Wine and food can make each other taste better; and in the best of circumstances, certain wines, when paired with certain foods, can result in a downright thrilling experience.
Despite this, I have an admission to make; I do not think every wine always needs to be perfectly matched to a food or vice versa. And I don’t say this because of lack of passion for food. I love dinning out and I have a deep appreciation for the historic connection between the foods and wines of different regions. Together the two allow us to briefly participate in the culture of a certain region. And that, to me, is one of the true gifts of wine and food.
Wine and food matching is a bit different. Beginning in the 1980s, wine and food pairing became something of a national sport. Restaurants offered wine with dinners, food magazines began to suggest wines with recipes; it was exciting.
And from my experience, I would prescribe zinfandel with steak, unless the steak was cooked rare and liberally seasoned with black pepper. Medium ÔÇô done steak minus black pepper, marries best with cabernet sauvignon. Champagne and caviar is an awful match. The answer is acidity contrasting with salt.
The problem with this sort of approach is that it has little connection. Today, it’s how we actually behave when we cook, eat, and drink. My friend’s grandmother stops to consider the acidity level in her pasta sauce, before choosing a wine for dinner. Admittedly, she has a little selection of wines that are available to her. But it is also true that all of this simply points out that wine and food do not always have to be technically perfect together to be delicious anyway.
“Wow” moments when the wine and food combination was unbelievably good are not easy to conjure; a meal, after all, rarely highlights the flavour of a single food, and many dishes present countless variables. Say you were trying to choose a wine to go with grilled chicken breast. Which is just one part of the dish. What if they were accompanied by a rice pilaf seasoned with coriander, cumin and toasted almonds?
There is simply no absolute way to predict what might happen when all these flavours plus the multiple flavours in a wine are swirled together in a giant kaleidoscope. And even if you could predict the result, would we really all agree on the whether it was delicious or not ultimately? Taste preferences are highly individual.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us squarely in the realm of instinct. People who pair wine and food together well do not have a set of rules but they have good instinct. Good instincts can be acquired. It is simply a matter of drinking lots of different kinds of wines and different kinds of dishes and paying attention to the principles that emerge. After a year of doing precisely that, here is what I have discovered:
Pair great with great
This might seem like the most elemental of ideas, but the first important principle is simply to pair great with great. A hot turkey sandwich does not need a pricey merlot to accompany it; on the other hand, an expensive crown rib-roast may just present the perfect moment for opening that powerful cabernet sauvignon you’ve been saving.
Second, match delicate to delicate and robust to robust. It only makes sense that a delicate wine, like a red burgundy, will end up tasting like water if you serve it with a dramatically spiced dish like curry. Bold, spiced flavours are perfectly cut out for bold, spicy, big flavoured wines. Which is why bold wines are terrific with many Mexican dishes.
Chardonnay with lobster in cream sauce would be an example of mirroring. Both the lobster and the chardonnay are rich and creamy. But delicious matches also happen when you go exactly the opposite direction and create contrast. That lobster in cream sauce would be the perfect moment; also be fascinating with champagne which is sleek, crisp, and sharply tingling because of the bubbles.
Sweetness vs. salty
Not surprisingly, dishes with fruit in them, such as componetto pork, roasted chicken with apricot, glazed duck with fig, and fruitÔÇôdriven dishes that have super fruity aromas are well suited with a heavy, high acid, cabernet sauvignon.
Saltiness in food is a great contrast to acidity in wine. Think about smoked salmon and champagne. Saltiness is also a stunning contrast to sweetness. Try that soy seasoned Asian dish with a sweet wine, and both the food and wine pull together in a new way.
Rich marries rich
A highÔÇôfat food with a lot of animal fat, butter or cream, usually calls out for an equally rich, intense, structured, and concentrated wine. As goodÔÇôquality cabernet sauvignon or merlot, works wonders. A powerful cabernet sauvignon with a grilled steak is pretty hard to beat. Cabernet sauvignon and merlot is served with roasted lamb. And pairing richness with richness is also the principle behind what is perhaps the most decadent wine and food marriage.
Wine as dessert
With dessert, consider sweetness carefully. Desserts that are sweeter than the wine make the wine taste dull and blank. In effect, the sweetness of the dessert can knock out the character of the wine. Wedding cake, for example, can ruin just about any wine. The best dessert and dessert wine marriages are usually based on pairing a not-too-sweet dessert, such as fruit or nut tart, with a fairly sweet wine.
So there are fairly simple principles, meant only to guide. The real excitement is in the experimentation and only you can do that.