Article By: David Singer
As restaurateurs and retail proprietors, one of the many questions we are frequently asked by our clients is about food and wine pairings. Many times the questions are about easy pairings that follow the old rules of red wine with meat and white with fish. When this rule was coined, spices were very expensive and wine was the seasoning. Today, however, spices are not so expensive, which allows us to step outside the norm. For example, one of the more popular "rule-breakers" these days is to serve salmon, especially wild salmon, and Pinot Noir together.
But what happens when our clients or chefs throw us the proverbial curve ball by having an element that makes a classic pairing only marginally fair or even unworkable? My thought process usually starts with looking at the origin of the food. Considering where the food is from can often give you an insight into what to pair it with. Is it a dish with a rich acidic tomato based sauce and the request is for red? Italy is certainly a land that has a few tomatoes and a Sangiovese-based wine might be the answer. Another option is to step outside the expected whites and reds and get creative. Consider Champagne as a case in point. Champagne is one of those wines that almost always has a universally positive reaction to it. It evokes a big smile followed by "Oh, we're having Champagne!" as if it was the epitome of decadence. This is a wonderful reaction, but I would rather our clients had the same reaction as that of the legendary Madame Bollinger: "I drink Champagne when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Otherwise I never touch it unless I'm thirsty." Being part of a family that owns a major Champagne house certainly might have had an influence here, but you don't have to be such an owner to enjoy it outside the realm of celebration. One of the major advantages that Champagne has over all over styles and kinds of wine is that it is the trump card in food and wine pairing. There is almost no food that a Champagne style cannot pair with, from a Plate of Fleur de Mer with a Non-Dosage to a Steak with Rose Champagne. The aforementioned salmon would also work equally as well with a creamy Blanc du Blanc or a Rose.
Sake is another route to take when wine won't do the trick. Quality Sake has numerous styles that are very adaptable to different types of food. You could pair any number of Sakes with dishes from a lighter style of Junmai to the richer Junmai Daiginjo or the unusual Ko-Shu. There is also aged Sake that has a great nutty note and which I have successfully used in a lobster based soup with chestnuts. The overlapping nuttiness was delicious and the intense richness of the soup was enjoyably lightened.
Madeira and Sherry are also good options for food and "wine" pairings. Sercials are great with consommes and Manzanillas are great with dishes that have an innate saltiness and acidity. A dish I fondly remember as a particular challenge was a Foie Gras with hazelnuts, sherry vinegar and asparagus. What was I to do with the fatness of Foie, the sharp note of vinegar and the metallic note that asparagus gives to most wine while trying to keep the subtle note of the hazelnuts? Fortunately I had a Chef who enjoyed wine and was open to new ideas. He was willing to replace the Sherry Vinegar with Madeira Vinegar and a Verdelho Madeira worked perfectly. The hint of sweetness, the round nuttiness and balance acid brought all the elements of the dish together and worked deliciously.
And finally, using beer as a pairing isn't a note of surrender. Introduce your client to the yeasty lemony wheat/hefeweizen, the slight sweet fruit flavored lambics or the dark chocolate coffee favors of a good stout. Very spicy cuisine is one viable option that goes well with beer. Also, it's worth finding out if you have clients who prefer beer to wine. They might be quite amenable to a beer and food pairing proposal.
These are just a few tricks I've learned over the years departing from the standard way of thinking. But whenever possible, it is always preferable to taste the wine with the food. Wine and food pairing theory and what actually happens are sometimes a little different. So my last piece of advice on pairing the "unpairable" is to see such a dish as something to inspire you to sample a lot of different beverages.