Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Food and Wine Pairing - It's More about the Don'ts than the Dos

Finding a great food and wine pairing can be a daunting task. If you are trying to find a wine to match a specific dish, all the elements of the dish can impact a pairing.  A big tannic Cabernet Sauvignon is typically a great match for a beautiful mid-rare steak, but through a heaping spoonful of a spicy Argentinian Sauce on top, and suddenly that classic match begins to fall apart a bit.  There are a ton of factors to consider in finding a great pairing. If it is a main course - what is the protein? What kind of sauce? What is the overall flavor profile? It it spicy, acidic, sweet, bitter? A lot of things to consider, and that is why there is an profession that deals largely with this challenge on a daily basis - the Sommelier.

But what if you don't have access to a good Sommelier every time you need to figure out a food and wine pairing, don't worry.  The simple truth is that not every food and wine pairing needs to be great. Don't get me wrong, finding a great pairing in one of life's great joys. To find an epic wine pairing can be a life altering event (for me at least).  Not every pairing needs to be great, because there is nothing wrong with ending up with a GOOD wine pairing. 

To find a good wine pairing, my recommendation is not go get overwhelmed with a myriad of rules of food and wine pairing, and just focus on those few things you need to avoid.  What? Blasphemy! What if someone ends up with a white wine with a steak.  Grilled steaks in Italian cuisine can be marinated with lemon juice and served with a grilled lemon.  These flavors can match nicely with a big bold Chardonnay. Boom - you did it, no laws were broken, no arrests were made - a steak with a white wine and it will be a GOOD, but maybe not GREAT pairing. 
However, there are some rules that are very important to remember, because if they are ignored can leave you with something you don't want... a BAD food and wine pairing.  A bad pairing can leave you with a (literally and figuratively) bad taste in your mouth regarding a wine or a dish that on their own are great, but put together... are far from great.

So, with that in mind, here are some rules to keep in mind for food and wine pairing... The biggest Don'ts of food and wine pairing:
  • Don't # 1- Don't always follow the "Do" rules you read. There are entire books written on the rules of food and wine. These can be a good starting point - but please experiment beyond these rules. You may not always succeed, but then again an epic, surprising pairing may be the reward for taking some risk!
  • Don't # 2 - Don't overdo it on the oak. Wines that have significant oak aging characteristics - like toast and vanilla notes in a Chardonnay or vanilla, chocolate, and even smokey characteristics of a Cabernet Sauvignon come from aging in oak barrels.  Some whites and most reds see time in oak - so some oak is OK, but pairing with food will accentuate the oaky characteristics, which may become overwhelming and unpleasant. Dishes with made with nuts are good choices to pair with an "oakier" wine.
  • Don't # 3 - Hot and spicy foods don't go with high alcohol or heavily oaked wines.  Higher alcohol will accentuate the spice - making the food taste even hotter while too much oak in the wine will end up being all you taste.
  • Don't # 4 - Don't serve a tannic red wine with an oily fish like Mackerel, it will make the fish taste metallic. You will find the same interaction with raw oysters.
  • Don't # 5 - Serve high alcohol or highly tannic wines with salty foods.  The salt will exaggerate the alcohol and make the wine taste "hotter."  Wines with high alcohol can leave a "hot" aftertaste - and that is kicked up a notch by a lot of salt.
  • Don't # 6 - Don't be afraid to let one or the other shine. Do you have a prized wine that you've been aging and want to share with friends? Serve with a simply prepared dish so the wine can be the star. Trying your hand at a complex dish with an intense flavor profile?  If you want the food to shine, look for a good pairing where the wine will not compete with the dish.
  • Don't #7 - Don't crush a light and delicate dish with a big wine. If you have purchased a delicate piece of seafood and cooked it perfectly - would you top it off with a squeeze of lemon or a coating of cheese? You may love to sip a Chardonnay, but a crisp Sauvignon Blanc is better with your delicate creation. Keep your food and wine in the same weight class - heavier dishes need fuller bodied wines.
  • Don't #8 - Don't tackle an asparagus or artichoke dish on your own. Both of these ingredients have components that are very tough to pair (including asparagusic acid in asparagus - really I didn't make that up!). It is possible to pair these with wine - but you need to prepare them in the right way to mitigate the wine killing effect.
  • Don't #9 - Don't serve a dish sweeter than the wine. Especially when it's dessert time, the wine needs to be sweeter than the dessert or the wine will end up tasting unbalanced - pure acidity.
  • Don't # 10 - Don't forget to think locally! OK, not exactly a don't - but if you are serving a regional dish, look to wines from that region for a great pairing. One memorable quote from one of my first wine tastings in my life was "When you eat the Italian food - you drink the Italian wine" (said in a wonderfully heavy Italian accent).  Recipes and wine developed in the same regions of the world are very likely to go wonderfully together - especially more old world regions in France, Italy, Spain, and Germany.
Not too bad - just 10 things to keep in mind to help you avoid any bad food and wine pairings.  Bad food and wine pairings will happen, especially if you are into experimenting with many dishes and may different wines. But don't stress over any bumps in the road - just add it to your memory banks for something to avoid in the future and continue on your noble quest for good, great, and hopefully even some epic pairings.  If you're having a dinner party and will be trying out a new pairing - make a quick sample of what you will serve and try it with the wine to make sure the pairing will work. If that isn't possible, then have a second wine on deck for a pairing - just in case things go awry with your primary wine selection. 

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