Pair It!, a food and wine-pairing app, recently told me that for $4.99 I could have great pairing suggestions at my fingertips. As a sample, it suggested that a rich, ripe and earthy Italian wine is the perfect pairing for chocolate truffles and blue cheese. As a wine professional, I can tell you that’s not a great pairing. As someone with functioning taste buds, I can confirm it.
I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about food and wine pairings. You don’t have to be a sommelier to pair food and wine, and you certainly don’t need an app.
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There are two schools of thought when it comes to this subject: First, that wine is meant to go with food and in order to gain the best experience the right wine must be selected. Second, that you should drink whatever you want to drink with whatever you feel like eating; you’ll still have a pretty great experience.
I can appreciate both. When a pairing is done well, the food makes the wine taste better and the wine makes the food taste better — and in between, there’s a new flavor created that forces you to take notice. But sometimes I just want to eat what I want to eat, and I want a glass of wine, and I don’t want to wonder if the bottle I have open is going to enhance the experience of my frozen pizza.
When people come to me for a bottle of wine, the first question I ask is: “Is this wine going with dinner, or TV?” Believe it or not, there’s a difference. Sometimes you want a bottle that is going to compliment your meal, while other times you want a drinking wine, not a thinking wine. Here are some of the questions I’ve been getting:
Q: “I know chocolate and red wine is a classic pairing. What kind of red wine is best?”
A: Very dark chocolate and port is an amazing combination because dark chocolate is bitter and port is sweet. The sweetness of the port adds the sugar to the chocolate, and the fruit notes combine with the sharper textures of the dark chocolate’s bitterness, hereby softening and integrating the flavors. But, for the most part, red wine and semi-sweet chocolate is not a great combo.
The next time you’re eating a piece of chocolate and drinking a red wine, pay attention to the flavors going on: The two flavors separate in your mouth creating an almost waxy texture.
If you’re a milk chocolate eater, consider California chardonnay. I know there are some sommeliers reading this who are rolling their eyes (you know who you are), but try it and you’ll see what I mean. The creamy flavors in the wine go well with the smooth mouth-feel of cocoa butter, and in turn the two flavors work together to create a sensation, rather than just waxy red wine and chocolate taste.
For chocolate, also consider Bourbon or brandy.
Q: “Is there a general rule of thumb I can use to pick a wine at dinner so I look like I know what I’m doing?”
A: Yes. There’s the old rule of matching the color: red meat red wine, white meat white wine. But that rule can easily be broken. I’d suggest pairing the weight of the wine with the weight of the food. A big steak for example is going to be much heavier than a pinot noir, causing the delicate flavor of most pinot noirs to be overwhelmed by the big charred flavor of meat, which is why most people suggest cabs to go with steaks.
Another thing to consider is tannin: that tactile feeling in your mouth that can make your tongue feel like sandpaper. If you’re eating red meat, then those tannins are going to be attracted to the meat, not the inside of your mouth. They’ll help to break down the protein, which is why high tannin wines like Napa cabs, Bordeauxs, Barolos and red meat are always paired together.
Say you’re eating chicken or pork; the same rule applies. Match the weight. If you want red wine, then a pinot noir might be just fine. Although if the meat is being grilled you might want something with a little more body, like say a grenache or a syrah, or perhaps a something from Rhone (which is often a blend of grenache and syrah). And a good Cotes du Rhone will usually run about $15 a bottle in a wine store ($10 - $15 per glass in a restaurant).
When it comes to fish, again weight is the way to go. Salmon can go well with pinot noir, but lighter fish often have such delicate flavors that you’ll want a delicate wine to go with them so as not to overpower the ocean flavors.
Salmon can also go well with an oaked California chardonnay (especially when the salmon is prepared on a cedar plank). The same goes for lobster or crab dipped in butter, although more acidic wines like sauvignon blanc or even sparkling can be quite nice too.
White fish will go well with un-oaked chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, Chablis, Gavi, Soave, or pretty much any light-bodied white wine with a good amount of acid, while with shrimp or oysters on the half shell, you sort of have to lean towards a Muscadet or sparkling. (Note, Muscadet is not to be confused with muscat, which is often floral, aromatic and sweet).
Salad or sushi? Bubbles. Seriously. All the way.
Eating spicy food like Thai or Indian cuisine? Go with a sweeter wine like a riesling, because the sweet cuts the spice and spreads it around.
Eating greasy fried foods? Well, you need high acid wines to cut through the grease, leaving your palate clean. There’s no better combination than fried chicken and gruner veltliener. Imagine a squeeze of lemon juice in a greasy pot. The acid pushes the grease out of the way, right? Same deal with wine.
And, as always, if you’re not sure or don’t recognize anything on the wine list ask your server for a recommendation for a light and high acid, medium, or bold and heavy wine.
Q: “What desserts would you recommend with a dessert wine?
A: The wine is the dessert.
When drinking a dessert wine like a Sauternes, a Tokaji, an ice wine or TBA (Trockenbeerenauslese), or even a port, the wine is the dessert. It should be served with cheese (blues are highly recommended), nuts and dried fruit, but nothing sweet. Sweet on sweet is just sweet. Sweet on savory is succulent.
(If you hold two yellow pieces of paper together, they just look yellow. If you hold one yellow piece of paper and one blue piece of paper together both colors seem more vibrant.)
Here’s the thing to remember: It wasn’t as if the people of Chianti had a meeting and decided that they needed to make a wine that would go great with tomato sauce. And the people of Rhone didn’t one day decide that they needed to make a wine that would compliment roasted chicken. People made the wine they made out of the grapes that were growing, and drank the wine with whatever food they had to eat. It just happened to go well together.
Also, the idea of food and wine pairing only seems like an old European tradition, but the truth is that it’s an American idea that goes all the way back to the 1980s. And here’s sometimes else to consider: Wine and the food don’t have to match if you’re enjoying yourself while you’re eating and drinking.
It’s pretty well known that Champagne and wedding cake aren’t the best flavor combination. If you sat on your front step and drank a sparkling wine while eating cake, flavor-wise the experience would be far from life-altering. But in the middle of a wedding reception when you’re taken away with excitement and energy of celebration, can you think of any two flavors more perfect for the occasion?
Let me know if you have any more questions — and remember, wine isn’t complicated, it’s just juice.