Mix and match: Food and wine pairings as an art, not a science

pasta-and-wine-photoI’ve been hearing all sorts of smack about wine and food pairings lately. It’s jammed into every press release from wineries and slathered all over the wine mags. Perhaps it’s the upcoming holiday season (it’s here already?) or maybe people are graduating up to the food-and-wine-pairing level of wine knowledge. But I’ll let you in on a well-kept secret: It’s a load of crap.

OK, before the wine geeks get their underwear in a wad, there are some tried and true wine and food pairings, or WFPs, such as: 1. foie gras and French Sauternes. The creamy, deliciously fatty, salty and politically incorrect goose liver gets balanced out by the sweet, luscious dessert nectar the French so lovingly (and expensively) produce. 2. Tomato-based items with Italian Chianti. This country practically invented the tomato sauce (well, according to StraightDope.com, tomato sauce started in America, since the tomato is indigenous to the New World. But the Italians, in all their culinary fabulousness, perfected it), so it stands to reason that local wines match their local cuisine. Chianti’s tart, earthy acidity snuggles up nicely to the tomato’s acid and, poof, a perfect WFP is born. 3. Spicy food and Riesling. Throw Indian, Thai or Mexican food at a fruit-forward, slightly sweeter Riesling, and the cilantro-curry-jalapeño fires will be calmed.

But as far as WFPs go, those pretty much sum up the standards for me.

Sure, there are guidelines, like pinot gris/grigio and Sauvignon Blanc with shellfish, but winemakers experiment so much these days, you can’t generalize what those varietals will taste like in the bottle. I’ve had soft, full-bodied Sauvignon Blancs and tart, grapefruity ones — they definitely wouldn’t pair with the same dish. Winemakers have umpteen tools at their disposal — think oak, dealcoholizing machines, fermentation options — so it’s like comparing my homemade marinara sauce to someone else’s. Hell, my food never comes out the same way twice (peanut butter and jelly sandwich notwithstanding). Add in the fruit differences in vintage and wine region, and you have an even bigger morass of disparity.

So if you want to be a purist about your WFPs, remember this — an extra ingredient can throw off the relationship. When you’re trying to impress a date, neighbor, friend or boss with a WFP, do a test run. Unrealistic, given your schedule? Probably, but it’s needed to get the right match. Or show your friendly, local retailer the ingredients of the dish and, if they’re worth their salt, the recommendations should flow. In a restaurant it’s much easier — ask the server or sommelier … they’ve probably tried every dish on the menu and, hopefully, know the wines on the list, so they can be your sherpa.

Just about 98.9 percent of drinkers aren’t purists and just want a good glass of wine with their food. Or they drink without food. Whatever floats your boat is fine. Just keep in mind that generalities about WFPs are just that — generalities. If you follow them religiously, they may not end up improving your meal.


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