Food and Wine Pairing Basics (PART 1)
I was thinking today about the wines to serve with Christmas dinner today – a challenge to find harmony with all the flavours strewn across the table. I usually opt to forego the perfect match (there isn’t one) and simply choose a good Pinot and Chardonnay that can work with everything but may not be a perfect match to any one dish.
White gloved sommeliers and magazine editors (myself included) have at times over complicated food and wine pairing to the point of it seeming like a scientific quandry…if you add a drop of this or that to the dish then suddenly the pairing equation changes. While it is true that you can elevate the food and pairing experience to a flavour zenith by deconstructing the food and the wine to both its structural and flavour elements, it’s a rare circumstance to be able to match a single dish to the single perfect wine…well, that is if of course you start with recipe first and then look for a wine (we will create a recipe in an upcoming blog beginning with the wine first). I digress; finding food and wine harmony is much easier than you would think.
There are two basic approaches to matching food and wine; contrasting and balancing. We’ll quickly look at the two approaches and from this you may find it easier to marry your favourite food and drink.
Contrasting – Using a wine to contrast your food can be an exceptionally effective tool when marrying food and wine. I generally, subdivide the contrasting approach into three additional categories.
1) Cleansing – While this isn’t my preferred method of food and wine pairing, it does offer a good solution to some difficult dishes and may really appeal to those that are foodies first and wine lovers second. This approach basically uses the wine to cleanse the palate of the richness of the food with each sip of wine. Essentially, the wine gets you ready for the next opportunity to taste the food. It’s a good method with really fatty foods (high in cream, butter, cheese or other animal fats (think duck) but can sometimes leave the wine regulated to secondary status. How do you choose a wine to fulfill this role? Basically, it generally requires wines that have intense character and are high in acidity. If the wine lacks intense flavours it may get washed out by the food and the wine needs the acidity to cut through the richness (the fat) of the food. Champagne and other Traditional Method sparkling wines are the best for this method but good Chablis and top end Sauvignon Blanc work as do some Old World reds; especially good Burgundy and Italian reds such as Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino that offer a great balance of flavours and vibrant acidity.
2)Structure Contrasts – There are dishes that don’t allow for the balance approach (the next blog will expand on this). Outside of some Manzanilla Sherry and the odd Old World white such as Vinho Verde, Chablis and a couple other coastal whites (Muscadet, Vermentino etc.) that are so mineral laden that they seem almost salty there is little option for wine when it comes to matching the saltiness of food with similar character in a wine. If balancing isn’t an option then finding a great contrast is key. Salty and sweet is a classic contrast that works…think about melon wrapped in prosciutto or why we often add a dab of sweet jelly onto to a piece of blue cheese. I generally reserve this contract for cheese, the saltiness of many blue cheeses matched with Sauternes, Port and other dessert wine styles. When dealing with salty savoury dishes where the flavours and texture of the food just won’t gel with a sweeter wine. The saltiness of savoury food does well with tangy whites with good fruit character and low tannin reds such as Beaujolais (tannins and salt isn’t a good combination as the salt makes the wine taste more bitter).
3) Flavour contrasts - Here’s a point that can take food and wine pairing to a professional level. There are flavour combinations that might seem like opposites but that really work together. My favourite is the smokiness of bacon and florality in wines such as Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Smoked Salmon and Gewurztraminer is a great match and I love bacon wrapped scallops served with a weighty style of Riesling such a good Auslese. I am big believer in the use of balance when it comes to food and wine pairing, which I will describe in detail in the next blog but balance should not be equated to matching the same flavour in food as found in the wine…that’s just boring.
Next blog is on how to balance the structure of food with the structure of a wine.
2006 Grosset Watervale Riesling (Clare Valley, Australia) – This is a superbly focused Riesling with lanolin, lime, and wet stone aromas. The palate is vibrant, mineral and citrus fruit laden and very slightly petillant. Super Length. Tastes a little lean now but it belies the true wine that will emerge after another 5-10 years in the cellar. I love aged Riesling and this is one that will stand the test of time. Availablility Limited - in NS avail. at the Port of Wines on Doyle Street for $39.29)