Besides extraordinary palates, what do George Escoffier, Antonin Carême, Julia Child, Paul Prudhomme and Masaharu Morimoto have in common?
They were all sauciers—which means they could make a mother of a sauce.
Mother sauces are at the foundation of classical French cuisine, and whether you believe that there’s four (allemande, based on stock with egg yolk and lemon juice, béchamel, based on flour and milk, espagnole, based on brown stock, and velouté, based on a light broth) or five (flip-flopping allemande for hollandaise and adding tomato sauce to the line-up) depends on whether you are a student of Carême or Escoffier. Fair to point out that those modern French chefs who are not absolute partisans of nouvelle tend to follow the five-sauce schema of Escoffier. For the sake of consistency, we’ll go with that interpretation, adding the somewhat generic sauce known as gravy.
Gravy appears to have originated across the channel, where the English have traditionally thickened meat stock with roux, corn starch or arrowroot and served it as an accompanied roasted meat. Texans may hanker for redeye (sugar-sweetened ham gravy deglazed with coffee), Southerners for their biscuits and flour-and-cream ‘sawmill’ gravy and the Canadians swear by their poutine—french fries and gravy—and among Italian-Americans, marinara sauce is often referred to as ‘gravy’.
Clearly, gravy is the chameleon of sauces, wearing many colors, many faces.
As does wine. As a result, the versatility of sauces and gravies, whether classical or innovative, make them exciting naturals to find appropriate pairings with wine—which again can be either classical match-ups or innovative inklings.
Since sauce often defines the dish, it is a short path to understanding that the nature of the sauce, with its ingredients, liquids and thickeners, are key to finding the ideal wine partner. With béchamel, the creamy milk, butter and dash of nutmeg are flavor-perfect (and oh-so-predictable) to serve with a malolactic chardonnay with buttered oak overtones, but you might also try a fresh, crisp rousanne, particularly if you’re saucing seafood. Likewise, velouté, velvety, beige and rich, works well beside a lightly-oaked pinot noir, but I am recommending a soft-bodied merlot from Maipo (Chile), which produces elegant merlots fairly bursting with ripe fruit. With espagnole, you get into roasted flavors and rich, cooked vegetable nuances. Espagnole is certainly syrah-friendly, but if you’re willing to live a little, experiment with leathery and Damson plum-flavored charbono, an unusual Italian-style varietal grown mostly in Napa and Mendocino. Hollandaise, with it yolky, buttery profile settles in well with a citrus-rich sauvignon blanc that can slice through its unctuousity like a lemon scalpel. But if contrast is your game, try a sharp Alsace riesling, a vidal blanc (a lively, limey cousin to seyval blanc), or a perfumed viognier, which California’s Rhone Rangers have tackled with nerve. With Escoffier’s self-explanatory tomato sauce, first and best impulse is to taut California’s recent plantings of the classic Tuscan red, sangiovese. Staglin Family Vineyard produces one of the best, having chosen Napa’s Rutherford Bench as a site, and of equal importance, budwood from a Biondi Santi Brunello vineyard.
With gravy, coupling a specific wine can depend on several factors—most obviously, remaining true to whatever wine may have been incorporated into the sauce itself. Many gravy recipes call for deglazing with wine, red or white, and it usually makes sense, gastronomically as well as economically, to stick with that. For the others, remember some of the basic wine pairing rules of tongue. Most sauces tend to be salty, and salt makes big tannic wines taste bitter, and if you’re serving fish, tannin, seen most often in age-worthy reds, can come back at you with a metallic twang. Acidic wines send currents of spritz through cream gravies.
And, if some day, somehow, some way, you are required to find a wine to accompany a Texas redeye gravy, consider this: The rose of Texas may be yellow, but the rosé is purty in pink. With eleven international medals, Delaney Vineyard’s Texas blush is a blend of petit verdot and chardonnay, and makes a perfect foil for ham.
Contemporary chefs may further add and delete to the roster of mother sauces, including, perhaps, vinaigrette, aioli and demi glace, each of which have individual profiles that beg for a judicious and equally au courant wine wedding.
These are the sort of experimental touchés that makes food and wine pairing the real sweet science. Believe me, Escoffier would agree.