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The First Rule of Wine Pairing

June 28, 2009
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A friend of mine suggested recently that the appreciation of wine is really all about pairing.  And by that, he meant putting a wine together with a meal that would in turn:

1)    Make the wine taste better than if served without the meal.
2)    Make the meal taste better than if served without the wine.
3)    Make the overall experience greater than the sum of its parts.

Some people have unrealistic expectations for what wine can accomplish.

That is not to say the above scenario is impossible.  It is entirely possible.  But it doesn’t happen all the time.  And given the idiosyncrasies of taste, just because it happens for you doesn’t mean that it will happen for everyone at the table.

And no amount of wine and food knowledge will allow you to find the “perfect pairing” all the time.  The best pairings are often ones you stumble upon.  Just like trying new wines, I encourage you to try new pairings.  Taste things for yourself to determine if you like them or not.

That said, there are a few things to consider that can help stack the deck in your favor.

Rule number one: Know thyself.

Ultimately, there are two ways to pair wine and food.  You can pair wine and food that are similar to each other, or you can pair wine and food that offer complementary contrasts.

We can use candy as an example.  Some people like chocolate covered caramels, and how the rich complex chocolate combines with the buttery burnt sugar on the tongue, achieving a creaminess and flavor neither could reach on its own.  Other people like chocolate covered pretzels, and how the crunch and salt of the pretzel sets off the sweet creaminess of the chocolate, making it taste even sweeter and creamier than it did before, and creating another layer of texture.

Would you say one of these people is wrong?  Raf might, but I won’t.  And really what you prefer might depend on the mood, or it might depend on the dish.

When one thinks about the classic pairings, generally these are examples of putting wines with similar foods:
Buttery and lemony chardonnay with lobster and drawn butter.
A big complex cabernet with roasted lamb.
A dry flinty sauvignon blanc with a dry flinty goat cheese.

But contrasting pairings could work equally well, if not better, depending on your personal taste:
A dry and lean Champagne with lobster and drawn butter.
A fruity pinot noir with roasted lamb.
A buttery chardonnay with a dry flinty goat cheese.

If you have been following some of my wine advice, hopefully by now you have a few bottles of wine sitting around, and you have some idea what they taste like.  This may be a good time to put your tasting chops to the test.

Here’s an idea.  Take a bottle of wine and make two different dishes to go with it: one that is similar to the wine and one that is contrasting.  If you have a bottle of lemony and buttery chardonnay, you could try the lobster versus the goat cheese and see which pairing tastes better to you.

Let me know if you need any help coming up with ideas.  And next week we can discuss rule number two.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Barrie permalink
    June 29, 2009 11:12 am

    See, I love wine, and have tried quite a few wines and know, for instance, that (in general) drinking a red wine with something like fish makes the wine taste like cheap grain alcohol to me. Similarly if I break the old convention in the other direction (pairing a white wine with something like lasagna or steak). But the “similarities” and “contrasts” of which you speak here are completely beyond me. How is fruity pinot noir such a contrast with roasted lamb? Is the lamb dry in this context? To do a “similarity” pairing, am I supposed to have the buttery Chardonnay with the lobster and drawn butter? Because I don’t really get the buttery Chardonnay thing (I have actually not really had any Chardonnays I’ve liked, and prefer to stick with dry Alsatians or pinot blancs). Help me understand, Profussor!

  2. June 29, 2009 1:13 pm

    I’m trying to teach myself to like white wines, but so far it’s not working out too well. As uncouth as it may be, I like certain reds with seafood.

    I really want to have a wine tasting party! If only my apartment was bigger or I had a better yard or you could drink wine in public parks without being scrutinized.

  3. August 9, 2010 6:01 pm

    Enjoyed your write-up the secret is also to do it as often as possible that is the only way to perfect it!

    • August 10, 2010 1:19 am

      Thank you. It is also wonderful to completely foul it up. Then one knows for certain that there are things that just do not play nicely with each other and should be avoided in the future. First hand experience is much more valuable than platitudes of “don’t pair white Bordeaux with scallops.” It was not an intended pairing, but rather an accidental accompaniment. And I assure you, it will never happen again.

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