Of the true enigmas in the world – Stonehenge, The Pyramids, Macchu Picchu – may I add food and wine pairings? Sure, it’s not as grandiose as aged, weathered ruins, but it’s as elusive as the Holy Grail, at least to the foodies amongst us. With the popularity of pairings on Food Network, pairings are quite the rage, but the problem is that Americans want the easy fix. But it doesn’t work that way. Matching up foodstuffs with winestuffs is decidedly not a science. It’s a complex and delicious art.
I can only imagine the crusty B.S. of red-wine-with-red-meat derived out of this laziness. It’s sooo easy. I wonder if the red with red myth originated after World War II, when American beef-producers had excess stock, and the French had excess red wine. The two factions had lunch, made the pact, and a fallacy was born. Think about it.
OK, I admit 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 low-acid, luscious dessert nectar the French so lovingly (and expensively) produce. 2) Tomato-based items with Italian Chianti. This country practically invented the tomato sauce, so it stands to reason that local wines match their local cuisine. Chianti’s tart earthiness snuggles up nicely to the tomato’s acid and, poof, a perfect WFP is born. 3) Spicy food and off-dry riesling. Throw Indian, Thai or Mexican food at a fruit-forward, slightly sweeter riesling, and the cilantro-curry-jalapeño fires will be calmed.
For all other situations, only basic tenets can apply and you can’t even say, for instance, all sauvignon blancs pair with shellfish. A purist practicing this art should know that an extra ingredient (pepper or lime, for instance) can throw off the flavor palette and subtle harmony. Also, each wine varietal can vary widely. Winemakers have umpteen tools at their disposal — think oak, de-alcoholizing systems, fermentation options — so it’s like comparing my homemade marinara sauce to my neighbor’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.
Here are the general guidelines — experiment at will. First, balance the flavors of food and wine according to their intensity. For instance, a full-bodied chardonnay might smother a delicate piece of white fish and a wimpy pinot noir couldn’t stand up to a slab of meaty lamb. Second, the dominant flavor or sauce of a dish should determine the wine choice. Whatever shows up early and shouts “Hello!” should be the influencing wine factor since that’s what will rule your mouth. Third, strive for contrasts and complements. Rich, cream-based sauces call for something equally as decadent yet sharp, like a buttery California chardonnay. But an earthy mushroom sauce poured over a grilled, fatty steak can complete the package with an earthy Italian red.
Or, here’s an option… toss all that stuff and only remember this: Sparkling wine pairs well with everything. Somehow, this high acidity juice makes friends with all food, and most people. So, when in doubt and you’re looking for that end-all, be-all culinary orgasm, reach for the bubbly. It can be as grandiose as the Grand Canyon.