Pairing Wine and Food, Part 1: Introduction

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Pairing wine and food is one of my greatest passions. At home I keep 36 different red and 45 different white wines at drinking temperature so I can always find a matching wine to whatever I prepare. In restaurants I order the wine pairing if available, or try to make my own match from the wine list. This interest in matching food and wine has been growing for 9 years now, ever since the revelation of our first dinner at Librije with wine pairings. That was the first time that I really understood that wine is an integral part of a meal that makes it complete. If the wine pairings work, that is.

Even though pairing wine and food is such a passion of mine, I haven’t written much about it on this blog yet. I do provide wine pairings with many of my recipes, and I pay a lot of attention to wine pairings in my restaurant reviews. But I think it is time to give you a bit more background, so you can hopefully learn to make better wine pairings yourself. This is the first part of a series, and I haven’t decided how many parts there are going to be or when they will be published.

What is a wine pairing, actually?

This may sound like a simple question, but judging by my experiences in restaurants there are different views on this. In this first introductory post I am going to tell you my definition of a wine pairing, which will be the foundation for what follows.

Let us assume that both the food and the wine have a nice taste that you like. When you eat a bite of the food and then take a sip of the wine, three things can happen with respect to the flavor profiles:

  1. the food will make the wine taste better, a match made in heaven
  2. the wine and the food taste about the same individually as they do together; they don’t clash but it’s not a match made in heaven either, they get along
  3. the food will make the wine taste worse, they clash

In my experience, there is usually a bigger impact of the food on how you perceive the wine than the other way around, so I am focusing on that. However, what I write here can also be applied to the impact of the wine on the food.

Apart from the flavor profiles, there is also the intensity of the flavors that should match. For a good wine pairing, the wine should not overpower the food or vice versa. This means that food with a light flavor should be paired with a light-bodied wine, whereas food with a strong flavor should be paired with a full-bodied wine.

Combining the flavor profile and flavor intensity, my personal definition of a good wine pairing is:

the food makes the wine taste better, and the intensity of the flavor is about the same.

Now let’s take a closer look at the three things that can happen with respect to the flavor profiles.

Match made in heaven

It is hard to describe what happens when you experience a match made in heaven. This terminology may make it sound like something that is impossible to achieve, but it is not. It is just a matter of trying different wines until you find one that works. I will give you three examples of such matches, and more will follow in the next installments of this series.

Sancerre (or Pouilly-Fumé) and Crottin de Chavignol. Similar matches may be achieved with other sauvignon blanc with other types of goat cheese. The cheese will give the wine a greater depth of flavor, it will bring out the fruitiness and even sweetness of the wine, and will make the acidity more friendly.

Barolo and Rosa di Parma (or other beef dishes). Barolo is the king of Italian reds, made from nebbiolo grapes. These grapes have a very thick skin, making the wine very tannic. A Barolo that is too tannic and will make your tongue feel like a piece of dry leather, can be changed into something amazing by having a bite of beef first. The wine will become supple, the flavors will come out, and it will be simply delicious.

Sauternes (or other sweet wines) and foie gras. This is an example of the the wine making the food taste better. If you just took a bite of foie gras or something with foie gras in it, a sip of sauternes will suddenly lift the flavor of the foie gras and make it stand out.

When I notice such a ‘match made in heaven’, I keep taking bites and sipping wine alternately to fully experience the match. It is a good sign if my glass is empty before I’m finished with the food.

Wine and food get along

This is what happens a lot when you order a wine pairing in a restaurant, or when you pick a bottle from the wine list with some idea of what you are going to eat and what will be okay with it. Most dry white wines get along with most fish dishes, and most red wines get along with red meat. This is especially true when eating the meat or fish without sauce or other dominant components on the plate.

There is nothing wrong with wind and food that ‘get along’, but if you know how good a match made in heaven can be then why settle for just getting along? Especially in a restaurant with three Michelin stars…

Wine and food clash

This usually means that the food disturbs the balance in the wine, and makes it taste too sour, too bitter, too astringent, or cloying. I will explain more about this in future parts, but here are a few examples.

A very dry fresh white wine like many sauvignon blanc will clash with a creamy sauce as it will make the wine taste too acidic or astringent. (A buttery chardonnay could however be a match made in heaven.)

A wine that is slightly sweet will taste sour when paired with a very sweet dessert. (The dessert wine should have a similar sweetness as the dessert.)

As we all appreciate the basic flavors like sweetness, bitterness and acidity slightly differently, a wine that may only clash mildly for one person may be a terrible clash for the next. I recently had the experience that a wine amplified the flavor of cilantro. If, like me, you are not too fond of cilantro, that is not a good thing.

Wine pairing is often less than expected at restaurants, even at top restaurants

I have eaten in many restaurants that offer wine pairings, many of them with one, two or three Michelin stars, and a substantial part of them listed as one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Not a single one of them so far has managed to serve a wine pairing with every course a match made in heaven as described above. In most cases there were at least a few clashes and/or problems with the flavor intensity. Only a few restaurants manage to serve mostly matches made in heaven with only some that ‘get along’, like El Celler de Can Roca and RyuGin.

Quite a few restaurants, especially in Italy in my experience, offer a ‘wine degustation’ along with the degustation menu that (in my opinion) is not a wine pairing at all. It is a degustation of different wines that is served with a degustation of food, but it does not even seem to even be the intention that the wines and the food (that are served in the same rhythm, to be sure) actually match. The wines in such a degustation are usually served in an increasing flavor profile from light to full-bodied, starting with white and ending with red. But many of them will clash or at best get along with the food they are served with. It is of course a bad sign if the wine degustation does not change when the degustation menu itself changes.

Another problem in restaurants is a sommelier who pairs wine and food ‘in theory’. Although ‘theory’ is a good way to narrow down the wines to chose from when making a wine pairing, it is absolutely necessary to try the dish with a number of different wines if you want to make a match made in heaven. Part of the reason for that is that a wine pairing does not just depend on the main ingredient of a dish (e.g. chicken), but also on the other things on the plate. I have a very strong suspicion that in many restaurants, the sommelier has not tried the food with the wines he serves as a wine pairing.

And that brings me to a final problem: many chefs make it virtually impossible for the sommelier to make a match made in heaven, because they do not take into account the wine when they cook a dish. If a plate has too many different components, it is often impossible to find a wine that is a match made in heaven with everything on the plate. Sometimes none of the dishes in a degustation are best paired with a red wine, but the sommelier feels he has to include at least one red that will then overpower the dish.

I’ve come to conclude that for most restaurants, finding and serving great wine pairings does not seem to be a priority. I understand that wine pairings are a compromise,  as the best pairing may be too expensive for the budget available for the wine pairing. I’m still hoping that one day I fill find a restaurant that serves a match made in heaven with every course. I wouldn’t mind paying a bit more for that.

Flashback


Two years ago I blogged about Brasato al Barolo, beef braised in Barolo wine. It is not hard to guess what would be the best wine pairing for that dish…

13 thoughts on “Pairing Wine and Food, Part 1: Introduction

  1. A great post! I’ve surprisingly never had a bad recommendation from a somelier, but I’m sure you’re right about wines not pairing perfectly with the degustation menus, but it’s sad. The chefs should care more.

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  2. Great post, a subject that needs a lot greater understanding. I highly recommend a small book by Aussie wine pioneer Dr Max Lake “Food on the plate, wine in the glass.” It opened my eyes to the wonderful alchemy of successfully pairing food and with different wine styles.

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  3. I am truly going to enjoy learning from your series. Both of my husbands and many beaus have been serious and knowledgeable about the wines we drank, but I do not remember such passion with actual wine pairing. Until now I have always thought in terms of how a wine would improve my enjoyment of the food presented, not the other way around. So am more than willing to learn from your ideas tho’ for many reasons may not be able to test and copy. Oh > ladyredspecs: I remember that great book of Dr Lake’s: methinks I lost my copy in a divorce settlement 🙂 !!!

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  4. I’m glad it’s not just us! When we went to Noma and another restaurant in Copenhagen, they were really obsessed with giving us interesting wines that really didn’t always seem to go to with the courses. And it was disappointing. That being said, when we went to Relae in Copenhagen, the wine pairings were really fantastic. It is annoying when it’s hit or miss. When we went to Pollen Street Social, the sommelier gave us a horrible wine to go with the meal. After that, my partner just started ordering the wines, and did a much better job.

    Luckily he’s great at pairing. It helps he took a few wine courses…

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