Food and wine matching is more art than science. However, understanding the elements of wine from a practical (more scientific) angle will help you create better pairings. If you're new to wine, or an old hand who spends more time drinking than paying attention, listen up.
This column is 4 years old, so there is plenty of pertinent information in the CL archives. A bit cloudy on Old World versus New World styles, or need to brush up on how a wine's fruit, tannin and acidity affect the matching equation? Check out the Drink More Wine section of our website. I've covered essential tools for you to get the most out of your wine experiences. While too often we feel intimidated by wine experts, you've got to start somewhere.
Don't approach wine education as a race in which you need to sprint, but rather a lifelong adventure without a finish line. The more you train and learn, the more fun you'll have. The boundaries are also blurring between the class associations in what we drink; beer is no more working class than wine is aristocratic. If your taste runs toward hops, there's a parallel journey to unlock the secrets of artisanal craft brew.
Americans are now embracing wine as the everyday beverage it has long been in Europe. Peasants in France and Italy drank as much, if not more wine, than the landed gentry or royalty. Even if you can't afford first-growth Bordeaux, there's exciting wine at all price points that can only benefit from a little continuous education on the part of anyone willing to learn.
I've long recommended that any serious foodie or wine drinker get a copy of the essential What to Drink with What You Eat by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenberg. I've got a hard copy to thumb through as well as a digital version on my iPad. It's a compulsory learning tool for general reference where you may search by a particular food, or by grape varietal or blend.
The age-old rule of red wine with meat and white wine with fish is safe. It relies upon pairing by weight: heavy (big red) wine with heavy (rich meat) food, and light white wines with light dishes (delicate fish). Recently, though, I came upon what seemed like some strange choices at first glance, but were ultimately great pairings — because the match was based on the sauce.
A bison dish (think lean beef) with spicy North African charmoula sauce was paired with riesling from Washington State. Instead of an expected red paired with meat, the sweetness and acidity of the riesling was a perfect match for the sauce's heat. Acidity is always good to cleanse your palate, which is why sparkling wine can sustain an entire meal. A touch of sweetness also makes riesling great for gumbo, Mexican, Indian, Thai or other spicy cuisine. It's a particularly food-friendly grape.
Next was salmon matched with a Sonoma sauvignon blanc, when typical pairings are either chardonnay (heavy white) or pinot noir (light red) to echo the oily fish. But the lemongrass sabayon (light egg custard) was totally in sync with citrus notes in the wine. The Sonoma origin produced a riper, less grapefruity wine than this varietal would in the popular sauvignon blanc from New Zealand.
So, there you have it. Two examples where a dish's sauce upends conventional wisdom, serving as the base for delightful and unexpected wine pairings. Luckily, the "don't try this at home" warning doesn't apply here.