The idea of wine and food pairing goes back centuries. At least for Europe, it goes back that far. Wine grape varietals in the “Old World” were in fact selected and planted based on the food that is the most popular in that area. In Europe, wine is rarely viewed as an appropriate aperitif, rather it is meant to be had with food.
Here at home, wine and food pairing gained its popularity more recently. It was the more innovative chefs in the late 1970s and early 1980s that really started to push the idea to the fore. Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower in San Francisco, John Ash in Sonoma County Wine Country and a host of award-winning chefs in New York were behind the movement.
Fast forward to today and it is nearly impossible to find a fine-dining restaurant that doesn’t give careful consideration to what they put on their wine list based on the food they serve. Those that pay little attention to this crucial piece of the culinary arts do so at their peril. It has become that important to consumers. Many great food and wine pairing ideas have come out of this increased focus, and along with that, some myths have developed too.
One of the most common misconceptions that remains is white wine with fish and red wine with meat. While both notions will work in general, it is also true that you can really pair any color wine with any category of protein. The singular goal of pairing food and wine is to have the food enhance the wine and the wine enhance the food. If you are approaching both food and wine with this goal in mind, the color of wine rapidly recedes in importance. For instance, a fairly high acid Beaujolais or Pinot Noir is delicious with a high fat fish like Salmon. Similarly, a high acid white wine like Gavi or Picpoul does a great job cutting down on the richness of a fatty piece of pork or beef, making both shine. When it comes to color of wine, it is best to ignore the stereotypes.
Artichokes and asparagus have long been thought of as wine killers. This stems from the high natural acids in these vegetables which can be tough on wine. Travel to wine country in the spring though and you will find just about every one of the world class chefs there embracing these vegetables in their spring fare with suggested wines to have with them. The trick is to either pair a fruit-forward wine that can cut through the acid of grilled asparagus, or a wine with enough acid to go step-for-step with artichokes. You’ll be thrilled with the results.
There are two real wine killers that should be avoided or minimized when you are working on your pairings. Raw onion and garlic (raw or cooked) are devastating on wine. The flavors are just too strong for any wine to overcome. They should be avoided when putting together your menu. In the case of garlic, especially cooked, some is OK, but be judicious.
Chocolate and big rich full-bodied reds are not always magical. Pairing a wine with dessert is always one of the toughest combinations to master for any chef. There is one simple rule that will allow your wine selection to shine with the final course of the evening. The wine must always be sweeter than the dessert in order for the pairing to work. When it comes to red wine and chocolate, dark bittersweet chocolate is the only choice, so avoid milk chocolate or any chocolate that is sweetened if you want to have it with Cabernet or Merlot. If you are doing a sweet dessert, whether it be fruit or chocolate, stick to a dessert wine or port and you will be more pleased with the result.
One final tip, if you are preparing a big rich meal, regardless of your choice of fish, poultry, meat or cheese, your best bet is to go with a wine that counters the richness of the meal allowing both food and wine to shine. Sure, you can go with a big, rich wine like Cabernet, Merlot, or even Syrah with rich food, but it will take the evening over the top. If that is your goal, great! Go for it! If you crave a bit of balance though, go with something that will cut the richness a bit.
Food and wine pairing is a great way to make both shine. Here at the shop we work with customers all the time on making the best choices to go with their meal. We are happy to help you too, just stop in.
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George Balling is co-owner with his wife, Mary Lancaster, of the dinner party, a wine and gift shop in Coeur d’Alene by Costco. The dinner party has won the award for best wine shop in North Idaho twice, including for 2018. George is also published in several other publications around the country. After working in wineries in California and judging many wine competitions, he moved to Coeur d’Alene with Mary more than 10 years ago to open the shop. You can also follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/#!/dinnerpartyshop.