Wine and Food Pairing


#320 – September 22, 2016 (“Mix and Match”)

One of the most frequently-asked questions I receive is with respect to finding the “right” wine(s) to go with any number of specific dishes and/or holiday meals.  As any frequent reader of this newsletter knows, my general belief is that wine is a beverage that can and should bring pleasure and therefore, generally speaking, one should drink the wines you like with the food you like. That said, there are some pretty easy-to-follow tips that can bring an even higher level of enjoying to your Yom Tov meals and are worth discussing in advance of the coming Chagim.

Even though a fair amount of wine is enjoyed without the accompaniment of food, I believe food and wine are soulmates that should rarely be separated.  Similar to the Torah’s description of man and woman’s ability to complete each other, wine and food below together, with each bringing something to the table that enhances the other and provides a platform for Aristotle’s quote to be realized.  Whether via modern technology like Google or Amazon or the “Old World” methods of your local bookstore or library’s bookshelves, you quickly realize how many hundreds of thousands of pages have been dedicated to searching for that elusive perfect pairing.  Pop culture is in on the game, having engaged British spy James Bond to enshrine a (now-outdated) axiom in our hearts and minds when Bond (in “From Russia with Love”) castigates himself for failing to identify SPECTRE assassin Red Grant as a “bad guy” solely by virtue of having ordered red wine with fish.

With its historical prevalence, one cannot really fault the screenwriter for utilizing an inaccurate “truism”, especially one that hails from “the good old days” when food was substantially more homogeneous.  However, even ignoring our progressive age of culinary crossover and exploration, the characteristics of the wine in question have always been are far more important that its color.  As we are all aware, plenty of red grape varieties (e.g. Pinot Noir & Barbera) can be made in such a way that mimics a white wine to a significant degree; and vice-versa, with many white varietals having the ability to be gussied up to match many characteristics of a red wine(e.g. Chardonnay being the prime example).

With wine writing typically unable to provide a solid economic footing, the livelihood of many is dependent on their ability to convince you of the sheer necessity and utter importance of fine-tuning the nuances of wine and food pairing to a near-neurotic degree so that you will buy the copious amount of written material on the subject.  As such, it won’t come as a surprise that the importance of these nuances happens to be the prevailing mindset among the world’s wine professionals (all happy to assist with the perfect book, many of which seem to require an advanced degree in molecular chemistry in order to succeed at the pairings).  All the way on the other end of the happy go lucky – everything goes spectrum are those who chalk it all up to monumental wine snobbism meant to be ignored by most normal wine drinking folks and who ascribe to drinking the wine you want/like with whatever happens to be on the table.  Have the urge to enjoy your bottle of vintage 2005 Château de Valandraud with some mi-cuit salmon? Go for it (even if it may out you as an assassin working for Rosa Klebb)!

Personally, my view on this topic represents my general philosophy when it comes to enjoying the nectar of the gods – do with your wine that which brings you (and yours) pleasure and enjoyment, regardless of the prevailing common wisdom or opinion of so-called experts (with the one, most obvious, exception being consumption of the blue-bottled abomination that should never happen – ever).  Drink the wines that bring you the most pleasure, whether mouth-puckering and acid loaded Sancerre, oak-aged ripe Cabernet Sauvignon wines or full-bodied buttery Chardonnays.  Bring them to the table regardless of what culinary fare is being served.  As one of the first wine writers I enjoyed reading has said “the happy fact about wine and food is that, like Pizza, even when bad it can still be pretty good”.

However (and there is always a “but”), regardless of the sometimes pompous puffery and scientific bularky, there is a ton of legitimate science behind food pairings and a highly successful pairing has the power to elevate dining to a transcendental experience.  The majority relates to the manner in which different food compounds interact with those in the wines (and in the other dishes with which they are served).  In order to help make your Yom Tov (and all other) meals more enjoyable (or even transcendental), this week’s missive contains some general tips and helpful suggestions for thinking about your food and wine is a slightly different way; a way that will make it easier to create a more harmonious combination of foods and wine.

Before getting into specifics with respect to the individual characteristics of the wine and food in question, one should first consider whether the goal of the pairing is to complement or contrast.  If a complementary pairing is desired, focusing on the dominant flavors in the relevant dish can be helpful in finding a matching wine.  Pairing the 16 ounce aged ribeye in pepper sauce with a spicy Syrah or Zinfandel will provide complementary nuances as will a buttery Chardonnay with a sea bass poached in farm-fresh French butter.  Other examples would be to pair a meat dish sweetened by a fruity sauce or glaze with a red wine that is very fruit-forward or utilizing the savory and earthy notes in a classic Bordeaux to match with a dish redolent with pungent mushrooms or other umami-heavy foods.  If your goal is to showcase the uniqueness of either the food or wine, you might prefer to use the textures of each to showcase a contrast between the two.  Utilizing texture leads to many of the more well-known pairings including matching the grease-laden traditional Chanukah latkes and sufganiyot with a crisply acidic Sauvignon Blanc or sparkling wine (that has the added grease-cutting abilities drawn from its bubbles).

One of the most important things to consider are the characteristics of the wine and food in question, with the wine’s “weight” or how it feels in your mouth (heavily influenced by the alcohol content) being the most important piece of the puzzle and the easiest to understand – lighter wines go with lighter food and heavier wines make better pairings with heavier dishes.  The rationale being that one wants the food and wine to complement each other as opposed to one overwhelming the other.  The nuanced beauty of a delicate and complex Pinot Noir could be obliterated by a perfectly constructed beef bourguignon, whereby a rich and slightly spicy Shiraz would provide the needed heft to match the dish round for round.  The need for proper balancing of the weight is the genesis of the now-infamous “white with fish and red with meat” rule, but given the dizzying array of possible weights for fish (think of lighter white fish versus heavier tuna and salmon), poultry (lighter chicken versus heavier turkey or goose) and meat (veal is significantly lighter than beef), the simplistic cliché is not really relevant.

While the alcohol level plays a big part in the weight of the wine, a dizzying array of other wine components all have a say in how well a wine will pair with any particular food or dish.  Any list of factors to be taken into consideration when thinking about wine and food pairing will include the levels of acid, alcohol and sugar in any particular wine, along with the oak influence and strength of its tannins.  Similar to salt’s role when flavoring food, acid acts as an enhancer, highlighting the primary flavors in any particular food.  As long as the wine is balanced (a complex topic we have discussed in the past), the higher the acidity levels the better the wine will pair with food.  A white wine’s acidity levels, together with its level of dryness (i.e. lack of residual sugar) will contribute to its “crispness”, which can serve as a lovely balance to fatty foods.  While acid can be (and is) added to any wine (a practice especially prevalent in hotter-climate wine-growing regions, where the wines ripen too quickly for their natural acidity levels to be sufficiently preserved), some grape varietals are more natural acidic then others including Barbera, Sangiovese and Sauvignon Blanc.  As I mentioned, the acid-levels in wines from colder regions trend higher as do, surprisingly, the wines cultivated on the hilltop owned by Four Gates Winery (as an acid, higher acid levels can be beneficial to long-term aging as well).

In addition to their influence on a wine’s weight (and the resulting food-compatibility), higher alcohol in a wine can overwhelm delicate flavors in a dish by creating a bitter sensation, but can play very nicely with sweeter foods (e.g. most dessert wines are relatively high in alcohol).  In addition to their über-importance in a wine’s structure, balance and aging ability, a wine’s tannins can be softened by pairing them with fatty and high-protein foods like steak and certain cheeses.  However, when paired with sweeter foods, the tannins can have the negative impact of diminishing the sweetness and making the food seem dry and bitter (e.g. Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and rich chocolate fudge cake are not the best pairing).  Keep in mind is that a dish’s sauce or glaze will often provide the dominant flavor in a dish so make sure to take the flavors and textures of the sauce when thinking through any wine pairing scenarios.  Another tidbit is to ensure that any dessert wine you are serving should be sweeter than the dessert it is expected to accompany.

Especially when you are contemplating a multi-course meal with numerous dishes and/or dominant flavors in each course, the thought of coming up with a “proper” wine pairing can seem significantly overwhelming (especially on top of actually cooking all that delectable food).  If the thought causes you stress just stick to some generally food friendly wines, that manage to pair nicely with a wide array of different flavors (using my individual newsletters and recommendations for each varietal to make a good choice).  Chief among such wines is Champagne (or other good sparkling wines), whose crisp dry acidity, typically low(er) alcohol level and refreshing bubbles ensure a wine-range of pairing opportunities and make it my go-to pairing partner (besides providing you with the welcome opportunity to significantly up your sparkling wine consumption).  Other options are crisply dry Rosé, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Riesling and Cabernet Franc.  While they can certainly provide magnificent pairings with a little bit of thought and advance planning, bigger and bolder Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are not wines that can be relied on to safely pair with anything you put in front of them (with tannin likely a food pairings worst enemy).  One of the kosher wine world’s many ironies is that these two varietals are the best-selling wines for a consumer base whose primary method of wine consumption is during Shabbat and Chag meals where the need for versatile wines is the greatest.

Despite all of the above, my initial comment remains as the most important factor – the awesomeness of any particular pairing hinges on whether you like the wine or food in question.  Sauternes and foie gras may be a classic (and insanely divine) pairing, but it won’t be enjoyable to you if you don’t like one or Sauternes or foie gras (although then you have other issues).  As the assassin retorted to 007’s somewhat snobbish quip – quip “you may know your wines, but you’re the one on your knees.”