As a follow up to my recent food and wine post as well as a request from long-time follower and friend Jim. Here is a short food and wine pairing primer. Jim asked me to expand on what it means when a wine reviewer states “this wine needs food” in her/his review. What was it about that wine that made them say that? The example he used was the magical pairing and flavor enhancement he experienced on New Year’s Eve when he paired a local Meritage (red blend) from Thirsty Owl with steak. When this happens, it is a “wow” moment. The next day he drank what was left from the bottle without food and didn’t experience as much pleasure.
This is a common occurrence in the food/wine world, especially with heavy reds, high acid whites, and unusual taste profile wines which are hard to palate. I’ve had people taste a style of wine, i.e. tannic red, they typically don’t like with food (sometimes accidental) and they are perplexed that they like the wine. In this example, chocolate. For the purposes of this piece, I will highlight the concept of basic food and wine pairings, what goes into that, and the mystery and randomness of finding the right combination. Its like a kaleidoscope, do you pair the main course, protein, sauce, spice, etc…? Ultimately, taste preferences are subjective and individual. I highlight this in my book with special sections on traditional, complementary, and contrast pairings.
Much of my knowledge and practical experience of food and pairings started in my early days in the industry when I worked for Marriott International as a liquid chef and mixologist. Much of my time was spent as a pseudo-sommelier recommending wines to fine-dining guests from all over the world in the restaurant.who often had four-course meals with company expenses and all the time in the world. Every night, the Executive Chef would convene with the staff pre-opening to present the entree and dessert for the evening. We would taste the food and discuss wine pairings. The Marriott was well-known for a very nice, comprehensive, and full wine list. The rest of my experience was experimental and a result of my rigorous and professional wine studies in WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust) based in London.
I am particularly fascinated with the historical connection between the foods of a place and the wines of a place. Together, the two allow us to be infused into the culture of a place. In the 1980’s, food magazines began to suggest wines with certain recipes; the back labels on bottles of American wines began to suggest dishes to pair. As time passed, the wine “rules” became so complex that people just drank what they like, in the mood for, and hoped it would enhance or at least taste okay with what they were chowing on. It was no longer enjoyable trying to find the perfect pairing. I do this often because it’s not practical to have every style of wine in your rack or cellar when you make a last-minute decision about dinner tonight. Did that Italian grandmother stop to consider the acid level of her pasta sauce before choosing a wine for dinner? I doubt it, especially with the limited selection of wines back then. Not every wine needs to be perfectly matched with food or vice versa. Flavor is flavor basically, whether it be in a liquid or solid form. Yes, acidity contrasts with salt, Salt doesn’t like fat, umami (savory foods) decreases bitterness, and so on...
Bottom line – Most people who pair wine with food don’t have a set of rules as much as they use good instincts. These instincts come from trial and error and tasting different wines with and without food and picking up on what works. I’m a big fan of quotes and like this one – “It takes me twelve minutes to eat a good plate of food and two hours to drink a good bottle of wine, so who cares about the food."
Be Simple – a turkey sandwich or salad doesn’t require a pricey Pinot Noir or Sauvignon Blanc. Whereas prime rib would call for that nice and powerful Napa or Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon you have been saving. Also, think occasion! Regular dinner vs. special dinner and the company you keep.
Match Bold with Bold, Light with Light, and Delicate with Delicate – Syrah/Shiraz with Thai, Curry, or spicy cuisine. Red Burgundy with ham or turkey.
Do you want to complement or a setup a contrast? Complement – Chardonnay with lobster in cream sauce. Both rich and creamy. Contrast – Champagne/Sparkling Wine with lobster in cream sauce. Bubbles are tingly, crisp, and biscuity.
Wine’s Flexibility – Chardonnay is very popular around the world, but isn’t flexible with food because of it’s high alcohol and oakiness that tastes hard or dull with food. Try Sauvignon Blanc or Dry Riesling with crisp acidity. Wines high in acid physiologically make you want to eat and after eating you’ll need to drink the wine again. For reds, Chianti, red Burgundy, Oregon, and most Pinot Noirs are most flexible with generous acidity, fruit-forward and low tannin. Bolder reds, such as most Italian, southern Rhone, and Zinfandel with considerable tannin pairs well with grilled chicken.
Fruit with Fruit – Aromatic whites with fruity aromas, such as Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Viognier, and Riesling are best with protein dishes that incorporate fruit, i.e. pork with apple or roasted chicken with apricot glaze.
Salty with Acidity = contrast. Try cheese with Chianti and smoked salmon with sparkling wine. Asian soy sauces with high acid Riesling.
Salty with Sweetness = contrast. Try that same Asian dish with soy sauce with a slightly sweet German or American Riesling. Traditional - salty Stilton cheese with Port.
High Fat with Richness, Intense, Concentrated Wine – High tannic reds, like Cab Sauvignon, holds up well with a meat high in animal fat, like steak. The richness and fat of meat soften the wine’s tannins. A red Bordeaux (Cab Sauv and Merlot) with roasted lamb. On the white side, the classic sweet French Sauternes marriage with foie gras follows the same principle.
Desserts – Desserts that are sweeter than the wine may make the wine dull or lack taste. Sweetness in dessert knocks out the wine’s character. Wedding cake is a disaster because no wine really can stand up to it and doubt there will be any ice-wine available. The best dessert pairings are chocolates with rich reds and not too sweet dessert, like a fruit tart, with a sweet wine (semi-sweet will do).
The old rule of white wine with fish or chicken and red wine with meat is obsolete. This rule was based on looking at the weight and body of the wine and color. The body of the wine is significant, but so are all the other components in pairing wine and food. Prime example is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Pinot Noir is a red wine, but much lighter in body than Chardonnay. Red wine with fish? Sushi anyone?
Tough foods to pair with wine –
Artichokes, Asparagus, Chiles, Cruciferous Veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage), Eggs, Vinegar-based foods.
Cooking with Wine for another time….. Please let me know if this is of interest to anyone.
Hope you find this a nice, practical primer!