Pairing wine with food is a topic that gets frequently overcomplicated. Generally, I’m not a big fan of dispensing rules for wine consumption. Bottom line should always be: If you like it, drink it, and keep clear of the pretense. But allow me if you will to plant a grape seed in the back of your mind on the importance of pairing with regard to your enjoyment of a meal: Have you ever had that postcard breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast, juice and coffee? Everything looks perfect. The coffee smells great, bacon’s crispy, yadda yadda. You dive in, have a swig of OJ, sip of hot joe, and there it is – the juice killed the coffee. Your mug o’ morning delight won’t taste the same for the rest of the meal thanks to the highly acidic neighboring beverage with the ‘it’s all about me’ attitude.
Fine food and fine wines frequently suffer that same fate of uxoricide in mismatched meal marriages. And in many cases, it’s not as obvious as it was with the OJ. Sometimes we don’t realize things aren’t living up to their potential and tasting as good as they should.
Grape juice gurus everywhere have long expressed their ideas on the pairing matter, from the restrictive and obsolete “red with meat, white with fish” to perhaps more appropriate, but often equally inflexible rules. So, of course, here I am to chime in with my own unsolicited two cents. Well, three cents technically, if the going rate is still a penny per thought. I’ve developed three general guidelines for you to keep in mind that will hopefully help to demystify the concept a bit and bring a little more fun to the process.
Birds of a Feather
The first involves matching specific flavor profiles. Whether or not you feel comfortable enough to come up with your own tasting notes for a wine, they are typically readily available. You can often find them on a winery’s website, or sometimes right on the bottle’s back label. Say you’ll be feasting on a grilled filet mignon with wild mushrooms. Old World reds, especially from Bordeaux, often possess earthiness and mushroom flavors. Latching on to a dish’s ingredients and finding a wine with like flavor profiles can give you something to play with and look forward to with each sip and bite. It also works in reverse. If your local wine merchant sold you a Pinot Noir which touts its bright red cherry character, consider preparing some roasted duck breast with a cherry reduction sauce. Pairings like this can highlight the common note and help create that marriage between the food and wine.
In my sommelier days, I remember a gentleman who had ordered a horseradish-crusted salmon over a bed of braised fennel. I encouraged him to go with a particular Zinfandel that had a distinct anise note, which would line up deliciously with the vegetable’s licorice flavor. An unorthodox pairing, but since the food was mild but rich, and salmon is a pretty fatty fish, the dish would have no trouble standing up to the zippy red. He was hesitant, not being a big fan of Zin. I cut him a deal, offering to take the wine back if he felt the same way after tasting it, so he couldn’t resist. Turns out this
avid wine lover had an experience like never before and that was the start of a beautiful friendship. Many years later, we’re as close as a couple of grapes.
But maybe you’re planning on some seared Ahi tuna with wasabi, or perhaps some sweat-inducing Thai takeout. If you were to try to match the hot pepper characteristic by say, doubling down on Zin (typically spicy, peppery and high in alcohol), someone might need to call the fire department. Imagine washing down a five-alarm chili with a nice glass of room-temperature jalapeño juice. Not only are you in for an unpleasant experience, but you’ll also taste nothing of the dish.
In this case I’d recommend something bright and refreshing that’ll help put out the fire as opposed to fuel it. New World styles that come to mind include crisp Sauvignon Blancs from California or New Zealand. In the Old World department consider Riesling. Look for lightly sweet styles from Germany or drier options from the Alsace region of France.
The Sentimental Approach
The matching and contrasting methods will give you something to go on in just about any situation, but they don’t account for one very important area of wine and food pairing, and that’s the sentimental approach. Sometimes a certain wine and a particular dish just work a small miracle together and the reason is not obvious. This is often the case in Europe, where many styles of wine were developed for the regional cuisine and vice versa. Other times a completely unconventional pairing is simply amazing. Like when you celebrate an anniversary with the wine you ordered on your first date. It may not ‘go’ with what you’re eating, but I bet it’ll taste perfect.
P.J. Ochlan is the Vice President of Food & Wine Media for CRN