Is it Time to Drop the Traditional Pairing Rules?

Pairing wine with sushi
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It seems simple enough—you choose what to eat, then select a drink. Sip, chew, swallow, repeat.

But for wine lovers, the seemingly basic act of choosing what to eat and drink together can be exhilarating. Bliss can be as simple as French fries with a bristling Champagne or as pioneering as raw sea urchin with a saline Etna Bianco.

In a whirlwind of increasingly global food and beverage options, however, the landscape of pairing possibilities—and potential pitfalls—can be nerve wracking.

My suggestion? Stop following the rules.

Food and beverage pairings, especially involving wine, have been historically encumbered by rules. Oft-repeated are the broad-brush suggestions: Meat with red wine, seafood with white. What grows together goes together.

For those seeking specificity, wine experts have written entire tomes calculating the interplay of weight, acidity or aromatic compounds between say, an herbaceous Silvaner and grassy asparagus.

It’s about time we let loose on the glorious bounty of foods and beverages available to us.

Troublesome, however, is that most of these rules developed in a world where people generally consumed only food and drinks available locally. Over generations, these traditions were codified through largely Eurocentric perspectives. As conventional wine wisdom, they offer a comfortable starting point. For contemporary American food-and-wine-lovers, they’re often overarching, formulaic and unrelatable.

Now, don’t get me wrong—I’m not disparaging the marvels of oysters with Muscadet or wild boar with Chianti. Classic, time-tested pairings persist because they’re delicious. But most rules of Western food and beverage pairing largely originated out of logistical realities. Sake is still unfamiliar in the Loire, and Western Australian Shiraz isn’t always an option in Tuscany. Should you have the chance, though, I recommend both as alternate pairings for the oysters and boar.

Americans are a remarkably heterogeneous bunch, and we eat and drink a motley­ array of things. Increasingly, we seek out sushi as often as steak and crave tacos alongside (or filled with) Korean­ barbecue. Beyond familiar wine, beer or spirits,­ local restaurants and retailers are offering unprecedented beverage selections from lesser-known producers, unfamiliar regions and varieties.

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Not to mention, as Americans, breaking rules is somewhat engrained in our national psyche. We often eschew dress codes, talk too loudly in the silent car of the train and rarely use bicycle lanes correctly. It’s about time we let loose on the glorious bounty of foods and beverages available to us.

Drinking what you enjoy often introduces delightful pairings organically. Serendipitous mash-ups of seemingly incongruous foods like fatty tuna sashimi with a delicately cherried Chambolle Musigny or pungent Époisses cheese with sake are some of my most glee-inducing matches ever. Free styling may not always be perfect, but it’s rarely a travesty and always worth the reward.

Published on July 18, 2019
Topics: Editors Speak
About the Author
Anna Lee C. Iijima
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from Germany and the Rhône Valley

Anna Lee C. Iijima joined Wine Enthusiast in 2010. A former attorney turned beverage devotee, she holds a Diploma in Wine and Spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and is a student in the Masters of Wine Program. She is also an Advanced Sake Professional of the Sake Education Council with an enduring love for saké and shochu.

Email: aiijima@wineenthusiast.net



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