Pairing food with wine. Is it a science, or is it something more esoteric? In antiquity (just two decades ago…) marrying food with wine was often dogmatic, precise, and rigid. Since then the contemporary conventional wisdom – designed to appeal to our desire to have our heads patted and self-esteem vociferously augmented – has replaced the old rules with a laissez faire attitude ideally-suited to satiate our hunger for drive-thru absolution. “Why yes sir, a fantastic choice…,” as if gastronomic despotism is unsatisfying and deficient, gastronomic anarchy is nearly as bad.
Many believe that there must be a magic decoder ring that can provide the answer to food and wine pairings without fail. When the curious seek answers they are confronted with an endless stream of charts and wheels that promise to deliver the perfect marriage of wine and food. Sadly they are often left with more questions than answers.
Considering the mixed and complicated messages on the subject it is no wonder why so many wine lovers have adopted the new, feel-good, rules of drink what you want. While this adage is very easy to remember it doesn’t really work. Anyone who eats and drinks can acknowledge that some combinations are superior to others and some are just awful! Peanut butter and jelly = Great! Peanut butter and tuna = No thanks.
Pairing wine with food is not as complex as some would have you believe. It does require a basic understanding of the flavors, texture, and balance of both the food and the wine. In some sense the task is staggering when you consider that to be an expert at pairing food with wine you would need to know the characteristics of every single food and every single wine. In plain speak: there are no wine and food pairing experts. Don’t despair, you can learn some basic skills that will greatly increase your chance of making good choices.
The BevX Wine & Food Pairing Guidelines:
Marrying wine and food comes down to either matching the characteristics of flavor, components such as intensity, acidity, and texture, or to contrast those same characteristics. Intensity of flavor is the most vital consideration when pairing food and beverage. It’s that simple. Well, nearly that simple. A little common sense is needed as well. Just keep in mind that the dominant flavor is not always the primary ingredient (lamb vindaloo is more about the spicy curry and less about the lamb). Also, one rich and fatty item is enough. You don’t wash down a chocolate mousse with a chocolate milkshake.
* Profile your wines. I know that they will say that profiling is bad but trust me, it’s the smart play. The first thing to remember when profiling your wine is that acidity is a good thing. Acidity creates tart and tart goes with tart and tart goes with rich, creamy, and fatty.
* The Geographic Rule is the most valid rule of all. This rule can be observed on any day while dining in a small Tuscan hill town, along the Rhine, or in the Ribera del Duero. But simply observe the rule because if you query the locals they will look at you as if you have two heads. In most Old World wine zones the marriage of wine and food has developed organically. The vines, crops, and livestock have all emerged from the same soils and climate being crafted by the same collective palate. The dishes and the wines are made for each other. It’s a phenomenon born out of the laudable notion that dinner without wine is incomplete.
The lesson for all of us not growing up in the vineyards of Europe is that regional European dishes are often best enjoyed with the wines of that region. Maybe Google maps could incorporate this into their map tools. Perhaps blue dots of the birthplace of Saltimbocca with red dots for the wines of the area could steer us to the perfect wine. (That’s a cool idea – note to self, call Google…)
* The question of Quality is a big concern among would-be wine and food matchmakers. Far too many people are convinced that you have to roll out your most serious culinary efforts when opening your prized wines. This is not only a potential colossal headache to coordinate but it throws you into the classic trap of upstaging. If the evening is to be about the wine, then make it about the wine.
For example if you are looking to showcase an old red, any red, a selection of quality, subtle meats and charcuterie, sautéed mushrooms, and some great bread will ideally support the star of the show, your prize red. This is especially true if you want to show a selection of wines. If you have paid a handsome sum for the wines or have patiently cellared the wines for some time why risk upstaging or a poor pairing? This is no time for a blind date.
* The Occasion issue is tricky enough with friends and family. Special occasions such as birthdays and holidays always demand the best wines from my cellar. It’s a wonderful opportunity to share great wine with great friends. A great bottle of wine should never be drunk alone unless you are trapped in a cellar with your mortality staring you down. Only the saddest and most miserable among us will drink their most precious wines in solitude. These people are to be avoided at all cost.
In conclusion it is clear that there are few broad conclusions. There has been so much written on the subject of food and wine pairings. In my view, much of it is poor as it seeks to offer instant gratification and absolution. In truth, pairing wine and food is much akin to pairing side dishes to mains. You have developed this skill over time as your palate and memory have gained experience.
Instead of offering an inadequate chart of my own I will take the opportunity to introduce a new BevX feature – Great Pairings. We will regularly share a specific pairing of a food item with a beverage breaking down why it works. If all goes as planned it will be fun.