Article By: David Singer
ONE of the most common questions I get in my wine beginnings class pertains to food and wine pairings. To begin to understand how food and wine react differently (depending on what kinds are used), one basic piece of the puzzle needs to be understood first: wine is a condiment. In the recent few decades, which I will sarcastically call the age of the wine critic, we have lost sight of this basic understanding of food and wine. A few hundred years ago when spice was very expensive, wine was the seasoning to everyday food. The spice trade was so lucrative that if you look at some old coat-of-arms you'll see little black balls on the shield. These are not cannon balls, but peppercorns. Wine was a part of everyday food because during this point in history, wine (and beer) were much safer to drink than water.
When thinking about pairings what is also important to remember is there are no rules. The old adage that white goes with fish and red with meat was coined when again wine was the spice. In today's cuisine of many cultures, styles and fusions, there are only guidelines. Of course, there are a few pairings that probably will never work, such as an old red Bordeaux with oysters on the half shell. If you don't understand why these two don't work, try them. Recently released red Bordeaux or other international blend such as a Meritage will do. Taste the wine, then the oysters and go back again to the wine. What happened? How did those bite-sized pockets that are brine of the sea react to the wine? What did the tannin, acidity and fruit do? Notice, where the fruit notes of the wine were, they are gone now. The acidity has an overemphasis while the tannin is astringent and bitter. Having this awareness of a negative food and wine pairing reaction is important to a greater knowledge with food and wine. One day it wouldn't surprise me if there were some creative Chef and Sommelier team that could prove me wrong by making this pairing work. But it hasn't happened yet.
If you happen to be dealing with traditional cuisine look at the specific area in which it comes from. For example, if you are looking to pair Tuscan cuisine with red wine the overlapping similarities of food are certainly not by accident. More than a few dishes involve the use of tomatoes. In and of themselves, tomatoes do have a natural level of acidity. If you use a low acid, highly extracted style of wine, like Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel, the level of acidity will cause a negative effect on the wine. However, with a red wine that does have a solid amount of acidity like a Sangiovese from Chianti, the pairing works extremely well.
A general guide for each grape, what does work and what does not.
SAUVIGNON BLANC WORKS WELL WITH Emphasize or enhanced with fresh herbs, salad, grilled white fish. Vinaigrette sauces (dressing). Sharper or more acidic ingredients: citrus, capers, olives, tomatoes, olives. Dishes with pure ingredients: clams, oysters, grilled swordfish. Goat Cheese (younger). Spicy or hot foods. The high acidity and usually lower alcohol cleanse and refresh your palate. DOES NOT WORK WITH Red meat. Savory dishes that border on sweet, i.e., caramelized onions, roasted garlic. Very rich foods. When you pick the wrong style for the food. Sauvignon Blanc can be oaked or unoaked, high or medium alcohol.
RIESLING WORKS WELL WITH Rich game birds like goose and duck. Counter pairing to rich and salty meats: ham, sausage, charcuteries, prosciutto. Sushi and sweet vinegary sushi rice. Indian and Asian spiced foods. Sweet shellfish: crab, lobster, shrimp. Quiche. DOES NOT WORK WITH Overpowering dishes that are too rich. The wrong style, a bone dry Riesling with oysters is delicious, but not as successful when an off-dry style is used. Very peppery dishes will overwhelm most Rieslings. Most green vegetables. Red meat.
CHARDONNAY WORKS WELL WITH Mild and sweet shellfish: lobster, prawns. Nuts in the dish, especially toasted. Milder mushrooms: button, chanterelles, oyster, shiitake. Butter, cream, melted cheeses or coarse texture ingredients like white beans, macaroni, polenta. Avocado and squash. High fat fish like salmon. DOES NOT WORK WITH Hot or spicy dishes, the capsaicin (heat invoking "burn" effect) accentuates the oak and alcohol in Chardonnay. Very acidic ingredients. Olives, asparagus, capers, tomatoes. Sweet tasting food. Oaky Chardonnay is poor with Thanksgiving dinner. Pungent Cheeses (does work with unaged Brie, Comte). Very oaky Chardonnay is usually a poor food pairing.
PINOT NOIR WORKS WELL WITH Dishes with coriander, cumin, cinnamon, ginger or spices commonly found in wine. Grilled, smoked or lightly charred. Fish: Tuna, Swordfish and Wild Salmon. Veggies with earthly flavors: mushrooms, squash, fennel, lentils. Asian dishes with sweet/salt combinations. DOES NOT WORK WITH Strong seafood: Sardines, mackerel. Overly rich sauces with lots of cream, butter or mayonnaise sauces. Spice that is fiery. Most strong cheeses (cheeses that do work: Brie, Taleggio).
SYRAH WORKS WELL WITH Grilled foods: steak, lamb. Rich stews. Game: squab, boar. BBQ. Strong Hard Cheeses: Gouda, Parmesan, dry jack. DOES NOT WORK WITH Most fish. Fiery spiced foods. Sour foods: vinegar bases and tart vegetables. Soft or runny/strong cheeses: Epoisses or aged Camembert.
CABERNET SAUVIGNON WORKS WELL WITH Red meats (loves protein). Bitter elements - mustard greens, radicchio pair well with Cabernet's tannin. Foods that pick up the wine's oak character such as grilling, smoking, plank roasting. Fat, creamy, buttery dishes - a good counterpoint. Black pepper-crusted foods. Food with earthy or herbal elements. DOES NOT WORK WITH Delicate, subtle dishes - Cabernet is too bold. Most fish. Spicy hot foods. Dishes with no fat or protein.