Pairing wine and food: No rules, just do it !

March 10, 2014 by John Brown

Wine without food is like, chips without dip, Adam without Eve, spring without ramps, or love without a partner!

Yeah, yeah, I know, we all occasionally sneak a glass or two of wine at a cocktail party to be social, but that little sip tastes so much better with just about any morsel of food. And while finding the perfect pairing is akin to discovering the Holy Grail, even the imperfect matches are so much better than consuming wine or food alone.

While there is some legitimacy to the old adage of red wine with red meat and white wine with fish or white meat, pairing food and wine is a lot more complicated. Today we’ll examine those complications and hopefully provide you with some helpful tips.

Of course, I must provide the disclaimer that what I am about to recommend is the subjective opinion of an avowed hedonist. Still, some matches are so good that they are almost universally embraced. Take steak and cabernet sauvignon for example.

Most carnivores I know agree that cabernet, particularly from California, South American or Australia, is a wonderful accompaniment to a grilled or broiled rib eye, filet, strip steak or prime rib.

Another undisputed winner is to pair a rich chardonnay or White Burgundy with lobster and drawn butter. The richness of the lobster along with the oiliness of the butter is married spectacularly with the unctuousness of a full-bodied chardonnay.

While there would be virtually no disagreement on the accuracy of the above two food and wine pairings, more generalized statements can be dead wrong.

For example, if you assume that all chardonnay is always the best choice with lobster and drawn butter, or that all cabernet is perfect with steak you would be making a big mistake. Here’s why.

A chardonnay from Chablis in France is usually austere with crisp acidity and mineral qualities. It is best paired with oysters and/or plainly cooked seafood. It would be overwhelmed if matched with lobster and drawn butter.

The same goes for pairing an older cabernet or Bordeaux with a grilled steak. The cabernet or Bordeaux develops layers of delicate flavors and aromas over the years that would be destroyed by, say, a grilled rib eye.

So how do you make good judgments on pairing food and wine when the answers are not obvious? Well, you can rely on “experts” to provide advice and/or you can use common sense and be adventurous. Here are some tips that may help you out if you choose to go it alone.

Think of flavor, texture and weight of the food and wine pairing. You wouldn’t logically pair a full-flavored red wine with delicate broiled seafood such as Dover Sole. Think about it. The flavors, textures and weight are all out of balance. Instead, try delicate White Bordeaux, an Italian Arneis or a Washington State semillon.

Here’s the closest thing to an absolute wine and food no-no: vinaigrette salad with any wine. Why? The vinegar based dressing clashes with the acid in wine destroying the flavors of both the salad and wine. Creamy or cheese dressings work fine with sauvignon blanc, riesling or viognier, but nothing works with vinaigrette.

This one breaks the rules, but is a definite winner. Try a pinot noir, Chianti, or even Beaujolais with grilled salmon, tuna or chicken. Pinot noir also pairs greatly with spicy foods, particularly Southwestern (US) fare. Ditto, gruner veltliner or gewürztraminer. They go especially well with spicy oriental dishes, especially Thai food.

Roasted Thanksgiving turkey can handle just about any white or red, but I particularly like Rhone reds, Alsatian pinot gris and merlot-based Bordeaux with the “national bird.”

Chocolate desserts love – are you ready for this – cabernet sauvignon. Ices and sorbets are great with Moscato and sweet sparkling wines. Try blue cheese with Port and late harvest zinfandel.

One final thought: if you prefer Mad Dog 40-40 with your Peking Duck, go for it! The best food and wine pairing is what you choose. The key is to do the pairing.

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