Wine & Food Conundrum

By Posted on Nov 02 2011 | By

White with fish.  Red with meat.  Right?


Today, the creativity emerging from kitchens—both professional and in-home—is turning one of the oldest cooking chestnuts into a thing of the past.  More than ever, thinking outside the conventional wine & food box can be rewarded with wonderful matches that seemingly defy conventions of just a few years back.

The successful uniting of wine & food is analogous to an episode of Dancing With The Stars.  Shortly after the dance competitors’ take to the floor, they separate and perform tightly choreographed moves, independent of each other.  But, as the performance evolves, they increasingly embrace and begin displaying a singularly beautiful oneness. When the dance ends, the partners are breathlessly locked in each other’s arms.

OK, that’s stretching it a bit.  But that is what a perfect wine & food match should seek to achieve. Of course, it won’t happen every time. But when it does, you will have enjoyed a memorable dining experience.

Fusion cooking has gained popularity in the last decade or so.  This style of food preparation seeks to blend and contrast a number of ingredients and flavors to increase the overall palate complexity of an entrée.  It also presents a wider range of wine pairing opportunities. Often, it’s the sauces and spices that drive a wine companion decision, rather than the main entrée itself.  In the past, much of our dining was simply a meat and potatoes approach to eating.  Nourishing, yes.  But also a bit boring.

The availability of everyday cuisine meals has even been extended to the frozen food aisle of our favorite grocery store.  Boxes and bags of intriguing Thai, Asian, Mediterranean, and other ethnic foods have become widely available.   All of this is great news for our dinner tables as it offers more exciting wine pairing possibilities.

Much of the wine/food advice from the past tended to limit, rather than expand, our gastronomical delights.  In reality, it’s harder to mismatch a wine and food pairing than to create synergy at the table.  A wide variety of wines can go perfectly fine with a wide variety of entrees.  The key is to look for the melding of the two components that results in something greater than just the wine and just the food.

Perhaps one of the easiest ways to understand the art of marrying wine and food is to picture an obvious pairing clash.  What would be your reaction to dining on a tender, flaky serving of Mahi Mahi while sipping a glass of jammy, spicy, high alcohol Zinfandel?  Eeeeyew.  I don’t think so.  The wine would crush the flavors of the delicate fish.  To better match a wine with food simply think…compatibility.

To enhance the pairing of the vine and the table, let’s first examine some simple, time proven strategies that can brighten your next dining experience. 

Match the color, weight  & texture of the food with the color, weight & texture of the wine.   If the main dish is a succulent, baked chicken breast with mushroom sauce, try pairing it with a white wine displaying a creamy mouth feel.  A nice match would be a full-bodied, oaked California chardonnay, which typically shows these characteristics. If you are having the gang over for an evening of spicy chili, grab a couple of bottles of rich, full-throttled Californian Zinfandel at your local wine shop. Or, consider melding the flavors beef stroganoff with Merlot.  Here both components display soft, medium textures that nicely compliment each other.

Match acidity in the wine with acidity in the food.  Shrimp Orzo with lemon zest and a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc would nicely showcase the acidity of each component.  Or, duck with orange sauce would be enhanced with a glass of dry Riesling from Alsace or Australia.  The acidity in the food needs to be matched with acidity in the wine; otherwise, the wine will come off flat and dull.

Match salty or spicy foods with an off-dry, or slightly sweet, wine.  Thai or Asian dishes offer wonderful, zesty spices that would clash with a higher acidic wine.  Rather, seek out a nice off-dry Riesling.  The slightly sweet wine will tame each mouthful of the spicy food.   It’s fun to experience how such a pairing actually diminishes the sweet effect of the wine, almost transforming into a dry wine.  Each bite of the spicy dish is followed by a sip of wine, cleansing and softening the palate, and setting it up for the next bite of food.

Match the food of a country with its wine. This is an easily remembered pairing.  Italian food with Italian wine.  French food with French wine. California cuisine with California wine.  We could go on with numerous examples, but you get the idea. What’s the reasoning here?  Local wines have been matched with local foods for extended periods, in some cases, centuries.  The natives long ago figured out what dishes go best with their local wines.  No need for us to try and reinvent these classic matches.  So yes, veal parmigiana will swoon with a bottle of Chianti Classico—the Sangiovese grape—simply because our Italian brothers figured out long ago that the medium-bodied, higher acidity wine blends nicely with the meat, cheese and tomato sauce of the veal.

Let’s wrap up our culinary discussion with some not so obvious pairings.  Rather than set out any rules here, let’s just go with some recommended matches.

  • Jamaican jerk seasoned chicken and Zinfandel.  The spice elements of the chicken with dovetail nicely with the spicy, rich Zin.
  • Parmesan encrusted boneless breast of chicken and Sangiovese.  A Chianti Classico’s medium bodied weight, with good acidity, makes this combo work.
  • Veal cutlet with artichoke hearts and Pinot Grigio.  Artichoke is a difficult food match but it adds body to the normally lighter style pinot, making it a more full-bodied companion.
  • Tacos and a dry Rose’.   The dry wine with lots of fruit flavors will accent the meaty flavors of the taco.  
  • Smithfield country ham and Chenin Blanc.  The light styled white wine with nice fruit and a bit of sweetness will tame the salty component of the tasty ham.

Perhaps simply following your instincts can be the most fun in wine and food pairing.  After all, you don’t think twice about matching corn on the cob with salt and butter.  Or, building a ham and cheese sandwich with Dijon mustard.  Even linking chocolate chip cookies with a cold glass of milk comes to you effortlessly.

Let your dining imagination take you to places even the experts might not have thought of.  It’s just another way to expand your enjoyment of a delightful bottle of wine.


Categories : WINE ARTICLES