Ask anyone in the wine business – particularly someone who has changed from a more mainstream (and no doubt more lucrative) career – and they can probably tell you in detail about the precise moment they had their wine epiphany.
The reason is simple. Wine has two critical powers unlike anything else in the culinary world: It can transport the person tasting it, and it can transform the food it is eaten with. When the stars are aligned just right, it can do both.
Wine has a bad reputation for being snobby, exclusive, and possibly even elitist. For anyone looking in from the ‘outside’ on such a scene, that can be a turn-off. But there is also reason to be optimistic.
A new, democratic movement is afoot amongst young winemakers and wine lovers. They are eschewing wine as a symbol of status and prestige and instead focusing on the important elements that make wine great: capturing unique terroir, embracing biodynamic vineyard management approaches and natural winemaking techniques, and honouring indigenous grape varietals (among many other important trends). That attitude is helping spread the gospel of wine’s transportative and transformative powers in a way that everyone can relate to and afford.
One of the easiest ways to experience your own epiphany is through proper food and wine pairing, although using the word ‘proper’ is a bit of a misnomer here. After all, some of the world’s best culinary discoveries have been anything but ‘proper.’
When it comes to wine, most folks know the orthodoxy: pair white wine with fish, and red wine with meat. But these days, given the wide scope of wines from different regions, grapes and styles, the orthodoxy is out the window and pretty much anything goes.
Still, here some useful guidelines that will help get you on the road to wine and food nirvana:
What grows together, goes together – This is perhaps the most basic rule of thumb. Starting here will give you a great opportunity to understand why, when you’re having a seafood dish, a Muscadet from Pays Nantais or a Txakolina from the Basque country works well. Their locations (coastal) and food traditions effectively dictate the type of wine that matches best with their cuisine. Use this rule with any dish as a helpful starting line for pairing; expand from there to see how, say, the rocky minerality of Prié Blanc from Italy’s mountainous Valleé D’Aosta (or even a super-light red from that region) might elevate (or not!) a seafood dish.
Match intensity – It’s nothing new, but it’s certainly worth remembering: high intensity food gets paired with high intensity wine (and vice versa). There’s nothing worse than having a dish overwhelm a wine, or the reverse. Balance is the key.
Determine your anchor – What are the main ingredients on the plate? If you can anchor your pairing to a dominant ingredient, it can help whittle down the vast choices towards something that will sing when sipped. The converse approach is, of course, what bottle of wine do you want to showcase? Is it bold and intense? Light and ephemeral? It’s perfectly acceptable to determine what you are serving using the wine, rather than the food, as your anchor.
Complement or contrast? – Often, a dish that has sweet elements works well when paired with a wine that is off-dry (that’s a wine term to suggest sweeter than a dry wine. There are other standards of increasing sweetness, which is helpful to know about, but that’s for another column). On the other hand, a savoury and sweet match can sometimes create fireworks on the palate. There are some classic pairings to try as examples: pan-seared fois gras with Sauternes, or stilton cheese with Tawny Port. These benchmarks serve as textbook starting points for the concept of complementing or contrasting. Try them sometime, if you can.
There are many books on the subject of pairing food and wine together, but one of the gurus is Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein, who works in collaboration with his mother and cookbook author, Joyce Goldstein. His books Perfect Pairings and Daring Pairings are extensively researched and descriptive of all the intricacies of getting it right. But, most importantly, they’re not books for the wine- (or food-) obsessed geeks. And that’s why I like them.
“Many authors make wine and food pairing much more complicated than it needs to be,” Goldstein writes in the introduction to Perfect Pairings. “I believe that if you have to think too deeply, it’s simply not worth it. A better goal is to reach a personal comfort zone of wine and food in which you can decide effortlessly whether it’s the wine or the food that will drive a particular dining experience. Whether you choose the wine first and pick compatible recipes, or choose your menu first and then the wine to accompany it, you will ultimately find pairing as intuitive and natural as breathing.”
Amen to that!