By Julia van der Vink
While certain sommeliers create food and wine pairings with artistry and nuance, many of us follow the simplified formulae:
- Beef or Lamb = Cabernet Sauvignon
- Pork = Pinot Noir
- Chicken = A source of anxiety usually remedied by a retreat back to Pinot
- Fish or Vegetarian or Aperitif = Something white (if we even have anything white)
- Dessert = Another round of whatever we were already drinking
I don’t mean to mock this default system; in fact, there is beauty in its simplicity. However, I do believe there might be something more to life than Beef = Cabernet and Pork = Pinot, even if that “something” is just a little more creative pizzazz, if you will. Wine is supposed to enhance food, food is supposed to enhance wine, and the scope of creative pairings is boundless. Here are some considerations:
1) A wine’s weight is more important than its color. One of the tried and true aspects of successful food and wine pairing is matching the weight of the food with the weight of the wine. When I think of a wine’s weight, I usually think: is this wine like skim milk, two percent milk, or whole milk? Rich, heavy foods like roast meats, grilled steaks, and red meat casseroles, need a full-bodied wine because something light would be quickly overwhelmed. For many heavy meat dishes, a rich full-bodied white wine like Viognier or Chardonnay is a better match than a light red like Pinot Noir or Valpolicella. I will also use this moment to rectify an age-old fallacy: you can pair red wine with fish.
2) Pair tannic wines with “chewy” meats. Foods with high protein content, particularly red meat, soften the effects of the tannin on the palate. So, along with Cabernet Sauvignon, consider pairing Nebbiolo, Aglianico, Malbec and Syrah with roasted meats and steaks.
3) Embrace contrast. Salty foods can be enhanced by sweetness, (for example, Port and Stilton cheese), and fatty/oily foods can be enhanced by high-acid wines that help cut through the fat, (for example, Champagne and fish & chips).
4) Match flavor intensity. Mild foods go with mild wines, (for example, pair grilled chicken with a simple, clean Chardonnay), and big, flavorful foods go with big, flavorful wines (you don’t even have to stray far from your Steak and Cab to pair a peppercorn steak with a spicy, bold Châteauneuf-du-Pape). A wine with intense flavor is not the same as a wine with heavy weight. Riesling, for example, makes a lightweight wine that is intensely flavored, while Chardonnay makes a full-bodied wine that is lower in flavor.
5) Don’t pair at all. Although some wine critics deem this new trend controversial, sometimes I don’t want to pollute my wine with food, and sometimes I don’t want to pollute my food with wine.
The most fun is discovering an unexpected flavor that is drawn out in the food by the wine, or drawn out in the wine by the food. However, getting obsessed with the alleged “rules of pairing,” sets you on a slippery slope towards culinary compromise. There is beauty in experimentation. Were it not for my own recklessness, I would have never stumbled upon one of the most sublime pairings: Cahors Malbec and sour gummy worms. If by some horrible chance you end up with a wine in your glass that does not go with your food, simply default to point 5.