‘Wine and food pairing’ – that small, four-word phrase has been known to cause palpitations for even the most ardent of wine enthusiasts. Why do we obsess about matching these two, wonderful elements of daily life?
Well, let’s start by blaming the French! There, I said it! Now don’t get me wrong; I’m one of the biggest Francophiles you’ll ever meet, but the ‘art’ of pairing certain wines with certain foods can be traced back to an era known as the ‘Belle Époque’. Wealthy industrialist and high society elites collected fine wines and wanted to show them off. They’d host lavish dinners with multiple courses, each paired aside a coveted vintage.
The ‘greed is good’ attitude of the 1980’s brought another wave of pairing snobbery, along with a plethora of books, magazines and television ‘experts’ espousing “the perfect pairing.”
It was not, however, always this trendy or taxing. For centuries, people would cultivate their own food or purchase from local markets and merchants. Their wines would be from local producers crafted from local grapes. And somehow, miraculously, it worked: ‘If it grows together, it goes together.’
A good match, like in marriage or friendship, is a glorious thing. Sometimes relationships work because two people have much in common. Sometimes, it’s opposites that attract, bringing out the best in each. And so it is with wine and food. A good pairing is simply taking two elements that are perfectly fine on their own, and putting them together to create something even more amazing.
Much of the old advice still rings true yet some assumptions are now considered passé. The overwhelming goal remains the same: balance and harmony – that perfect relationship.
A few things to consider:
There are two schools of thought in pairing: one, that you go with something comparable, say a lush, buttery Chardonnay with a lush buttery sauced piece of chicken. The other trend is to bring out the best in both elements with a contrasting pairing – think spicy Thai curry with a slightly sweet Chenin Blanc or Riesling.
We’re all familiar with the basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter, but have you heard of umami? That’s the earthy, savory quality you find in soy sauce, mushrooms and cured meats.
Don’t just think about taste, but texture, too: creamy, fatty, smooth, crunch, sticky – you get the idea.
White wine with fish? Certainly – can’t get a better pairing than fresh seafood and bright, dry Chablis, Champagne or Muscadet. But bring on a bigger-bodied fish like salmon, put it on the grill to add a bit of smoky character and a lightly fruity, medium-bodied Pinot Noir is the new go-to wine.
Red wine with meat is a classic call; lamb with Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon is a safe and delicious bet. But how about a dry Rosé, bursting with ripe, red berry aromas to go with that baked ham? Or a rich, earthy Southern Rhone white blend with your savory pork roast?
The very best pairing suggestion? Curiosity with enthusiasm.