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Food and Wine Pairing: Not Rocket Science
By Michael Franz
Apr 8, 2014
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Sommeliers hold a higher profile right now than they have for a generation--or maybe two.  Or maybe ever.  That’s almost entirely a good thing, but there’s one down-side:  Once people hear about the rise of a class of professionals who are expert in selecting the right wine for their meal, a lot of those people are going to figure that they can’t do this adequately for themselves.

That outcome is probably inevitable as a nation-wide phenomenon, but it need not befall you in particular.  Getting tasty, workable matches between wines and foods is really not terribly difficult, and it certainly need not be the esoteric mystery religion that is depicted by certain self-serving sommeliers and wine writers.

It is a demonstrable fact that good pairings arise in a patterned way according to certain guidelines that anyone can understand and apply.  These guidelines can't be boiled down to just one or two points, but then again, they don't quite rival quantum physics in terms of difficulty.

Below you will find ten tips that will help you get good matches between wines and foods consistently.  They are intended to provide a flying start rather than the last word on pairing, for the simple reason that there is no last word on pairing.  New possibilities arise constantly as grape varieties emerge, wine styles evolve, and chefs employ new ingredients and techniques.  So, don’t let anyone’s impressive expertise huff and puff and blow your house down.  These tips will help you get good, solid, working matches--and based on this foundation it is up to you and your imagination to find your own way to great matches.

1)  Get Robustness in Balance:  This is by far the single most important point.  A good marriage between wine and food entails an equal partnership in which neither participant dominates the other.  If the wine overwhelms the food (as Cabernet overwhelms oysters, for example), the result is a failure.  If the wine cannot hold its own with the food (as Sauvignon Blanc cannot hold up to steak), it cannot contribute to an enjoyable match.  Balance is our goal, but what exactly are we trying to balance?  The robustness of the food and the wine.  That is, the sheer "size" and flavor impact of the two must be roughly symmetrical for a good match.

This is not so hard to achieve.  Anybody who eats can distinguish the differing robustness levels of different foods, and even a novice taster needs just a sip to learn that certain grapes and growing regions produce "bigger" or "smaller" wines that can be sized appropriately to any dish.

2)  Forget Color:  The old rule of pairing white wines with fish and red with meat will, if you think about it, often run afoul of the rule of getting robustness in balance.  The fact is that a thick, grilled tuna steak is more robust than thin, sautéed slices of veal tenderloin.  Many people will find that a light red like Pinot Noir works much better than a white with that tuna steak, just as a substantial white may be a better choice than a red for the veal.

3)  Tend to Texture:  Wines differ from one another in texture, and the texture of a wine isn't quite the same as its sheer "size."  For example, a Shiraz or Zinfandel can be just as "big" as a Cabernet Sauvignon while nevertheless being much "softer" or "rounder" in texture.  Foods also differ quite importantly in texture, and this variable really makes a difference in getting great results from pairings.  Interesting textural matches can be either complementary or contrasting.  For example, a rich dish like lobster with drawn butter can be matched successfully with a soft, "buttery" Chardonnay that complements its texture, or with a leaner, more "edgy" dry Riesling that offers a textural contrast.

4)  Use Fat to Buffer Tannin:  We can use certain properties in foods or wines to counterbalance potentially problematic elements in one another.  High levels of tannin in wines like Cabernet Sauvignon or Barolo can make them seem astringent or bitter to most tasters, but foods with dietary fat (such a cheese or steak) can greatly reduce these sensations.  Similarly, dishes that might seem too softly fatty for some people (such as a stew or a prime rib steak) will benefit from the structure lent by a tannic wine.  Tannic wines don't work well with spicy foods (more on this below), but they love fatty ones.

5)  Use Acidity to Neutralize Acidity:  You might guess that pairing an acidic wine with a food loaded with vinegar or citrus juice would produce an overload of acid, but often the reverse is true.  A zesty Sauvignon Blanc will actually make a bright vinaigrette dressing seem less tart than a lower-acid Chardonnay would.  Likewise, a bright Albariño that would seem sour to some tasters will seem less tart if paired with a dish incorporating some lemon juice.  Counter-intuitive though this principle may be, tasting is believing.

6)  Use Sweetness to Counterbalance Hot Spice:  If a lethally hot pepper flies in under your radar when you are eating in a Thai restaurant, your natural inclination will be to grab for your water.  However, experience shows that you'd actually be better off reaching for the sugar bowl.  Sweetness takes the edge off of hot spice, whether from curry or pepper.  This is the principle that underlies the nearly universal recommendation of pairing spicy Asian foods with sweetish renditions of Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer or Pinot Gris.

7)  To Soothe Spicy Meats, Use Fruit in Reds to Substitute for Sweetness in Whites:  Over time I’ve forsaken the simple cooked meats of my Chicago upbringing in favor of spicy preparations inspired by the cuisines of China, India, Thailand, Vietnam, North Africa, Turkey, Mexico, the Carribean…and beyond.  These preparations are much more interesting to my taste, but also a little more challenging for wine pairing purposes.

Sweet whites are sometimes surprisingly workable, but only in a limited number of cases (e.g., if the meat is thinly sliced and there’s a sweet marinade involved along with the heat in the finished dish, as in certain Vietnamese or Korean foods).  If the meat is more substantial and there’s no sweetness in the preparation, you’re likely to find red wines much more satisfying than whites.  Reds with overt sweetness are rare and, when found, often foul, so the solution lies elsewhere:  Not in sweetness itself, but rather the impression of sweetness left behind after fermentation by ripe fruit.  Look to a sunny, New World source like California or Australia and a fruity grape variety like Pinot Noir, Grenache, Syrah or Zinfandel.  The last trick is to buy bottles that don’t cost a lot of money, which will help you avoid wines that are seriously tannic or oaky.  Tannin and oak obscure fruit and fail to harmonize with hot spice, so if you really care about how your red wine will taste with your spicy meat, keep the wine simple and fruity and forget the bells and whistles.

8)  Don't Forget Bubbles:  Many novices don't really think of sparkling wines as wines--much less as great food wines.  However, Champagnes and high-quality sparklers can be stars at the table.  Almost all have a bit of sweetness, and though this tends to be masked by effervescence, it can sometimes counterbalance a bit of spice or flatter a bit of salt in certain dishes in a more subtle and effective way than any table wine.  Moreover, bubbles provide a unique texture that plays into principle #3 above.  As a consequence, bubbly wines can provide a marvelous textural counterpoint to soft, smooth soups.

9)  Rosé Rocks:  This point is an extension of the rationale underlying principle #8, with the idea being to enhance your odds for getting great matches by having a complete arsenal of wines at your disposal.  Wine aficionados know that dry rosé made in the Mediterranean style is marvelously versatile with food, working beautifully with finfish dishes, grilled vegetables, cold soups, poultry, sausages made from chicken or turkey, and white meats like pork and veal.

Fine rosés have the refreshment value of white wines with just a little bit of the tannic grip you'd find in reds.  Moreover, given the worldwide trend toward riper, more concentrated wines, it has become increasingly difficult to find truly light-bodied reds; Pinots from California and Sangioveses from Tuscany now routinely weigh in with more than 14% alcohol.  Rosé can fill that gap, and good ones can fill it year 'round.  Exemplary bottlings like Bandol's Domaine Tempier that can hold their fruit for two years are impressive but also rare, so remember that rosés made in the southern hemisphere hit the market six months after bottlings from the northern hemisphere.  Turn to these in fall and winter.

10)  Keep It Simple for Dessert:  Whether made from grapes that are harvested very late, freeze concentrated, or botrytis affected, sweet dessert wines are among the most wonderful treasures of the vine.  However, it is very difficult to get the sweetness of desserts and dessert wines into a balance that doesn't make one or the other seem awkward.  Another problem is that complex desserts often produce a cacophony when paired with high-end dessert wines, which are themselves among the most complex wines you can buy.

A solution to these problems that flatters the wine while also proving less heavy at the end of a meal is to order (or prepare) the simplest possible desserts.  Yes, ports can work with chocolate desserts, but the pairings fail as often as they work, whereas a few walnuts and a little Stilton is always a delicious match.  Similarly, a top Sauternes or Auslese will sometimes hit the mark with a fruit tart, but it will never miss with some simple shortbread cookies.  And if anyone around your table claims to have a still-unsatisfied sweet tooth, you could always uncork another bottle....