Food and Wine- The Art of Pairing

When I am at the wine shop, or the grocery store and I’m looking for the magical pairing, I have three questions that run through my head:

  1. Has it been done before? Is it proven to work?

        If I’m cooking foie gras at my house (which I do all of the time, who doesn’t?), I will more than likely pick up a bottle of Sauternes. It’s a match that was discovered many years ago, and a divine combination. As daring and as experimental as I am, in certain scenarios there is certainly no need to reinvent the wheel.

  1. Do the flavors compliment?

        This is one school of thought. If you’re eating sweet food, drink sweet wine. If you’re eating heavy food, drink heavy wine. I think this is the most common thought when pairing, but in my opinion, it’s the easiest to mismatch.

        In a past life I spent a few years cooking at a very nice restaurant in my hometown ( When I first started in the kitchen I distinctly remember a conversation that I had with my chef. I was terrified because I knew that I didn’t have the palate that he had.

        One day I said “Chef, how long will it take before I know what everything tastes like? How will I taste a sauce and say ‘This OBVIOUSLY needs tarragon’? I don’t know one /tenth of the ingredients that you know! I may know something is missing, but I will have no idea what that something is.”

        “Joe” he said, “don’t think about ingredients. Ingredients are the last step in the recipe thought process. You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to think of that one thing that is missing. The possible list of things you could add to your sauce is endless. You need to narrow it down. Is the sauce too rich? It needs acidity. Is the sauce too tart? Add some sweetness. Once you know you need sweetness, think about how much you need. If you just need a little sweetness, with a touch of savory, you can think of ingredients that are along the lines of fruit. An avacado will add a touch of sweetness with a rich savoryness as well. However, if you don’t want your sauce to be green, perhaps a splash of red wine. Sweet white wine will add that sweetness without adding acidity. In the end, you’re looking for a flavor not an ingredient!

        That conversation happened about seven years ago, and I remember it like it was yesterday. I revert back to it with every meal I make at home, and with every wine I choose to pair with it. If you have a course planned that is very sweet, a sweet wine may not be your best choice.

  1. Do the flavors contrast? Or play off of one another?

        Another classic combination is sparkling wine and seafood. Scallops have a natural sweetness. If you pour a Moscato, or a sweet Riesling, you will lose that natural sweetness of the scallop. If you pour a Dry Champagne it will bring out the sweetness in the scallop. Oysters and Champagne are another classic combo, but what about the Mignonette? If your bubbles are too acidic, with the acidity in the mignonette, you’ll never taste the oyster. What about a Prosecco? At The Blue Star we pour Zardetto “Zeta” Prosecco by the glass. It’s totally dry but has a creamy round finish. The oyster is semi-sweet, salty and savory, the Mignonette is tart and acidic, altogether it’s missing richness… “Zeta” Prosecco will seal the deal.

        I look for wines that will pick up where the food leaves off, or add a component that the food is missing altogether. If I’m cooking vegetarian, I will pour a smoky Syrah so I can feel like I added bacon to my dish.

        Every meal has it’s main components. The protein should be used to choose the color and weight of the wine. The varietal and region should be matched with the little extras of the meal. Chicken likes white wine. Chicken with a lemon based sauce or marinade likes a richer white, like a Chardonnay (Richness balances the acidity). Chicken with a rich butter sauce would like a Chardonnay from Australia (higher acidity cuts the richness). Chicken that’s plain with some rice would enjoy body, richness, and acidity, perhaps a Viognier? Or Chenin Blanc?

        When push comes to shove, eat and drink what you like, but when choosing pairings, remember three things:

1. It’s already been proven.

2. The flavors match perfectly.

3. The flavors contrast perfectly.

        Food and wine pairing is one of my favorite things to discuss, and my favorite part of dinnertime. 7 out of 10 times, I fail miserably; 2 out of 10 times it works. 1 out of every 10 pairings I choose is absolute heaven.

If you need ideas, or want to chat about it, this is the forum for doing so.

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