generalWine & Food 101: Wine Pairing Concepts, part 1

Join us each Sunday for an ongoing series of articles exploring the world of wine.  

It’s all about wine and food this month as we explore concepts for successful pairings — and be sure to check out the new CORNERS COLLECTION!

The notion of food and wine pairings seems to cause some individuals to gush excitedly about sublime experiences, others to roll their eyes with exasperation, and still others to scratch their heads in bewilderment.  So what exactly is all the fuss about?  The eye-rolling individual will likely advise that you “drink what you like.”  While this may seem sage and infallible advice, it is likely to lead to some less than desirable combinations.  Outside of the context of wine, I love pineapple juice.  It doesn’t take very long to create a veritable litany of foods that would create dreadful taste combinations were this my default beverage of choice.  Avoiding undesirable flavor combinations, the risk remains of simply missing new experiences.  Few of us could imagine eating the same thing for every meal (we are not, after all, six-year-olds who only eat chicken-fingers).  Why would we treat our beverages any differently?


The simple fact of the matter is that many (indeed, most) wine and food combinations are rather neutral, being neither notably offensive nor remarkably appealing.  In these cases, neither the food nor the wine is done a disservice – nor is either improved.  Some combinations, on the other hand, can be truly horrible — or truly divine.  In most failures, either one partner has overpowered the other or the two partners were simply incompatible.  The latter case, unfortunately, leaves both parties worse for the interaction.  In successes, however, both the food and the wine benefit and are made the better for the pairing.  There are, of course, degrees to either side of neutral.  Entire books have been written as navigational guides for the food and wine experience, and a lifetime can be spent exploring its nuances — but what if we just want to add to the pleasure of our everyday dining experiences. . .  Over the course of the next few weeks, we will be discussing simple concepts and guidelines geared toward avoiding table-top trainwrecks and increasing the occasions when choirs of Epicurean angels sing.  That may seem hyperbolic, but you’ll know it when it happens. . .


Most professions have adopted a sort of professional mantra or aphorism that serves as a simple guide to increase success and avoid failure.  If you are a carpenter, that truism might be “measure twice, cut once.”  If you are a hairstylist, you might advise that “we can always cut shorter, but we can’t glue it back on.”  For a sommelier, that professional mantra is “what grows together goes together.”  Behind this simple truth is the notion that, around the world, food and beverage have evolved in a symbiotic relationship where both are enhanced when they are brought together.  This is true even in cultures in which wine is forbidden or simply unknown or uncommon.   There are a few caveats to this notion, however.  First it applies primarily to old world (read European) wines.  In most European wine regions, governmental oversight requires certain practices and prohibits others.  Labeling laws (in particular, appellation) also place confines on the grapes that may be used for a wine.  These regulations mean that there is some degree of consistency or similarity between wines labeled with a particular appellation.  That should not be construed to mean that all wines from a single appellation are the same or are interchangeable.  Variation will always occur, whether caused by vintage, sub-appellation, specific vineyard location, viticultural practice, or vinification practice, but there is a degree of certainty with what to expect when you open a bottle of Burgundy/Bourgogne or Bordeaux.  The degree of certainty becomes more reliable as an appellation becomes more specific.  For example, sauvignon blancs from Sancerre (a particular village), will be more consistent that sauvignon blancs from the Upper Loire Valley (the sub-region), which in turn will be more consistent than sauvignon blancs from the Loire Valley at large.  With new world wines, there are often few (or no) rules to ensure such consistency of place.  A California wine-maker is free to grow or use any grape their heart desires, grow it any way they deem suitable, and vinifiy it any way they find appropriate.  This can lead to exciting innovations (or not), but it can also mean that the wine is a bit of a “grab-bag,” with little or no assurance of consistency of place.  The other caveat to the “what grows together goes together” aphorism is that place is very specific in the language of wine and food.  France or Italy aren’t local enough for this logic.  Regional appellations like Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, or Piemonte are much more helpful, with more defined locations (sub-region, village, or vineyard) being the most helpful. Those caveats in place, let’s look at some ways “grow together/go together” works successfully.


Let’s start at the seaside. . .  Albariño, traditionally grown in the coastal Rías Baixas region of northeastern Spain, is a stellar choice for seafood, especially fish and shellfish.  You might take the regional influence a bit further and second-your-vote for albariño if that seafood has any spice to it.  Taking it a step further, albariño would also be a great choice for paella, Spanish sausages (like chorizo), or roasted vegetables (like peppers).  Similarly, Muscadet (a white wine made from melon de Bourgogne in and around the Loire Valley town of Nantes on the Atlantic coast) is a natural choice for shellfish, especially oysters (particularly when raw) and mussels, for which Nantes is famous.  From Italy, vermentino (grown in the coastal region of Liguria) and vernacchia di San Gimignano (grown in the Tuscan seaside town of San Gimignano) are also excellent with seafood, especially simply prepared white fishes.  It should be no surprise that most white Greek wines (being grown on islands) are excellent matches for seafood as well.


Moving on land gets a bit trickier, as cuisine becomes more and more diverse and localized, but the notion still applies.  The nebbiolo based wines (particularly from the villages of Barolo and Barbaresco) of Piemonte in northwestern Italy were absolutely made to go with the local buried treasure we know as truffles.  Red Burgundy/Bourgogne (pinot noir from the Burgundy region of France), is a natural match for mushrooms, game, and (no surprise) beef Bourguignon (all local specialties).  White Burgundy/Bourgogne (chardonnay from the Burgundy region of France) is a great match for poultry (the village of Bresse is famous for its chicken) and river fishes.  German and Alsatian wines are perfect matches for the local fare of spaetzle, fill-in-the-blank-wurst sausages, pork, scallops, and river fishes.  Chianti and other Tuscan red wines (rosso di Montalcino and brunello di Montalcino, in particular) are excellent choices for Tuscan fare like wild boar, beef steaks, and tomato-sauced pastas.  


The notion of “what grows together goes together” may be one of the best and most logical ways to experience the journey that wine can provide, but there are several other pairing theories that we will explore in the upcoming weeks.  In the meantime, I encourage you to pay particular attention to the wine in your glass, taking time to assess its aromas and flavors (preferably prior to your first bite of food).  What do those aromas and/or flavors bring to mind?  What suggestions of fruit do you detect?  How about floral, herbal, or vegetal notes?  Are there any spice aromas of flavors?  Is there anything that suggests earthiness like soil, stone, leaves, or graphite?  Does your perception of the wine change after or with food?  Don’t worry about putting it in “wine-speak” or having it “make sense.”  These personal observations of the wine in the glass will help you to develop a greater understanding of each wine, grape, and region.  They will also become valuable tools as we discuss other concepts in wine and food pairing, but the single most valuable piece of advice remains:  “Continue to be adventurous with your wine choices.”