Even in these days where everyone you meet is an amateur chef, matching food and wine still seems to intimidate many. The same cook who thinks nothing of turning out a croquembouche before breakfast becomes dumbstruck when confronted with the hundreds of bottles on display at a good merchant, and the result is that the wine is either an afterthought brought along by the guests, or a random selection based on the price of the bottle.
Wine and Food: Equal Partners
This is a shame, because great wine is made to enhance (and be enhanced by) great food. This is especially true of the classic wines of Europe, which evolved alongside local cuisine. The people making the wine honed their techniques against a background of local dishes, and those dishes were in turn refined with the local wine in mind. Naturally, the two came to work well together. New World wines, on the other hand, are an attempt to make something new, better and different to the greats of Europe. They tend to be sweeter, with more up-front fruit and prominent alcohol. This makes them thrilling to drink on their own (which is why they often win against European wines in blind tastings, without food) but more difficult to match with subtle dishes.
The Easy Way
With this in mind, very often a quick and reliable way of matching a wine to a dish is to make sure they both come from the same place. If you’re preparing a Paella, a Sherry or dry Spanish white will be perfect; for pasta, you might think of Chianti. Not only will these work well in terms of flavour, they often just feel right. If there is a classic match, you won’t go far wrong using it because years of tradition and mutual evolution have done the work for you.
The Hard Way
But when there isn’t a classic match, when you want to do something a bit different, or when you want to pick a wine that’s just right, how do you do it? What are the rules? Traditionally, you would consider five elements:
· Body or weight. For rich, powerful dishes choose equally powerful wines. For delicate dishes, choose lighter styles.
· Sweetness. Sweet food needs wine that is as sweet or slightly sweeter, otherwise the wine will taste tart.
· Acidity. Again, sharp dishes high in acidity need fresh, crisp wines with high acidity themselves. Other wines will taste flabby by contrast.
· Texture. Meaty, chewy dishes go well with tannic reds. Buttery, smooth dishes with buttery whites. And so on.
· Flavour. Certain flavours in the dish can be complemented by similar flavours in wine. Lemon, for example, can be brought out and enhanced with a citrusy white.
A New Way
This is all very well but it does sound quite complex and time consuming if you want to balance all of the different elements. Let me suggest, then, an alternative approach. In this Jamie Oliver age, most of us are comfortable adapting recipes, adding a squeeze of lemon here or a handful of basil there. Instead of thinking of wine as something separate to the meal, think of it instead as part of the dish. Just because it happens not to be on the plate doesn’t mean it isn’t, like a side salad or a bowl of hollandaise, part of whatever it is you are serving. Does it feel like it matches what you’re cooking? Would you use it as an ingredient or does it seem wrong? Unless you really know what you’re doing, you probably wouldn’t put chocolate sauce with sea bass, so don’t pick a big, sweet red wine to go with it. Follow your instincts and ask a wine merchant what it tastes like to get a feel and you’ll soon have something up your sleeve for every occasion.
GrapesandHops ATL would like to thank contributing writer Ben Greene:
Author: Ben Greene has worked in the industry with wine merchants for the past 10 years and has a particular interest in biodynamic wine. Ben writes also about Fine and Vintage wines and promotes wine tastings in London. When he’s not online or at a tasting he enjoys cricket, cooking and the occasional deviation from wine to beer.