“Is it really real, though?” asks the man at the tasting bar, perusing the plate of nibbles we pair with each wine on our flight.
An excellent question, actually.
I like to answer these kinds of questions with questions.
“Do you like salt on your cornflakes or Tobasco on your ice cream?”
As you might now begin to understand how my rants work, I have to say, resoundingly, YES! Food pairing is quite real. And, NO! There are no hard and fast rules. Experimentation is the recommended path to take while exploring food pairing while remembering one true rule; pair the food, not the wine.
My fervent belief about pairing wine with food is to remember who bears top billing; the food. The wine plays a supporting role, along with the ambience and the company. The age old experience of breaking bread far exceeds the toast…(which comes from a tradition of soaking toasted bread in the wine to impart charred flavors and spices…again, the food trumps the wine).
Another rule of thumb to remember is to mirror or oppose certain aspects in the meal with characteristics in the wine. For example, an Albarino pairs excellently with oysters. The flintyness of the wine accentuates the minerality in the oysters, while the fruity crispness of the Albarino contrasts with the soapiness/low acidity of the meat—no lemon needed!
The best way to apply the principles of mirror or opposition in food pairing is to discover a feature of the meal that needs accentuation or subduing. A cream dish might feel fatty on the palate, thus a wine with cleansing acidity might be the best pairing. A dish with provencal spices might need a little help with a wine that is less fruity and more savory with hints of spice, like a Southern Rhone blend white or red. Recently I had a sparkling rose with a duck and cranberry confit. Delicious! The crisp bubbly fruitiness of the wine mirrored the cranberries beautifully, while cutting through the fat of the confit.
Of course, the next aspect of food paring requires some care; pair the wine style with the food appropriately. A delicate meal with delicate flavors cannot support a large wine! A Bordeaux will most certainly upstage a light chicken or fish dish. Pizza will overpower a delicate Southern Rhone red or a Pinot Noir. Although the wine is meant to support the food, there is no point in having wine with a meal if you can’t taste it!
Lastly, I recommend straying from your standbys. Food pairing with wines is completely different from drinking a wine as a cocktail. If you sip Chardonnay, please don’t strictly order Chardonnay with your meal! Be adventurous! The loyal Chardonnay or Pinot or Cab drinker looses out in food pairing. Wine completely changes in the palate when paired with food. A well paired meal can create a synergy far more exciting than you can achieve with timid fidelity to inferior varietals.
If in doubt, ask the Sommelier. It is their job, you are not bothering them (although many feel that they must feign annoyance, but it is a ruse, trust me!) Sommeliers work closely with their chefs and they create wine lists that compliment the dishes on their menu. If you are pairing a homemade meal, ask the wine shop keeper, if there is one, or consult a local expert. Wineries are pretty good at offering advice as to which meals you might serve with their wines. A wine journal works well, too. Good notes help make better meals in the future!
On a personal note, I have to say that food pairing is another joy in the journey of making and sharing excellent meals with my loved ones. I often spend hours preparing a meal; and the idea that I might randomly choose a wine for the meal is ludicrous.
I began my journey as a wine maker in reaction to a deep lack of domestically produced food wines. At the time I worked with a 5 star chef, and found that our wine list dedicated to domestic wines was embarrassingly inappropriate for pairing with his painstakingly artful dishes. Huge jammy reds with high alcohol and low acid over powered carefully crafted nuances in the food and deadened the palate. Since then, we have seen a slight trend towards more elegant varietals. Even more exciting is the trend towards domestically produced traditional blends featuring balanced, full flavored, low alcohol and higher acids wines to accent our expensive and carefully prepared meals.
As my hero once said..
“Wine is one of the agreeable and essential ingredients of life.” Julia Childs