I don’t worry too much about wine and food pairings when I plan a meal or dine in a restaurant. I usually take a casual approach, drinking the wine I want to drink, with the dish I want to eat, and it usually works out.
Of course, I do factor in some basic pairing guidelines when making my wine and food choices, but they tend to come from instinct, experience or sommelier recommendation, rather than from books and articles pairing wine and food. Some of the best matches I’ve had were complete surprises -- Sauternes with every course of a dinner, for example -- and that’s part of the fun of drinking wine with meals.
Some pairings, however, aren’t likely to ever work. Red wine with raw oysters is a heavy-metal clash that even the dudes in Metallica can’t handle. Drink a high-acid, citrussy Sauvignon Blanc with birthday cake? My stomach curdles just thinking about it.
Some claim that Chardonnay is a great foil for steak. It’s not that I don’t believe those folks, I just think that Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Malbec and other sturdy reds work better with red meats. The tannins in red wines cut through the flesh and fat of steak, lamb or prime rib, refreshing the palate for another bite. It makes simple sense.
I don’t eat much meat, leaning toward vegetarian and seafood dishes. Sparkling wines suit me to a T, from appetizer to dessert -- they may not be the “perfect” companions for every course, but they don’t clash. Dry rosés can also carry me through a multi-course meal, and Riesling is superb for salads, vegetables, eggs, fruit-based dishes and some seafood preparations. While duck and pork beg for earthy Pinot Noir, so do mushroom ragouts, lasagnes and risottos, which are the staples of my red-wine-with-food diet.
I have had great matches, and not so great, yet very few disasters. I don’t view wine and food pairing as rocket science, and those who love food and wine shouldn’t get their knickers in a twist over making every meal a perfect match. Eat what you like, with whatever wine you like, and learn from the experience. The Pairings Police won’t beat down your door if you drink Merlot with monkfish.
I don’t pay a lot of attention to books on matching wine with food. I don’t have anything against them, and many people find them useful and inspiring I just don’t bother with them. Yet a new book on matching, from California master sommelier Evan Goldstein, not only caught my eye, it captured my interest.
“Daring Pairings: A Master Sommelier Matches Distinctive Wines with Recipes from His Favorite Chefs” (University of California Press, $34.95) takes 36 lesser-known and/or quirky wine varietals and pairs them with 36 recipes developed by acclaimed restaurant chefs. It’s the follow-up to Goldstein’s “Perfect Pairings,” published in 2006, in which he competently and in great detail explained how various wines of the world match -- or don’t -- with certain ingredients and preparation methods.
In “Daring Pairings,” Goldstein moves away from traditional varietals such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, and into the more obscure, yet exciting, varietals, such as Txakoli, Mencia, Trebbiano, Cinsault and Tannat. Each varietal has its own chapter, which includes the grape’s history, alternate names, aroma and flavor profiles, where it’s grown, the ingredients that are friends and foes of the wine, and a discussion on the various factors involved in the growing and vinifying of each wine.
Take Carmenère, for example. It’s the traditional red wine grape of Chile, transported there from France and believed to be Merlot until a couple decades ago. Goldstein tells Carmenère’s story and details its “flavor lexicon” (blackberry, plum, black tea, herbs, sarsaparilla, bitter chocolate, spice, etc.); that it’s best grown in warmer climates (“Drinking cool-climate Carmenère is like sucking on dill pickles,” he writes); and two pages of comments on ingredients and dishes that complement and clank with the wine (yes to smoked foods, eggplant, tomato and meat sauces; no to shellfish, sweet dishes, and fresh or strong cheeses).
Turn the page to find Birmingham, Alabama, restaurant chef Frank Stitt’s recipe for Lentil Soup with Fennel Sausages to serve with Carmenère. Stitt (proprietor of Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega and Chez Fonfon) and Goldenstein discuss why the pairing succeeds, and recommend 12 Chilean Carmenère wines, broken down by price categories.
The other recipes, provided by the likes of Cindy Pawlcyn, Suzanne Goin, Hubert Keller, Floyd Cardoz, Dan Barber, Charlie Trotter and Douglas Keane, are easy to follow and not too complicated. The varietals profiled and paired with the dishes include Albariño, Arneis, Assyrtiko, Chenin Blanc, Garganega, Grüner Veltliner, Marsanne, Muscat, Pinot Blanc, Prosecco, Roussanne, Semillon, Torrontes, Verdejo, Vermentino, Aglianico, Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Carignane, Dolcetto, Gamay, Grenache, Malbec, Mourvedre, Nebbiolo, Petite Sirah, Pinotage, Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional and Xinomavro.
“Daring Pairings” is a terrific book for anyone interested in answering the question, “Which wine with which dish?” But it’s much more than that, serving as a detailed reference for less-mainstream wine grapes, and as a cookbook with recipes from star chefs. In the back is a glossary, charts showing each varietal’s acidity, sweetness, tannin, oak and alcohol rating, tips on shopping for wine and where to find the bottles featured with the recipes, and extensive recommendations for websites and blogs on all things wine and food. Goldstein pulls it all together with his candid, conversational writing style, which he’s honed after years of being a wine and food educator.
I may not turn to “Daring Pairings” often for matching advice; I’m still going to eat what I want to eat and drink what I want to drink. But for all the mad matchers out there, it’s a valuable resource, and for me, it will broaden my knowledge on wines I don’t drink very often. Who knew Xinomavro is Greek for “acid black,” yet the wine resembles Old World Pinot Noir rather than a dark, tannic monster? Evan Goldstein does.