The Pairings Puzzle

Traditional and new food-and-wine pairings with matches to avoid.


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Pity the poor neophyte wandering through the world of wine-and-food matching.

Searching for advice on this subject leaves him pulled in two directions: One camp supports picking whatever he likes, as long as it makes him happy. The other has a different tone entirely, emphasizing hard-and-fast rules.

The fear of doing something wrong tends to win out, and, therefore, we still have many drinkers who think they must rely on classic matches. There are some good pairing ideas embodied in the classics, but some awful ones as well. If you're going to go classic, it's best to go skeptically; look at each one, try to understand how it became a classic and then leave open the possibility of personal good sense trumping the traditional rules.

Before embarking on this journey, it is best to bone up on what I call "The Principles," the things that stand behind both good classic matches and good spontaneous ones. Many food-and-wine matching problems, in fact, come from ignorance of The Principles. Rank beginners think that color-coding is a key element in making a match—ergo, the hordes of white-with-fish, red-with-meat robots. Rise a step up the sophistication ladder, and they start viewing varietal matching as the essence of the game. Chardonnay with lobster. Cabernet with lamb. Zinfandel with barbecue, and on and on, never stopping to think where the wine is made or how the food is prepared. Even more evolved matchers cross the border into the harmony of flavors. If a dish has cilantro in it, they're headed toward a grassy Sauvignon Blanc. If a dish has black pepper in it, they're headed toward a spicy Shiraz. This approach is better, but still leaves out the things that really matter.

The Principles are based on the perceptions that register on your tongue, and on your tongue alone. For it is the interplay of salty, sour, sweet and bitter that makes or breaks a wine-and-food match.

I'm not advocating that you doctor your food to disguise bad wines, or vice versa. Just for the sake of illustration: Does that salad have a sour dressing? No problem—drink a wine with it that is itself too sour, and the wine will taste delicious, richer, fruitier and sweeter. Is that California Chardonnay so sweet it tastes like pineapple juice, ruining your grilled swordfish? No problem—garnish the fish with some sweet mango and red pepper salsa, and the wine will taste drier, more complex, perfectly matched. Among the four tongue sensations, like often goes well with like—except when good matches are made by the contrast of opposites (such as sour and salty).

Color doesn't count. Flavor subtleties, mostly detected by the nose, don't count much either. Certain wine elements, such as fruit, alcohol, oak and tannin, do count, but only in terms of the way they interact with the basic taste sensations on the tongue.

With The Principles firmly in mind, let's test some matches and see if they make any sense.

True Classics
To be a true classic, as far as I'm concerned, a match has to be reliable. The food and wine go well together effortlessly, over and over again.

Smoked salmon with off-dry German Riesling
I've heard Hugh Johnson call this match "the banker"; it is as classic, and as reliable as you can get. All kinds of smoked salmon work well, as do all kinds of off-dry German Rieslings (in fact, drier styles and sweeter styles of German Riesling often work well too). The key is the refreshing interplay between the acidity of German wine and the saltiness of smoked salmon; the latter element also plays brilliantly off of the wine's fruity sweetness. Another contributing factor is wines' low alcohol content: Salty food can taste unpleasant next to 13 percent-alcohol table wines, but wines like these, in the 8-10 percent range, are always harmonious.

Tomato-sauced pasta with Piedmontese Barbera
The outstanding element in any tomato sauce, from the matcher's point of view, is the natural acidity in the tomatoes. It is a quality that makes many, many red wines that are supposed to go with pasta taste clumsy, hot, sweeter and less elegant than they really are. Find, however, a red wine that always features bright acidity, and you've got it made. Such a one is Barbera, produced from the grape of the same name, in Piedmont, where the wine may be labeled Barbera d'Alba, Barbera d'Asti or Barbera di Monferrato. There are other Barberas in the world, but the Piedmontese wines have great acids, even when the producer goes the nontraditional route and puts the wine in new oak.

Garlic sausage with Beaujolais Nouveau
This combination, so popular around Lyon, works because the relatively low alcohol content of this wine doesn't amplify the saltiness of the sausage, and because the acidity in Beaujolais Nouveau cuts through the sausage's fat. Both of those desirables—taming of salt and taming of fat—are helped along further by the wine's abundant fruit, which lowers the impression of salt and covers up the presence of fat.

Roquefort and Sauternes
This classic match owes its status to one factor only: The wine's sweetness serves as a perfect foil to the saltiness of the cheese, refreshing the palate mightily, preparing it for the next rush of salt. The cool temperature of the wine also helps in this regard. And the wine's richness is a perfect mate for the richness of the cheese; they stand side by side in a decadently unctuous way.

Problematic Classics
Now, there are some matches the classic texts guide you toward that can, on occasion, work out well—but you really have to know what you're doing in order to make them work.

Steak and Merlot
I'm not counting out steak and Merlot; it can be quite good, in fact. But you have to juggle a number of factors. The Classicists are always going on and on about rich, velvety beef, and its "natural" companion, a velvety, rich Merlot. There are many problems here. First of all, as anyone who has ever tasted a cheap Pomerol will tell you, Merlot isn't always velvety and rich. But even if it were, even if you could rely on Merlot to be that way, would you still want it to go with your steak? I hold to a hard-and-fast rule about red wine with meat: the rarer the steak, the older the wine should be. Rare steak clashes with fruity, powerful young red wines. Wine that seems a bit outsized on its own turns to fierce, hot, harsh, bubbling juice next to an underdone steak.

If you ever plan to have a steak that's cooked as far as medium doneness, this would be the time to do it; it will go better with your big, young Merlot. If you do have to have your steak rare (I usually do), char it well in preparation for its Merlot moment. Lastly, if at all possible, find a Merlot with age on it. The gentling that comes with age makes Merlot (or any red) so much better for rare steak. Sure, I'll take Merlot with my black-and-blue New York strip—as long as it's a 1985 Château Gazin, or some such wonder.

Raw oysters and Chablis
Who doesn't love this incredible combination—when it actually tastes incredible? The reason it works is that the crackling acidity of the wine perfectly refreshes the salinity of the oysters. On a secondary level, the match works because Chablis' earthy, flinty flavors play so well against the oysters' similar, mineral-like flavors. But there's a big red flag waving at any would-be matcher, and that flag has "modern Chablis" written all over it. Many Chablis producers don't expect buyers to put their treasures in a cellar for 5-6 years, waiting for the fruit to go away and the earthiness to emerge. It's easier for producers to focus on high-priced premier cru and grand cru Chablis, pick the grapes ripe and rich, ferment them in new oak barrels, send something out into the world far more reminiscent of New World Chardonnay than Chablis, and charge a fortune for it. In so doing, they obliterate the oyster connection. No siree, Jacques; with my fines de claires, it's villages Chablis from an older, rainier vintage or nothing (a 2001 or 2002 villages Chablis would be perfect right about now).

Lobster and Chardonnay
Textbook after textbook tells you that this is a classic match, no matter how the lobster is prepared, no matter what style Chardonnay it is. In fact, most of these rule-sympathizers imply that, because lobster is "rich," the "richer" and "bigger" the Chardonnay, the better. This always makes me wonder if they have actually tasted lobster with rich Chardonnay? In my own research on this subject, I have found that lobster is an "amplifier." That is, it makes rich wines taste richer, alcoholic wines taste higher in alcohol and sweet wines taste sweeter. To me, none of these are good things when all you're looking for is a little harmony.

In my view, lobster lovers should seek leaner, drier, crisper styles of Chardonnay, wines that can afford a little beefing up through the "lobster amplification." And, to help the process along even more, a little sweetness in the lobster dish is a good thing—it will assist in "drying up" the wine. A Thai lobster curry, for example (not too spicy-hot), plumped with the natural sweetness of coconut milk, is great with a lean Chablis, an Alto Adige Chardonnay, certain New Zealand Chardonnays and the rare California Chardonnay that's low on fruit and high in acid (such as Kistler's stellar 2004 Les Noisetiers).

Cheese and red wine
Yes, red wine with cheese is a general prescription, one that Classicists prescribe all the time, as if there's some kind of magic connection between any aged curd and any fermented red grape juice. Not so. In my experiments over the years, white wine has proven itself to be much more generally friendly to cheese than red wine has. A particularly awful match is tannic red wine with soft, slightly smelly (or very smelly) French cheeses, such as Epoisses; an ugly, bitter flavor usually arises from this match, sometimes reminiscent of tobacco that someone else has chewed. But don't throw the baby blue out with the bath water. There are two kinds of cheese that I think can be brilliant with the right red wine. The first is chèvre, particularly chèvre with some age; the drier, crumblier stuff is gorgeous with Cabernet Francs of the lighter persuasion (aged Loire chèvre with a five-year-old Chinon is heaven). The other red-loving cheese is very firm cheese, made either from cow's milk or sheep's milk. The wine that's particularly reliable with this type of cheese is a young, fruity red (try some Manchego with your next young Valpolicella, and watch the sparks fly).

New Classics
Lastly, there's a group of matches that no one was making 20 years ago, matches that are emerging as classics for a new generation. These new matches, in some cases, reflect the growing popularity of ethnic dishes that weren't well known before, or ethnic cuisines that weren't being consumed with wine. Others involve food that used to be considered verboten for wine, since many sommeliers now know that no food is off-limits to wine.

Sushi and Champagne
This is my strongest candidate for the "new classic" category because it is as delicious as it is reliable. Sure, you can tweak it—the sweeter the rice in the sushi rice, the higher the dosage should be in the Champagne—but, frankly, almost any bubbly hits the palate just right next to almost any piece of raw fish. Relatively low alcohol, relatively good acidity and the scour of the bubbles against the soft rice are some of the factors that yield success.

Artichokes and Dry Rosé
Years ago, no one would ever dare to serve wine with artichokes because all of the textbooks said that pairing artichokes and wine was a no-no. We have since come to understand that artichokes' fatal flaw was cynarin, a naturally-occurring chemical that makes anything you taste after you taste them taste considerably sweeter. I still would not serve my perfectly balanced 1961 Château Haut-Brion with an artichoke; who wants to make it taste sweet? The dry rosés in Tavel, in the south of France, are forbiddingly dry—just perfect for the artichoke. The coincidence is that this is prime artichoke country. If you serve some simple, freshly cooked artichoke hearts—or, better still, those same hearts tossed with a little olive oil and garlic—you'll be amazed at the way in which your Tavel Rosé becomes much fruitier, less austere and much more attractive.

Cheese enchiladas with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc
There's actually no need to focus on cheese enchiladas alone. Most cheesy Mexican food that's not too amped up on chilies goes beautifully with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. This is news to us because we traditionally paired Mexican food with beer, margaritas, or, at our most daring, sangria. When upscale Mexican restaurants with serious wine lists came on the scene, people began to experiment. Then came word that good wine, really good wine, is being made in Mexico's Guadeloupe Valley, in Baja, California (with Sauvignon Blanc being the best of all, by the way). Finally, it occurred to everyone—why not drink wine with Mexican food?

You often hear Zinfandel touted as a great Mexican food wine, but I often find it a little too brawny with this sometimes chili-flecked cuisine; the Zinfandel seems like a bully just waiting to pick a fight. Crisp, fresh Sauvignon Blanc, on the other hand—with great acidity ready to cut through the cheese and creaminess, with body ready to stand up to the corn and cheese, with grassy flavor ready to echo the cilantro and capsicum—seems tailor-made for almost any non-incendiary plato mexicano you can dream up.

Tandoori chicken with Pinot Noir
Indian cuisine is also gaining popularity as a wine-friendly cuisine, and no Indian dish is more popular, or more suited to wine, than tandoori chicken. One thing that makes it work so well is its relative mildness; a good one indisputably carries the rich, spicy flavors of India, but in a much subtler way than many of the other dishes on the menu. This is a job for Pinot Noir, which I've enjoyed many times with tandoori. Now, I'm not recommending a high-priced Burgundy for this job; that degree of subtlety is likely to get washed away. But the more fruit-driven Pinots of California and Oregon combine beautifully with tandoori chicken; the wines' good acidity cuts the richness of this preparation, their fruit and spiciness line up unusually well with Indian spices, and their medium-weight textures bond with the medium weight of chicken.

Classics? Well, there are some things in this world you gotta count on. But don't count on too many matches guaranteed to work or fail. Just as there are no great wines, only great bottles of wine, so are there no great matches, only a great match on the table tonight. May there be one on yours.

David Rosengarten is the editor-in-chief of The Rosengarten Report, a monthly food-and-wine newsletter. He is also the author of five cookbooks, including Red Wine With Fish, The Dean & Deluca Cookbook and It's All American Food.

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