Pairings: Never Say Never

Pairings: Never Say Never

If you’ve ever had wine with a raw artichoke salad—like the kind often served in Italy with slices of baby artichoke topped with paper-thin Parmigiano shavings, lemon juice and a thread of golden olive oil—then you know without a flicker of doubt that some food-and-wine pairings are simply impossible. Each taste bud becomes overwhelmed by a bitter astringency and tannic-metallic taste that leaves absolutely no room for wine, which is in its essence an expression of delicate nuances. To make matters worse, these unpleasant flavors last long on the palate and build in persistency and intensity with each additional bite, leaving your palate altered for at least several minutes. The wine and food pairing is as awkward as setting a heavyweight boxing championship to Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

Impossible wine and food pairings do exist. In countries with strong and storied wine cultures like Italy and France, attention to wine pairing basics is reverential. If a food is too spicy, has vinegar or is naturally tannic (like raw artichokes) it is generally cast away as a pairing impossibility. But American wine-and-food culture allows for more flexibility. For example, our raw artichoke salad might be topped with a cream-based dressing, cubes of smoked ham, croutons or other items that can soften the metallic taste in advance of the wine. A pairing impossibility suddenly becomes possible.

“Some foods, especially in their purest form, are impossible to pair with wine,” says Chef Antonio Sciullo who teaches at Rome’s professional chefs’ school A Tavola Con Lo Chef. “It’s a matter of knowing how to cook them, or enhancing them with other wine-friendly ingredients so that the ensemble can make a good match to your favorite wines.”

The key is knowing where the problems lie: Understanding which foods are difficult to pair with wine and why. Once you have identified red flag foods, it is a matter of exploring different cooking techniques (grilling, frying, baking) or exploring different combinations of ingredients that can improve the chance of a successful pairing. Sometimes, something as simple as adding shavings of a mild cheese is enough. Read on to discover possible solutions to even the most difficult-to-pair foods.

From artichokes to ice cream, experts say some foods can never pair with wine. Or can they?

Difficult vegetables: Raw artichokes reign supreme in the world of impossible pairings because of their metallic-bitter taste and astringency; they are closely followed by fennel (too aromatic and causes sourness), asparagus (makes tannic wines taste too astringent), spinach (imparts a tannic-like coating in the mouth and a taste of iron), raw tomatoes (too acidic) and bitter greens like endives and many kinds of salad leaves.

One way to get around difficult vegetables is by using cooking methods like frying or baking to soften the natural chemical compounds that are causing the problem in the first place. Or you can enhance these difficult vegetables with cheeses, rice, pasta, meat or cream sauces to make them more palatable for wine lovers. When done correctly, these vegetables immediately become the perfect companion for most wines, from slightly oaked Chardonnay to spicy Syrah.

Difficult fruits: Oranges, grapefruits, green apples, kiwis, forest berries, pomegranates, prunes, fresh figs, pineapple and—believe it or not—grapes do not readily pair with wine because of their natural acids: Tartaric, citric and malic. Raw and on their own, or mixed together in a fruit salad, the acid in these fruits is reinforced by the acid in wine, causing strong sourness in the mouth. If a liquor or spirit is used in the fruit salad, the situation worsens, because the wine will be invariably overpowered by it. There are a few rare exceptions to the wine versus fruit impasse: Peaches, for example, pair beautifully with Moscato d’Asti, a semi-sparkling sweet wine from northern Italy, and others have reported success with melon (honeydew or cantaloupe) and Port.

Spicy foods: If you’re the kind of spice-obsessed gastronome who can’t resist that added sprinkle of dried chili pepper over your Mexican chili con carne, Hungarian goulash or your Cajun jambalaya, or who encrusts your sashimi with a thick layer of wasabi, you may be better off drinking beer. Spicy-hot foods don’t easily pair with wine, either red or white, because they tend to overwhelm the wine no matter how soft, persistent and intensely aromatic it is.

Black pepper, clove, paprika, chili powder, curry, saffron, cardamom, anise seed and licorice root should be used in limited quantities: enough to enhance the taste and persistency of a dish, but not overpower it. The active ingredients in spices, such as capsaicin in chili or piperine in black pepper, invoke a tactile response on the palate and are an irritant to the delicate systems. In fact, it is no coincidence that the world’s spiciest cuisines originate in parts of the world not necessarily associated with wine such as Africa, Central American and the Far East.

The only solution for achieving a correct wine pairing is holding back the heat. You’ll also need an extremely soft wine (or high in residual sugar). Try chicken curry with GewĂĽrztraminer, spicy tuna rolls with Riesling, or Merguez spicy lamb sausages with an oak-aged Merlot.

Acidic foods: Lemon juice and vinegar are also difficult to pair with wine because their acids clash and cause the wine to taste hard and bitter in the mouth. Be especially careful if you often squeeze fresh lemon juice over beef carpaccio, grilled fish, shellfish or fried veal cutlet. The lemon juice not only changes the gustatory profile of these foods, but in many cases it also changes its texture and consistency. For example, a wiener schnitzel (or cotoletta alla Milanese) prized for its crunchiness turns soggy with lemon juice.

Vinegar, whether from red or white wine or any other substance, especially used on leafy greens and salads, is not a friend to wine. Olives or other edibles marinated in vinegar are also difficult to pair with wine because of the doubling up of acids on the palate. One solution is to use a few savory drops of aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena on your salad instead of vinegar. (Make sure the word “tradizionale” appears on the bottle: It ensures that the vinegar has undergone a stringent aging regime that other, cheaper “balsamic vinegars” have not.) Velvety and almost as viscous as maple syrup, aceto balsamico tradizionale’s acidity is not at all aggressive because it has been soften by many years of wood aging and the precious liquid has an unmistakable sweetness that can stand up to mature, structured red wines such as Chianti Classico Riservas, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon blends.

Too hot or too cold: A steaming clay pot of French onion soup with scalding droplets of molten Gruyère cheese will put your palate completely out of balance because of its high temperatures. Just as difficult to pair with wine are frozen foods like ice cream and sorbets. Extreme temperatures test the sensibility of our taste buds and make a mildly firm or acidic wine taste too hard. Very hot soups remain impossible to pair with wine. Your best bet with ice cream is to pair it with spirits: Try lemon ice cream with a few drops of Vodka or green apple sorbet with Calvados.
“There are two rules to follow when pairing wine and food,” says Daniela Scrobogna, a food-and-wine pairing expert and sommelier with the Italian Association of Sommeliers. “The first is the rule of concordance and the second is the rule of opposites.” In the rule of concordance, likes go with likes, she explains: Sweet desserts are best paired with sweet wines.

The “opposites attract” concept is more complicated because of the many aromatic and flavor factors in both food and wine to take under consideration. In an ideal pairing, a wine’s high acidity, effervescence or minerality is balanced by fatty, slightly sweet foods such as cream-based pasta, foods cooked in butter or vegetables with bĂ©chamel sauce. Wines with high alcohol and/or high tannins like Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel or Montepulciano are best matched with succulent and unctuous foods like grilled meat and game stews. Wines with soft, sweet characteristics can match salty, bitter, acidic and sweet foods and wines with great intensity and an extra long finish can be matched with spicy or highly aromatic dishes.

We present three recipes based on three difficult vegetables (artichokes, asparagus and spinach) that are, once executed, excellent matches to many wines.

Patricia Wells’s cooking school at the Hotel Gritti Palace in Venice is part of the hotel’s Esperienza Veneziana ( Guests can participate in this week-long cooking school that encourages them to select fresh fish and seasonal vegetables at local markets and ends with a Carnival-inspired masquerade gala dinner. Classes are taught by Gritti Palace chef Daniele Turco and celebrity chefs or famous cookbook authors are invited as guest speakers.

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

6 large eggs, at room temperature
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
1 quart (3 ounces) loosely packed spinach leaves, rinsed, dried  and finely chopped
1 cup (4 ounces) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

To make the frittata: Preheat an oven to 400°F. Crack the eggs into a bowl and beat lightly with a fork. Add the salt, pepper, nutmeg, spinach and half the cheese and beat lightly to combine the ingredients.

In a 9-inch ovenproof pan or skillet, heat the oil over moderate heat, swirling the pan to evenly coat the bottom and the sides of the pan. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the frittata mixture. Reduce heat to low and cook slowly, stirring the top two-thirds of the mixture (leaving the bottom part to set, so it doesn’t stick) until the eggs have formed small curds and the frittata is brown on the bottom and almost firm in the center, about 4 minutes. The top will still be very soft. With a spatula, lightly loosen the omelet from the edge of the pan, to prevent sticking later on. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese.

Transfer the pan to the preheated oven, placing it on a shelf set about 5 inches from the broiler, so that the frittata cooks without burning. Cook until the frittata browns lightly on top and becomes puffy and firm, about 2 minutes. (Watch the oven carefully: A minute can make the difference between a golden-brown frittata and one’s that overly cooked.) Remove the pan from the oven and let cool in the pan for 2 minutes more. Place a large, flat plate over the top of the pan and invert the frittata onto it. Let the frittata cool to room temperature. To serve, cut into wedges and serve with a salad or as a sandwich filling.

Wine recommendations: The eggs and Parmigiano cheese soften the metallic taste of the spinach. Patricia Wells suggest a pairing with Sauvignon Blanc from Alto Adige or a Pinot Bianco from the Friuli region. Other excellent options are Eugenio Collavini’s 2005 Villa Canlungo Collio Pinot Grigio or Volpe Pasini’s 2005 Zuc di Volpe Tocai Friulano Colli Orientale del Friuli.

This is adapted from Anna Dente Ferracci’s recipe for whole fried artichokes served at her restaurant, Osteria di San Cesario, outside of Rome. Known as Sora (“sister”) Anna, this celebrated chef and her mother, Sora Maria, are queens of the Italian fried artichoke.

10 tender, small artichokes with stalks
1 lemon cut into four wedges
4 cups (1-liter bottle) extra-virgin olive oil
Salt to taste

To prepare the artichokes: With the artichoke on its side, cut off the top half and discard. You should see tender yellow leaves and the pink spiky choke at the center. Snap off the tough dark green outer leaves until you reach the tender ones. With a knife, slice off the woody skin on the outside of the stock, leaving about two inches from the base. Cut the artichoke into halves, then quarters and remove any thistly parts. Cut into eighths or thin wedges and place in a large bowl of water with freshly squeezed lemon juice. Artichokes oxidize when cut and putting them in lemon water will stop them from turning brown.

To fry the artichokes: Pour olive oil into a fryer or thick pot and place over low heat. Coat a ceramic plate with a layer of flour. Gently press the moist artichoke wedges directly into the flour so they are covered evenly. The oil is ready when a drop of water crackles and fizzles to evaporation: Never let the oil get so hot it starts to smoke. Add the floured artichoke wedges to the oil, in separate batches to avoid overcrowding, and fry until crisp and golden. Serve hot with salt.

Wine recommendations: By frying in extra-virgin olive oil, the artichoke’s natural sweetness is enhanced and its bitter tannins are lost. The frying also creates a crunchy texture and unctuousness in the mouth because of the oil. A structured, creamy white wine would match the flavor intensity of the dish yet provide enough acidity to refresh the palate. Try the fried artichokes with Fazi Battaglia’s 2005 Le Moie Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore or Tedeschi’s single vineyard 2005 Vigneto Monte Tenda Soave Classico.


1 bunch of fresh asparagus, trimmed and cleaned
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
1 teaspoon aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena

To roast the asparagus: Preheat the oven to 425°F. Lightly coat the asparagus in olive oil and arrange side-by-side on a broiler pan. Sprinkle with salt. Place the asparagus near the broiler and cook for 10 minutes, or until lightly brown. Drizzle with a few even drops of the aceto balsamico tradizionale before serving.

Wine recommendations: Thanks to the aged balsamic vinegar; the asparagus gain enough sweetness, intensity and persistency of flavor to be paired with a low-tannic red wine with balanced acidity. Try it with Agricoltori del Geografico’s 2003 Contessa di Radda Chianti Classico or Lungarotti’s 2003 Rubesco Rosso di Torgiano which is a blend of Sangiovese and Canaiolo from Umbria.

Published on June 1, 2007
Topics: PairingsRecipes