Some people will drink a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with every dish. I know these people. I like these people. I know it’s a refreshing drink, but this is something I just don’t get. Perhaps this is because I’m not too keen on the in-your-face-style Sauvignon Blanc that appears more prevalent in my home city—which is across the ditch from New Zealand—than drinking water.
And then there are the people who drink Champagne with every meal. Now, this is something I do get. For most of my life I perceived Champagne to be an elegant and extravagant drink, but this is not why I would drink it with every meal or even most meals. To the contrary, actually. When I learned that people in the Champagne region of France drink Champagne with every meal, I started to see Champagne as the people’s drink, something that brought families together to enjoy the small, ordinary moments of life and of love.
Life is short, and so I think it is true that we should drink what we like—that is what is most important. But, it is also true that by drinking the same wine with our meals, we are missing out on discovering some food and wine pairings that enrich our experience of both the food and the wine, and even possibly the company we are in.
I am grateful to the sommeliers, masters of wine, wine makers, and cellar hands who have introduced me to some of their favourite food and wine pairings by either providing vivid descriptions with their words or by presenting the food and wine pairings under my nose, such as a glass of Shiraz paired with a lamb cutlet or blue cheese on a cracker to try with De Bortoli’s Noble One Botrytis Semillon. Indeed, these approaches have been so much more meaningful to me than reading about the rules of food and wine paring in wine text books.
Oysters and brut Champagne is a classic food and wine pairing that many have described to me in an almost sensual fashion. This food and wine pairing seems to entice seafood lovers, romantics, and anyone within the same room as the person describing this pairing.
Barbecued steak with a glass of Argentinian Malbec, Barossa Shiraz, or Californian Cabernet Sauvignon is a clear winner for many, with the salt on the steak softening the effects of the tannins in the red wine. Other common recommendations include rosé with a charcuterie board for a summer picnic and Port paired with Stilton cheese to be enjoyed by the fire-place.
I also have my own personal favourite food and wine pairings, such as Cheezels (round cheese-flavoured snacks that fit on your fingers like rings) with brut Champagne and a Bordeaux blend paired with rich Indian curries. The former pairing I think few people could refute (really, you must try it) though I think many would prefer a rosé with spicy Indian dishes. So, although there are some food and wine pairings that are more a matter of personal preference, there appears to be some pairings that work for most people. These are, perhaps rightly, thought of as a ‘marriage’ between food and wine.
Food and wine pairing is about a match between the food and the wine that is harmonious and the two components compliment each other. Thus, it is apparent why so many have drawn a parallel between a good food and wine pairing and a good romantic relationship. In both food and wine pairing and relationships some pairings are good, others are so-so, some are terrible, and then there are those that stop us in our tracks, making us believe in magic. Those magical marriages between food and wine can make for memorable meals and memorable occasions, and applied to everyday dining, can infuse our day-to-day lives with joy and satisfaction, which may counteract the daily hassles and stressors that deplete our resilience and vigour for life.
Just like good relationships can be examined in terms of a range of relational factors and communication attributes, food and wine pairings can be examined in terms of their interaction on a range of factors, such as flavour intensity, though not everyone wants to have that kind of detail and perhaps prefer to think that they ‘just go together.’ Just as love can be put down to a simple exchange of positive emotions that is brief in time (rather than lasting a lifetime) there are some simple interactions between the food and wine that explain why they work.
Although there are individual differences in sensitivities to flavour and aroma compounds, here are some guidelines (not rules) to help marry food and wine for an optimal gastronomic experience:
1. Trust your instinct, since we typically have a good instinct about food and drink pairings.
2. Consider the season and time of day—in the summer we eat lighter dishes that pair well with lighter wines, such as an Italian Pinot Grigio, and in the Winter we eat heavier meals that pair with heavier wines, such as an Australian Shiraz.
3. Many wines go with many plates, so there may be few wines that work equally well with a dish. For example, both a Spanish Albariño and a Californian Chardonnay may work well with a creamy seafood pasta sauce.
1. Marry food and wine in terms of texture and flavour, and possibly colour. Lighter foods are paired with lighter wines, such as a prawn baguette with a rosé, and heavier foods go with a heavier wine, such as a beef casserole with a Uruguayan Tannat. More delicately flavoured foods are paired with wines that are lighter in flavour intensity, such as scallops with a young Hunter Valley Semillon, so that the wine does not overpower the food. A richer seafood cream sauce will need a richer wine, such as a Yarra Valley Chardonnay. The adage that white wine goes with seafood and white meats and red wine with red meats is helpful, but there are instances counter to this rule that produce delightful food and wine pairings. Meat from bigger fish can go with red wine, such as a seared tuna steak with young Pinot Noir. Despite this, be careful, since red wines paired with oily fish can result in a metallic taste in the mouth—no one wants that.
2. Consider the principal ingredient as well as how it is prepared/ cooked and any spices or sauces in terms of marrying texture and flavour. Char-grilled vegetables may pair well with an oaked wine that has a toasty character.
Key Interactions Between Food and Wine to Consider:
1. Sweet foods are considered an enemy to a dry wine. Sweetness in a dish can make a dry wine appear less fruity and more acidic, and so for a sweet dish, the wine should be at least as sweet as the dish and preferably sweeter than the dish. So for desserts, consider a Botrytis Semillon, for example.
2. Salty foods are considered friends to dry wine. This is because salt increases the perception of body in the wine and decreases the perception of acidity and bitterness in the wine. So a salty dish may pair well with a wine high in acidity, such as a dry Eden Valley Riesling for a white or Chianti Classico red wine.
3. Acidity in foods can increase the perception of body in the wine, as well as sweetness and fruitiness, and decrease the perception of acidity in the wine, making a not so acidic wine appear flabby. Thus, an acidic dish, such as Chilean cerviche, may pair well with a dry Barossa Valley Riesling. Also with regards to acidity, acidic wines are great with fatty or oily foods, such as a hamburgers, because the acid cuts through the fat and cleans the palate.
The Guideline of Regional Food and Wine Pairings:
1. This guideline, which is that local foods pair with local wines, is a good one since local foods and wines evolved together over time. But, this applies mostly to traditional winemaking regions. So when dining at an Italian restaurant, select an Italian wine or locally grown Italian grape variety, such as Sangiovese. In fact, the acidity present in Italian tomato-based dishes are well complemented by the more acidic red wines, such as Chianti. However, there are cuisines that have developed without wine production (or limited wine production) in the region, such as Thai food, and in such cases, it is wise to match food and wine based on flavours and textures.
1. If in doubt, serve the dish with Champagne—apparently this is a golden rule and I won’t argue with that.
2. If you want to drink New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, try it with fish and chips. The salt in the fish and chips softens the acidity of the wine. Eating fish and chips by the water does indeed call for a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc—one of my favourite food and wine experiences.
Feature photo: Cheese and wine at Legrand Filles et Fils in Paris’s Galerie Vivienne