that can cut beautifully through mushroom cream sauces bathing any chicken, pork or pasta dish.

Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, award-winning authors of "What to Drink With What You Eat" and several other books, can be reached through their Web site,, or

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