I fell back in love with food-and-wine pairing when I helped a friend (the irrepressible Tony “The Wine Chef” Lawrence) with an outdoor wine / cooking demo sponsored by the Pennsylvania regional chapter of the American Wine Society about two weeks ago (around the same time that the U.S. Congress was simultaneously “working” at raising both the debt ceiling limit and their own internal douchebag limit).
I don’t feel like I talk a lot about food and wine matches on 1WineDude.com, but I’ve certainly contributed my share of recommendations, particularly around holiday times, primarily because people ask me and I feel bad not telling them something when I’m asked. The trick, as the NYT’s Eric Asimov told me a couple of years ago, is to make the topic interesting and continually fresh – because readers do, in fact, want those recommendations.
But the food-matched-with-wine topic, generally, is tired. It’s tired because so many so-called rules proliferated in that space for so long, that the net effect seems to have been a general increase in how confusing wine is for the average Joe, a situation the wine industry needs like my daughter needs another plush dinosaur toy.
The most maddening thing about the pairing “rules” is this: of all the trained chefs that I know, none of them adhere to those rules. Not. One. Single. Chef. So I think the wine consumer can be forgiven for a hearty round of “WTF?” on that one. The flipside of this rule-breaking is the proliferation of the “drink whatever you like with your food, because your preferences are more important” school of advice. And I’ve come to think that this advice – which I’ve given myself quite often – may, in fact, be wrong.
Why? Because there are guidelines for food-and-wine pairing. And while they don’t trump the most steeped, stubborn, and obstinate of our personal tastes, they do in fact work for many, many people. Probably most people. The guidelines are based on your personal preferences, and are general enough to apply creatively without getting too specific.
And when done right, a food-and-wine pairing can elevate even some of the most pedestrian wines to surprising culinary heights…
1) Some pairings simply do not work for most people, a state exacerbated when combining wines and/or foods that are “other foods unskilled” (which is to say, aren’t versatile with other foods).
As Tony put it during our demo at the AWS event, “If on a hot day like today, you pour a great big Cabernet with some Dover sole, then I just can’t help you.” I’m sure there are people who might drink Amarone with a delicately prepared whitefish (and good luck to them). But… I’m willing to bet that if they’re thinking of having company over for that meal, they’d better have an alternative because not everyone is going to share that (arguably somewhat neurotic) preference.
Keeping #1 above in mind, the next step is to –
2) Start with textures, weight/body, and flavors that you like (in wine OR food) and then focus on juxtaposing and combining those same things between the chow and the vino.
These guidelines, such as they are, really hit home for me during the tasting event, in which Tony (who via anecdotes authored those guidelines) whipped up inspired matches for a simple Cava, a berry-meets-meat rose, a creamy Sicilian Sauvignon and a killer bargain-priced Mosel Riesling; most of which cost under $12 / bottle and all of which pretty much sang in multi-part harmony when tasted with his light-bite pairings.
The approach is nearly a fool-proof way to get at least a half-decent match, and in many cases an inspired one. Case in point: My first wine-and-food epiphany…
many, many moons ago, before I knew bumpkis about wine aside from enjoying how it made me feel (not sober), my then girlfriend made a buttery lobster dinner with toasty potatoes. I happened to have a big-ass, oaky, buttery California Chardonnay (and an inexpensive one, at that) and the match was incredible to me – toasty oak playing off the grilled char of the potatoes, the creaminess complimenting the butter sauce, the (somewhat flabby) weight of the Chardonnay matching the texture of the lobster and the veggies. I almost peed myself, it was so good – that food took the wine to epicurean places it would never, ever have gotten to on its own wheels. Texture, weight, and flavors finding harmony, with nary an ounce of anxiety spent trying to figure it all out.
This isn’t to say that the job of a restaurant wine director or sommelier is an easy one – they have to find creative wine matches every day for foods, some of them quite demanding, and often are tasked with doing that across multiple meals, all of them different, and all being served with only one bottle with which they’re expected to make a sublime match. I know it would drive me insane in no time.
And it’s not to say that everyday food-and-wine pairing outside of the restaurant setting should be taken too seriously – it shouldn’t. Your house does not have a Le Bec Fin sign hanging in front of it, does it? Trying to find perfection every day is basically signing yourself up for a one-way ticket to personal hell – wine-and-food pairing included.
The balance lies in the middle of those extremes, where the pendulum swing between the seriousness of a “great” match and the immediacy “let’s just eat & drink, already” finds it’s calm center-point.
Most of us have probably shed the “it’s gotta be perfect” food-and-wine pairing attitude a long time ago, but please don’t give me the “you can drink whatever you want with anything all the time” mantra – because it’s bullsh*t. Don’t bother with a laundry list of food-and-wine pairing rules, but don’t act like there are no guidelines anymore, because wine geeks are smart people, and more than totally capable of learning and mastering rough guidelines from the pros – ones that have been proven to work in professional settings for many years.
Do we make much ado about nothing when it comes to food-and-wine pairing? Or do we not take it seriously enough? Shout it out!
34 thoughts on “How I Fell Back In Love With Food-And-Wine Pairing (And Why The “Drink Whatever You Want” Mantra Might Be Wrong)”
Ultimate restaurant and wine drinking question is "Do I want that wine on the list because I want to try it, or do I want to pay $42 for the Gruner the sommelier recommends cause it goes best with my food?"
clivity – Yeah, sometimes the geek factor trumps the pairing factor, for sure. But not for most people, I think, just for us geeks! :)
One thing i've learned about pairing wines with food is to pay more attention to the sauce, rather than the protein. A green peppercorn sauce over a filet may not go very well with an Aussie Cabernet, because Aussie Cabernet can have some green notes in it, and that sauce will make it worse. A full-throttle shiraz/syrah would probably go better.
Another axiom I try to live by is if you've narrowed down your choice two a couple of wines, go with the cheaper one. Reason is, a lot of the finer complexity involved in the more expensive wine is going to be lost when you start throwing sauces and other flavors with it. Save the expensive one to drink on its own with friends.
Richard – wise words; the first thing I consider with dinner is the sauce I’m using.
Ya! Nice post and great insight on the food and wine thing. I am so glad you have rediscovered the love of food and wine! Nothing is better than a food and wine party in your mouth! And the best part, cook at a home and learn to train you palate and the discovery is a fun and cost effective journey. Nice commentary again Joe.
Though a person can drink any wine they want with food, I do believe some pairings generally do not work, and some pairings work better than others. Some people fail to consider the scientific reasons why certain food/wine pairings work or fail to work. As an example, it was recently discovered that certain red wines contain levels of iron, which interact poorly with seafood. These red wines make the seafood taste fishy, and not in a good way. Other drinks, like sake, contain certain amino acids which nullify any fishy tastes. This level of geekiness may be beyond the average consumer, but I think it is something that wine writers providing food pairing advice should consider.
Richard – the scientific angle is a great one. Would make a pretty nice blog article to explore that in some detail based on those findings. You also explain there why I love sake with sushi!
Richard, great insight. Do you have any scientific evidence as to why I love Champagne and sushi? To me, it is the ultimate pairing. Maybe acid driven Champagnes also have the right amino acids? I would love to hear more.
Bryan – Champagne and sushi is a CLASSIC. Same with Champagne and popcorn.
I would have to do more research on that, though I know sake has 20 amino acids, the highest of any alcohol (and 7 times more than red wine). Champagne lacks the iron component of red wine, and the bubbles do help keep the palate clean, and help reduce any fishiness. There is some argument though that the sodium in some champagnes can lead to increased fishiness sometimes.
Thank you, Richard!
And to Joe's point, my wife and I start with sushi and then have popcorn for dessert while we finish off a bottle of Champagne. We just always thought the pairings tasted great together, happy to hear you think so too!
Glad to hear you've fallen back in love. I am a believer in food & wine pairings, and I love how you touched on a lot of the things I tried to (well, in 5 minutes that is) at WBC. It's not about "rules", but there are some simple guidelines that can help you have a great F&W experience! I don't think we should be obsessive about it, but we also should not ignore the power that it can have. Like many things, its about balance. Cheers
Thanks, Mary – that is about as good a summary of the theme of this post as I could have hoped to have read. Cheers!
I have previously written such a post about sake, umami, and amino acids, and am working on an expanded article now.
Nice – looking forward to reading that expanded version, Richard.
Thank God you've fallen back in love! Food and wine are meant to go together! (though I will not pass up a glass on it's own). Your comment on the big oaky chard struck a nerve. I am soooo over all the snooty people talking about only stainless steel chards! They have a place, but when I'm having a butternut squash and chicken risotto, I want an oaked chard! It's what pairs so well! Even asking about an oaked chard, you often get rolled eyes these days. Everything has a place and yes, some wines that on their own might be terrible, can be amazing! Now a quick question on the stainless steel chards….I see their place, I understand wanting the fruit to shine through, but might not some of this be that stainless steel barrels are cheaper and don't have to be replaced like oak barrels? I'm an environmentalist, so I ought to be on board for saving trees, but I like a little oak, is that so wrong?
Thanks, Robin – the old oak topic… to me, it's a matter of preference and whether or not the producer pulls it off with some skill. I mean, there are stainless steel Chards that totally suck donkey bong, are overly acidic without enough ripe fruit, etc. While I tend to prefer Chards that are more steely, I love a big, oaked, buttery Chard. when it's done right (and when it has enough acid and fruit to balance it all out). Cheers!
Always a great topic; one near-and-dear to me as a fat kid who grew up reading cookbooks (or at least looking at pictures of food). Per RichardPF's insights, understanding the science (for those into food science) can uncork a lot of answers. For example – phenolic compounds bind to proteins, so heavy reds with the most tannin do well with red meat, because red (slow-twitch muscle) contains more myoglobin, which has a higher percentage of protein (to fuel the slow-twitch muscles which require long periods of usage on less oxygen). I guess we're getting into physiology, too. Maybe that's too geeky…
Also – there's nothing like pouring a new wine drinker a traditional Italian wine. On it's own, it can tend to be bitter, acidic, and lacking in fruit flavor. However, once paired with appropriate food, all the flavors of the food and wine become one. An Italian winemaker once told me that "wine is a condiment". Neat to see how these wines are built for food, while many New World wines are built as cocktails, to stand on their own. Makes sense, as our culture is rooted in less wine on the table, and cocktail hour…
Thanks, Joe – I've used the protein line I think about 1,000 times over the years (though didn't know the part about red having more myoglobin!). As for food changing a wine's profile, here's another good example: Riesling and salty foods; that match seems to elevate both the wine and the food to new heights. Cheers!
(I went a little overboard researching slow-twitch muscle on a post about why tannin + protein works)
To your point – had read somewhere (F&W, perhaps) that paired hot dogs with Zinfandel (?!). I was taken aback. Maybe it's my German last name, but a frankfurter + Riesling (especially if there's some hot mustard and some saurkraut on that mess) is a slam dunk. 10-4 on Riesling + salty.
Love to see more geeky, scientific info on wine pairings!
The farther we delve into the geek forest, the more we rule it! Or something like that…
Great article, Joe!
And of course: one of the most fun, delicious and definitely unexpected pairings I've had. Sublime perfection!
Thanks, Jeff – damn, I gotta try that match up (and just bought some nice Spatleses so now all I need are the cookies…)!
My motto with food and wine pairing is, "guidelines, not rules." God, I hate rules!! Guidelines, however, can be extremely useful. Before I cared a whit about f&w pairing and just drank what I liked, I never knew what I was missing. : )
I think the key is not to be too rigid about the whole thing. I mean, I've had terrific "classic" pairings like Sauv Blanc and goat cheese, or Cab Sauv and steak, or Chardonnay and popcorn (that's right), but sometimes you just want to drink something you've got on hand, even if the meal you're preparing doesn't seem to be the perfect choice to pair with it.
In doing this once, I actually discovered what I thought was a perfectly sublime pairing: I made (very!) Spicy Tomato Soup with Bleu Cheese, and paired it with what I had on hand at the time and felt like drinking — an inexpensive Spanish Cava. OMG, worked together like a charm!! It was unexpected, but terrific. : )
Thanks, Kimberly. I've been burned plenty of times by mixing & matching, of course, but experimentation is on the whole a hell of a lot more fun than adhering to too many rules. Cheers!
Dude – when the hell you coming for lunch? You will have to bring your own bass – we have drums, guitars, tuba, clarinet and anything else for the tunes. I will prepare poached sole a la bonne femme and serve with big-assed Cabernet – just did this for Clarke Swanson and team and absolutely no problemo. Alexis Cabernet Sauvignon was goregeous, sole was delicious, both were heaven together despite our 'wine and food metaphores' that the big, bad wine will KILL the little fishies, or vice-versa. C'mon Dude – we is waitin' fer ya! Love from the Hanni clan in Napa.
Thanks, Tim – Just as soon as I can get a seat for my bass on the US Airways flight… actually, I am in town (sort of – Sonoma Coast) for West of West this weekend!
I agree that there are definitely guidelines that can be followed (And sometimes blurred).
The other night I matched a value Sauvignon Blanc that I randomly pulled out of our wine fridge with a spicy salmon I made for dinner and there were fireworks of joy going off in my mouth. I even asked my kids if they wanted to pack up and move to New Zealand for a year so we could visit the winery every day.
I am so looking forward to making more matches like that as I learn more.
PS: There won't be a NZ move yet. My daughter is doesn't want to forgo the Friday movies that come with kindergarten. Guess we'll just have to go for an extended vacay again.
Amy – HA! Trumped by Grade K again (I have a toddler, I am familiar with this :).
I'm going to post this comment before I finish the post. I just got past the part where the pairing topic was accused of being tired. Not so.
Not every meal is going to be that killer one. Trying different pairings creates a wide range of results but if you share the goals of the pairing AND the results there is an interesting story in the middle.
I'll see what I think in a few minutes…
I'll only say that the deference you give to people with supposed training and credentials regarding food and wine pairing (not taking your at home pairing seriously) is also a contestable point.
Experience no matter where you get it is valuable. I have no credentials in wine or food but I have lots of experience trying different things and can use that experience. Most chefs came from the same place.
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