In Pairing Wine and Food, Experience Is the Best Teacher


Pairing wine with food has come to symbolize much of the intimidation, apprehension and pretension that, for many people, intrude on the elemental enjoyment of a good bottle.

Why? Because the notion that you require books, apps and arcane charts and graphs to determine which sort of wine will mesh with the characteristics of a particular dish suggests that without a method, you can make a mistake. You might be wrong. You could be embarrassed.

We all know how that goes: Doubt. Anxiety. Shame. Why even risk it?

Here at Wine School we believe — we know — that wine is a pleasure to be enjoyed without fear. We lament the real feelings of discomfort that people have toward wine. We seek to determine the causes and eliminate the problems.

One major reason for such anxiety is the feeling among many people that in order to enjoy wine, one must understand everything about it first. That requires long-term study.

This sense that wine must be pored over like a calculus textbook is disheartening. Some people give up immediately. Others approach with a sense of obligation.

Consuming a wide variety of wines, and considering your own reaction to them, is the best way to become more comfortable with your own taste.

If wine happens to excite you enough to want to open a book, that’s great. The academic study of wine may greatly enhance your pleasure. But only if you are motivated from within to do so.

Each month we ordinarily focus on a particular genre of wine. I suggest three bottles, and you drink them over the course of several weeks. We then review and discuss the wines.

One of the many wonderful things about a roast chicken is that it goes beautifully with a wide variety of wines. Red, white, rosé, sparkling — you name it.

The idea was to offer a virtually foolproof exercise in pairing wine with food, both for the pleasure of the combination and simply as a way of gaining confidence.

The truth is, you can pick unsatisfying combinations of wine and food. Such experiences might be discouraging, but they are nonetheless essential. It’s hard to understand what you like if you can’t figure out what you don’t like. That is among the virtues of experience.

While reliable combinations satisfy endlessly, individual taste is subjective. And almost never is there only one correct wine to serve with any dish.

Roast chicken is a perfect example. I was thrilled by the broad array of wines that readers loved with the chicken dishes they prepared.

Tried-and-true combos abounded — roast chicken with Burgundy, with Beaujolais, with Oregon pinot noir, with Côtes-du-Rhônes, with Northern Rhône syrah and with chenin blanc wines from the Loire Valley.

Other ideas bubbled up. Loire reds, cabernet francs from the Finger Lakes, nebbiolo wines from the Langhe region of Northern Italy, trousseaus from the Jura, rieslings from Alsace, Chiantis, grüner veltliners, Champagnes, orange wines, Rhône whites, even the great, idiosyncratic white from Chateau Musar in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon.

As much as I loved the combination of the riesling and the chicken, would I choose it the next time? Probably not, because, with roast chicken, I simply want a red. That’s my preference, for whatever strange reason.

Yes, it doesn’t make complete sense to me either, except that it reinforces how subjective and personal pairing wine and food can be. This is one reason that experience is absolutely the best tool, just as no matter how many cookbooks and recipes you learn, your experience cooking will lead you in directions that veer from the texts.

Exceptions and corollaries to this rule abound. High-end restaurant cooking, for example, with its intricate combinations of flavors that go way beyond the simple pleasures of a roast chicken, often require the help of an expert.

A sommelier, for example. Not because she has mastered the concepts of pairing, though maybe she has, but because she most likely has experimented with the chef’s cooking, tasting various combinations for the ones that work the best. Even so, personal preferences often come into play.

No argument, but most people have no idea of the relative acidity of wine and food. Reading that will get you nowhere unless you already have enough experience for it to make sense.

The article also asserts: “Sauvignon blanc is light-bodied, but it has higher acidity. Chardonnay has more body, but it’s usually not too acidic.”

Again, these are the sort of simple, general statements that are confusing and useless. A sauvignon blanc from Quincy in the Loire may well be more acidic than a buttery, fruity chardonnay from California, but chances are a white Burgundy — chardonnay — will seem more acidic than a slightly sweet, fruity New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

The old writing axiom of “show, don’t tell,” applies especially to wine. You can memorize all sorts of helpful hints, but until you drink many different wines with a variety of foods, you will be stuck.

“Maybe the food is great, maybe the wine is too, but when I put them both in my mouth, sparks almost never fly,” he wrote.

I think the number of people who loved their pairings with roast chicken demonstrates otherwise. So do great, time-honored matches like lamb and Bordeaux, Barolo and white truffles and so on, thought these might be taken for granted because the alchemy is expected.

“I feel it’s easy to go way wrong: too heavy, too delicate, too tannic,” he said. His favorite has been a trousseau from the Jura. “Other bests, besides trousseaus, include nerello mascaleses and some pinot noirs. But both of those have also on occasion disappointed.”

I get his point. Sometimes you make magic. Sometimes you just have food and wine. In the end, is anything wrong with that?



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