Wine 201 – Food and Wine Pairing

This was the entire reason behind the Wine 101 series. If I was to understand how to use wine in its relationship with food, I had to learn the hows and whys of the fermented grape. I think this is the first rule of thumb when it comes to pairing wine with food:

  • -Only use wines that you are familiar with when you wish to pair food with wine.

I typically shy away from saying things like “You should”…well, that’s not true, but you still should only use wines that you are familiar with, unless of course you like being adventurous.

Wait, wait…I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about the concept of food and beverage, as it helps illustrate certain concepts I wish to touch upon.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the majority of Americans don’t think about how foods interact with their beverage choices. Instead of viewing the whole of the meal, we tend to subsconsciously think in terms of “parts” of the meal. We think meats, vegetables, starches and beverages, or appetizers, entrees and desserts. The concept of “meal”, especially in regard to beverages is hardly thought of at all.

But subconsciouly, I think people have an inherently knowledge of how beverages fit in with meals. Let’s take a glass of orange juice for an example. Typically, we think of juice as a “breakfast drink”, if we think of it at all. But why is it a breakfast drink?

Think about the qualities of orange juice. Depending on the brand you drink, it’s sweet, tart, or somewhere in between. Now I’m going to discuss my favorite breakfast/brunch meal: Poached eggs over toast, with bacon or sausage, and Potatoes Lyonnaise. What’s one of the major components of that meal?

Salt. Salt on the eggs (as well as pepper), the salt from the pork, and the salt in the bacon grease that’s in the potatoes.

Think about that for a moment: I have subconsciously paired a sweet drink with a salty meal.

You can do this with any number of drinks that Americans love. Milk and Cookies? Colas with Pizza? Beer and hotdogs? There’s an underlying taste factor that we’ve subconsciouly determined that makes these beverages sing with the paired food. You’ve already been pairing foor with drink and you didn’t even know it, did you?

The trick to pairing wine with food is to think about the relationship beverages have with the food they’re paired with. The only way to do that is to know the taste of the beverage. Hence, you should only pair food with wine that you are familiar.

We all know that taste is subjective, so the next rule of thumb is to drink what you like. If you find yourself liking orange juice with your coq au vin, then for cryin’ out loud, drink orange juice with coq au vin.

That being said, there are some rough guidelines that can help you decide on a wine to choose with food.

  • - Think about the taste characteristics of the wine, and think about where that characteristic fits into meals.

For example, my baseline wine, as stated before, is a sweet riesling. This riesling has an “peach/lemon” taste characteristic. Let’s call that a “citrus”. So we have a wine that has a sweet citrus taste. In everyday eating, what does that compare with?

Well, it compares very well to drinking orange juice at an eggs and sausage breakfast mentioned above. It should then come as no surprise that riesling is a wonderful brunch wine, as it pairs very well with egg and pork dishes.

If we were to extrapolate upon this further, it seems to me that it’s the salt of the pork that really works well with the sweet of the riesling. So it follows that a baked ham (often found with a high salt level), goes very well with riesling.

This is one way in which you can learn how to pair wines with food.

There’s another rule of thumb when it comes to pairing food and wines:

  • - Treat the wine as a spice with your food.

This is similar to the other rule of thumb, as the concept is the same: know your wine.

A true story, and certainly not a revolutionary discovery on our part. Tara and I found a delicious Chianti. It was oaky, it was cherry, but mostly it was peppery. Not an overpowering pepper, rather a nicely balanced ground pepper.

That night we were having puttanesca, a spicy pasta dish that everyone should try at least once in their life. One of the reasons we found the wine delicious is because the “pepperiness” of the wine fit perfectly as a spice with the puttanesca. It added to the dish, much like grinding fresh pepper would have done.

You can do this to any wine flavor characteristic. Think of any number of flavors a wine might have: Earthy, floral, butter, vanilla, cloves, black currant, lemony, etc. Can you think of any foods that would could improve (even if only a little) by these flavors? Can earthy go with vegetables or steaks? Can lemons go with fish? Can cloves go with spicy food? Of course they can.

I could easily go on here, but I think I’ve covered the basics.

  • - Know your wine and it’s characteristics (if you can’t taste the characteristics, you may be able to look them up on the internet or in various wine mags)
  • - Use the characteristics of the wine for the pairing, rather than the wines color.
  • - Drink what you like, regardless.

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