Celebrate the Everyday
Pairing wine and food seems to be one of the most intimidating things. There is a stigma attached to getting that perfect pairing and there are entire libraries devoted to the subject. For me there are few excellent pairings, such as fresh oysters on the half shell and champagne (sparkling), and conversely there are very few outright disasters like chocolate cake and champagne (sparkling). Food and wine pairing should be something to have fun with and not worth stressing about.
Basically, my philosophy is don’t be a slave to rules, take them as rough approximations, experiment and have some fun.
Having said all that here are a few guidelines that I use to help me along when determining a good or unexpected food pairing.
Pair the region to the food – if you look at where the wine comes from (we are talking old world here) and what type or style of food is grown there, you can’t go too far wrong. For an example – the Champagne region is famous for Reims Ham, Reims Mustard, Chaource Cheese, Truffles and Pink Biscuits (Les biscuits roses de Reims, locals are fond of dipping them into a glass of champagne). So, it only stands to reason that these foods will pair wonderfully with champagne.
Pair the wine with the most dominant element in the dish or on the plate. Many of today’s gastronomic ‘events’ are complex and made up of numerous ingredients. It can be a herculean if not impossible task to try to find a wine that perfectly pairs with every single element in a dish. What I find to be the most helpful is to identify the predominant flavor or ingredient and work from there. When you pair a wine based of the dominant flavours, I find the supporting characters fall into place, but it is sometimes fun to take a supporting flavour and experiment with pairing with wine to see what if anything happens to the dish.
Generally, when trying to work out what wine will go with a dish or meal, I try to tackle it somewhat systematically, working from the least forgiving of my guidelines to the most forgiving. What I tend to look at first is the sweetness level of the dish. I find that this is the aspect of food and wine pairing that has the least amount of flexibility. A wine should be at least as sweet as the food that you are trying to pair it with. When a wine is drier that the food, I find that the wine becomes flat and sometimes will give it almost a sour aftertaste. Having said that I do find that a bit of sweetness in a wine will often balance out some heat or spice in a food.
Once I have tackled the sweetness equation what I would then tend to look at is the weight or body of the food I am trying to pair. This will more often come down to perception and how you personally interpret these aspects of a dish, but a few very simple examples would be: a powerful red will likely overwhelm a light salad with a citrusy vinaigrette. Conversely a soft, fruity white will likely lose its way against a rich meaty stew.
Working down my checklist, this is the one that I tend to have the most fun with as it is the most versatile, and that is acidity. Here is where I tend to work slightly backwards and look at the wine first, a nice dry, high acid Riesling will cut through rich foods. High acid wines will also stand up to any tartness in the food. Sparkling wines tend to be high in acid, so I love to experiment with using them as a counterpoint to fried foods or foods higher in salt.
The last thing that I will look at will generally have to do with red wines and food – that is where I will look at tannins and alcohol and how these will affect the food. Tannin absorbs fat, making it such a great accompaniment to red meats. The main thing that I keep in mind when I am looking at a tannic or red higher in alcohol is the effect that these elements have on spice. These wines have a tendency to make spicy foods spicier and bitter food seem even more bitter. With these guidelines I will generally pair these bolder reds with rich savoury dishes.
My one last comment is that it is sometimes best to let one or the other become the ‘star of the show’ if you have a great bottle of wine that you have been hoarding for that special occasion. Let it shine and either enjoy on its own (with the best company of course!) or pair it with a simpler dish. Or conversely if your chef is letting his creative juices flow, then pair with a simple versatile wine.
These are just the guidelines that I use but my most important motivator has always been to have some fun and try different things. I once paired a beautifully aged port with some spicier chorizo and was wonderfully surprised at the result, but always have a tried and true bottle waiting in the wings.
February 16, 2020 | Preston Radford