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posted: 3/10/2010 12:01 AM

Red wine fine choice with meatless meals

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"Red wine with red meat" is the world's most famous wine and food guideline. But modern red wine lovers need not forgo their favorite tipple while reducing meaty meals.

In the 1980s (a minute ago in wine's timeline), winegrowers adopted a philosophy in their harvest that created a brand new style of red wine and enjoyment thereof.

For millennia, growers strategized harvest dates based on ripeness of the grape's sugary pulp, pulling their crop from vines as soon as possible before hungry birds, winter frost or other marauders wrecked their livelihoods.

As bird netting, portable heaters and other man-made protections began to stave off disaster, growers extended harvest, ripening grape pulp as well as the seeds, skins and stems that contain tannin.

Tannin provides red wine's more-or-less pleasing grip on the palate not unlike the enjoyable astringency of good cup of black coffee, another tannin-rich beverage. Because tannin binds with fat and protein, a mouthful of red meat softens red wine's grip, just as creams softens a cup of joe.

Traditionally, red wine's hard, green tannin required years of bottle age and/or a solid slab of meat for mealtime enjoyment. Today's softer, ripe tannin allows many reds to be enjoyed young, with recipes more in line with millions of resolutions to reduce fat from the diet.

Pair ripe-tannin reds with "brown" vegetables (such as mushrooms, potatoes, onions or eggplant) and rich legumes in hearty preparations including nuts, cheese and olives (see Ross's choice) for delicious meatless matches. Here are my favorites to adapt to your table and wine retailer's recommendation:

Pasta e fagioli (Sicilian pasta and bean soup) with a plump Italian red such as Dolcetto, Nero d'Avola or Valpolicella.

Blue cheese-stuffed mushrooms with an earthy Pinot Noir or south of France red.

Lentil, spinach and feta cheese casserole with California Petite Sirah or fine Greek red.

And the easiest dish of all - rice, pasta, baked potato or grilled baguette served and sipped with leftovers from above.

• Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross writes Good Wine. Contact her at food@dailyherald.com.

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