Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Myth of Wine Pairing

Now there's an attention-grabbing headline.

First, what I'm not saying: I'm not saying that there isn't a technique to finding wines that match well with foods that you're eating. I believe that whole-heartedly.

What I am saying: I'm saying that this isn't an elusive art, it's not particularly difficult, and that it is a profoundly inexact science. It's an opportunity to have a good time, not the secret to infinite pleasure and divine knowledge.

When pairing wine with food you're dealing in broad strokes. Here are the basic principles that I use:

1. Work as I would with food. How do come up flavors on the plate? You look for complimentary or supplementary flavors. Acid cuts through fishiness: lemon juice with salmon. Sweetness offsets spicy (and vise versa): jalapeno cornbread. Earthiness compliments creaminess: smoked salmon and cream cheese.

What does this mean? It means I'll usually go with a dry tart white wine with most seafood-centric dishes. Italian and Spanish whites are usually good bets. I'll go with a lighter varietal for lighter food. Grilled salmon gets a nice robust muscadet. Braised squid gets a vermentino or arneis. Chicken and pasta in cream sauce? A medium-bodied earthy red like a southern Rhone or a Nero d'Avola. Spicy food (particularly east Asian or Indian cuisine) will almost always get an off-dry gewurztraminer, riesling, or similar Alsatian/Northern European white varietal.

2. Like doesn't always treat like. Just because you have a butter sauteed scallops doesn't mean you need to have a buttery chardonnay. A steak doesn't always need to take a big meaty red. It's more important to focus on the flavor profiles of the dish taken as a whole then on the characteristics of the central ingredient. If your scallops are seasoned with earthy, aromatic herbs you might find that a light, fruit-focused red would work well. A steak broiled with salt and pepper and topped with a little horseradish might lend itself as well to pinot noir as to cabernet or zinfandel.

One break from this rule? Generally speaking the wines of a country or region pair best with the cuisine of that country or region, especially when we're talking Old World. The wine and cuisine of Europe have been inextricably tied to each other in a co-evolution for centuries if not millenia. Burgundy takes to northern French food. Bordeaux takes to western French food. Muscadet takes to the shellfish-heavy cuisine of coastal France. You get the picture.

3. Start with the wine. If I'm cooking at home I'll sometimes decide on a wine I want to drink first and then figure out what I'm going to eat. A nice wine that you're familiar with will benefit from your being able to fine-tune the flavors of your dinner. The wine is a fixed thing, nothing's going to change how it tastes. Dinner is infinitely malleable. Got a nice off-dry gewurz? Steam up some curry mussels and call it a party. Nice minerally syrah? Stew some rabbit.

4. It doesn't really matter. While you will encounter that occasional brilliant wine pairing (in the same way you'll encounter a transcendent entree instead of food that's just good, or even great), that's more a product of circumstance and serendipity than skill and knowledge. Most of the time you'll be happy with whatever wine you choose as long as you pay attention to your basics. Besides spending money on food and wine you like is more important than trying to play some abstract game of chess with your palate.

One final bit of advice that I can't stress enough: the more wines that you taste and become familiar with the better you'll be at pairing them. If you limit yourself to California's Big Five you're cutting out 90% of your pairing possibilities. And remember, a good wine list at a good restaurant will have scores of unusual wines that will work wonderfully with their food, even if you haven't heard of the varietals.


Zack said...

beer plz

I am sick of places with nothing more exotic on the menu that Sierra Nevada or maybe the token Chimay. I shouldn't be getting excited to see Lagunitas. These thoughts on wine pairing are useful in the abstract, but I don't like wine, and wine doesn't like me (I get me the hangovers if I drink it) (yeah, not just Franzia -- good stuff too).

David J.D. said...

Good point. You can apply some of the similar rules to beer too.... Magnolia in the Haight is a good spot for good house-brewed beers paired well with good fresh pub food.

I pay attention to beer options on wine lists too--a good restaurant will offer a similarly broad (but not as deep, obviously) selection of beers.

You should know though that there are a lot (a whole lot) of customers who are very upset that you don't have "normal" beer like Budweiser, Heineken, Pyramid Hefeweize, et al. I've had a guy who was offended that he hadn't heard of any of the beers that we have (of course we do have Boont Amber and Anchor Steam, so I think he was just retarded).