About The Author:

"Roger, The Wine Guy" is Roger Yazell, CWS. He is a member of the International Wine Guild and has had a long time admiration of wine. After careers in broadcasting, advertising and marketing account management, he explored his love of wine in hospitality, wholesale and retail sales. The intent of Roger's Grapevine is to share stories, history and information that will add to the reader's love, enjoyment and appreciation of wine and sake'.

Questions, requests for topics and comments are always welcome via email: rogerthewineguy@gmail.com.

(Note: The Wine Guy is currently undergoing chemotherapy and this blog will be on hiatus for the duration and into a recovery period. The Wine Guy is planning to celebrate his recovery with a trip to the two wine producing regions in Argentina and that should provide for some interesting new blogs. Meanwhile please enjoy the archives and feel free to email in the interim.)

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Pairing Wine with Food

The Wine Guy has to admit that I approach this blog with a certain amount of anxiety. Pairing wine with food has been one of the most written about, most discussed subjects in the world of wine and probably the most abused. It is also the source of the greatest number of questions we in the wine trade ever get asked about wine. There is a perception among most wine consumers that you have to be an expert in wine to approach this subject and attempt to answer “What wine do I serve with….?” The more I learn about wine, the more I’m convinced of these three things:

1) Wine reaches its best levels of enjoyment when paired with food.
2) Proper pairing of wine and food mainly requires good common sense and a confidence in your own ability to decide what tastes best to you.
3) All the advice you get from wine professionals (including myself) should be treated as guidelines and then tempered by your own taste preferences and experiences.

Sounds terribly simple, doesn’t it? Well it is and, then again, as with all things in the world of wine, it is also varied and complex. Let’s begin with a look at why.

Wine has been a beverage associated with food for thousands of years. At first its alcohol content simply made it one of the safest beverages to drink. It also probably countered the effects of some of the microorganisms that developed on food as it waited to be prepared and consumed. In short, it was highly practical. As both winemaking and food preparation evolved, it became apparent that there were endless tastes and flavors available in both beverage and food. There were also endless combinations possible. Obviously some combinations worked better than others and some didn’t work well at all. We also began to discover that just as the wine modified the taste of food, the food modified the taste of the wine. Thus began the long arduous examination of what wine goes well with what food. (So far, the common sense part seems obvious, doesn’t it?) The big variable that enters this equation is you and I are the consumers of both products. Just as each of us who eats a particular food dish has a different taste experience, so does each of us who sips a particular wine. It would follow that our reaction to the combination of those flavors varies as well. What works well for me may not for you and vice-versa.

So where do we begin? Let’s start with some general (and sensible) guidelines that will assist and help you in exploring and discovering your own preferences and favorite combinations. I use the word sensible because there are many guidelines floating out there that perpetuate the myth of “only certain wines go with certain food”. Chief among these is the old “white wine with white meats, red wine with reds meats”. What Bunk! While I don’t count myself, there are many wine consumers who prefer to consume just whites or just reds. While some of us think you’re unnecessarily restricting yourself, there’s nothing wrong with that. Certainly you can (and should be able to) find many different wines that will pair well with any just about any food you choose to enjoy. I’ve found reds that pair well with poultry and whites that were highly enjoyable with a steak. The perpetuated myth of “the perfect wine” with each food dish is just that: a myth.

Here are some guidelines that may serve you well:

Guideline #1: Always choose a wine you would enjoy anyway:
Good chefs will tell you to never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink. The same credo applies to accompanying your food with a glass of wine. Just because some expert listed a particular wine as his best pairing with a certain food doesn’t mean there aren’t others. If it’s not your kind of wine, move on and look for another pairing.

Guideline #2: Wine can either complement or contrast the flavors of food you pair with:
Both situations can be enjoyable. You must decide which job you want the wine to perform. You may choose either effect at different times. (Variety is, indeed, the spice of life!) Just as you may sometimes choose to accent a dish with spices that add a new flavor to the dish you’re eating or sometimes you may add a spice that brings out the basic underlying flavor of the food, you can do the same with the wine you choose.

Guideline # 3: Watch your alcohol content, particularly with spicier foods:
High alcohol content in wine will sharply accent hot spices in food and vice-versa. Utilize lower alcohol wines with spicier food. If you’re looking for a contrasting wine, choose one with a little more sweetness or fruity characteristics to balance the hot spices.

Guideline #4: Watch your level of tannins with milder dishes:
Bold and flavorful tannins can rapidly overpower very mild dishes. Keep in mind that tannins also come from the wood that wine is aged in as well as the parts of the grapes, so this proviso is not just restricted to reds. It is possible for a heavily oaked chardonnay to make a succulent, baked turkey taste as flavorless as cardboard.

Guideline #5: With a complex meal, you may want to choose a palate cleansing wine:
When there are a lot of different dishes on the table, you may want to choose a wine that will refreshingly rinse the mouth and reset the taste buds for the next course or bite of food. Sparkling wines, for example, fit this purpose very well and also add a sense of festivity.

Note: For the same reason, The Wine Guy usually serves lightly chilled water with his wine when he has guests for dinner. Knowing everyone’s taste buds react differently, I want my guests to have the opportunity to be address the different taste combinations they may experience with the wine and the food that is offered.

Guideline #6: For dessert, make it sweet or make it a finale:
Wines served with dessert should generally be sweeter than the dessert itself; otherwise the sharper characteristics of the wine (acidity, tannins, etc) will be accented and come to the foreground and alter the basic taste of the wine. Optionally, go for a palate cleanser with complimentary flavors.

Guideline #7: It’s O.K. to pair more than one kind of wine with your food:
Set an extra glass or two at your table and open more than one kind of wine. It’s not only fun, it helps address the many different palates around your table when you have guests. And, as you develop your own sense of pairing combinations, it can also add to your variety of enjoyable experiences with the meal. It always amazes me that people will pay exorbitant prices for special wine pairing dinners at restaurants offering multiple wines but remain reluctant to that on their own. You can affordably have a similar, if not better (because it’s based on YOUR taste preferences) at your own table once you learn the basics and follow your taste buds.

Guideline # 8: When seeking advice, let your advisor know what you prefer in wine:
Whether it’s a waiter or sommelier in a restaurant or your steward at the local wine shop, let the person you ask know what kind of wines you prefer. If necessary, also relate how your food is being prepared. Without this information, his recommendation will be based solely on his own experiences and taste preferences. If he is professional, he’ll modify his first instinct based on the information you give him. As a result, you’re more likely to get a wine pairing that you will truly enjoy.

Guideline #9: When in doubt, go to the source for food pairing ideas:
When looking for a pairing for a particular dish or cuisine go that region of the world where that food is famous and look at the most popular wines of the same area. These wines probably developed there (this is most particularly true in the Old World) because for most of the people there, they pair well with the food. As examples: Riojas or Grenachas are good with the traditional tapas of Spain. The pastas and game dishes of central Italy pair well with the Sangiovese and Montepulciano wines found there. Lamb dishes are popular in both Greece and Australia. Naoussa is the best selling red in Greece and Shiraz is the best selling red in Australia and it’s no coincidence that both pair wonderfully with lamb.

O.K. these are some rough guidelines. To see how they apply, let me share with you some of The Wine Guy’s preferred food pairings. Remember these work for me, but may not for you. I offer them as an overview. You may discover different wines under the same guidelines that work as well, if not better, for you.

The Wine Guy’s Go-To pairings:

Pasta with red/meat sauces:
Try Italian Chianti, Montepulciano and Sangiovese blends or Nero d’Avola

Pasta with creamy/vegetable sauces:
Italian Pinot Grigio is a natural choice but I also enjoy a good New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with these and for a red, try a South American Carmenere

Baked or roasted Poultry-white wine Choices:
French Chardonnays (Pouilly-Fuisse or Macon Villages), Argentine Torrontes

Baked or roasted Poultry-red wine choices:
Spanish Monastrel, French Burgundy or Chilean Pinot Noir

Plainer Shellfish Dishes:
South African Chenin Blanc (especially good with shrimp stir-fry), Greek Assyrtico, French Vouvrey

Saucy or buttered shellfish dishes:
Creamy, buttery California Chardonnay, or Gew├╝rztraminer

Salmon dishes:
Nothing for me quite beats a good Oregon or California Pinot Noir especially if the salmon is grilled.

Whitefish dishes:
Spanish Albarino (my favorite with baked Halibut), French Cotes du Rhone Blanc or any good Viognier

Mexican Food:
Nebbiolo based wines, South American or California Merlots, Spanish Mencia (Bierzo)

Pork dishes:
French Cotes Du Rhone, French or South African Dry Rose or any good Pinot Noir (especially if the dish has a mushroom sauce glaze).

Chocolate Red Layer Cake:
Italian Brachetto, this raspberry flavored sparkler goes great with the chocolate and refreshes at the same time.

Cheeseburger & Fries:
Extra Dry Spanish Cava (Seriously, I am not kidding. I was amazed about 15 years ago when I discovered the Miami Subs chain in south Florida offered a high-end champagne. I was more amazed when I saw how many people ordered it. Finally, I was stunned when I tried sparkling wine with fast food for the first time!) I deliberately put this example in to illustrate that you can really go where your taste buds dictate and will allow you to go when it comes to food pairing.

Finally, two of my pairings that are not wine, but the same principle and guidelines apply:

Spicy Thai dishes & Asian food:
A wonderful pairing with these dishes is Sake’. For the spicier dishes, I trend toward the sweeter and softer on the palate Nigori (or unfiltered) sake.

Roasted Turkey Sandwich with Blue Cheese sauce:
Regular readers will know that this is called a “Dirty Bird” and is featured at my favorite pub & deli in Atlanta. It pairs wonderfully with a Trippel Ale. However, I usually order it with a Canadian La Fin du Monde, an equally marvelous pairing of beer and food.

It’s been a longer blog than usual, so allow me to recap:

A. Each of us brings different taste preferences in both food and wine to the table.

B. Because of that, “the perfect wine” pairing for any food item is different for each of us.

C. Treat advice from experts as a guide to get you started on food pairing and temper that with your own experiences.

D. Always pair with food a wine you would probably enjoy anyway.

E. Taste, taste, taste. Use common sense to guide you in experimenting with new combinations. Then let your taste buds direct you from there.

Finally, wine is wonderful with food. Have a wonderful experience soon!

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