Food and wine pairing does matter

I always thought of food and wine pairing as something that’s fun. I enjoy thinking about how to combine both. If you hit the nail on the head, you can transcend the individual level of the wine and the dish and reach something that’s more than the sum of the parts. On my blog I have a category that’s called “one and one is three”, where I talk about food and wine pairings that make me especially happy. Because the combination of the flavors create something special, or because one really pushes the other to a higher level, or just simply because they create that kind of feeling where I think : life is good.

American wine writer Alder Yarrow doesn’t think much of food and wine pairing. On his website Vinography he published a blog post calling food and wine pairing “junk science”. Or “the source of panic attacks and the fodder for hundreds of books and scores of useless smartphone apps”. I won’t disagree with the fact that there are many books that are not particularly useful. Many just give very specific combinations of a particular dish with a particular wine. What if you tweak your recipe with a few additional ingredients, or change the sauce? Or more likely, what if that particular wine is not available in your local shop? Not so helpful indeed. But as Mr Yarrow explicitly states that one plus one does not equal three, I felt compelled to write down my own opinion on food and wine pairing.

According to Mr Yarrow the rules of food and wine pairing are “bullshit” and you’re better off forgetting about food and wine pairing altogether as “it only leads to disappointment”. I hear much frustration there. In more than 25 years of eating in top restaurants he can count the experiences  where the sum was greater than the parts on one hand. The good thing I read in that is that at least he had such experiences after all. But apparently very few.

The issue at hand here might be expectation management. If you expect a sommelier to always come with a wine that “will make the choir sing”, then you need to think twice of how restaurants work. Especially the ones who want to be innovative, who experiment with dishes and flavor combinations, and on the top of that change their menu very regularly in order to constantly offer something new to the demanding customer. For a sommelier to find a wine that will fit with a new dish on the menu, there are many things to consider : what is the defining flavor? There might be more than one. And they can interact in a way that does not allow for an extra component, the wine, to interfere. What is the texture of the dish? Does the wine have to support this or contrast with it? Do you want to go for complementarity or make a bold move and aim for contrast? Not to forget a very practical question : what does the sommelier have on the wine list? He/she has to work with what is available and what is ready to drink. If you have a thousand of references to work with, that might ease the job, but such restaurants are exceptions. On top of that, the time and possibilities the sommelier will be given to experiment with the food and wine pairing will be limited. So there are a lot of “ifs” here. That is why I don’t necessarily expect the choir to sing in terms of food and wine pairing when I go to a top restaurant. I know this may sound strange to some, but I don’t. If one plus one equals two, then I will be happy. If the dish is a winner, and so is the wine, without either negatively influencing the other, then also that is a successful food and wine pairing!

Alder Yarrow also talks about the rules of food and wine pairing. As if there was a bible of what to drink with what. Food and wine pairing is not a science. If I were to regard it as such, I would probably also come to the conclusion that food and wine pairing rules are bullshit. But it’s not. Again, if you take top gastronomy as a starting point, there simply are no rules. That is the definition of innovation and experimentation : you do something new. So the wine pairing will inevitably be a trial, and yes, sometimes also be an error.

Bad experiences in such settings is not a reason to conclude that food and wine pairing is bound to be disappointing. Mr Yarrow suggests that wine should be something “universally simple and essential”. So why not look at established combinations that have been tried millions of times and that work. A sauvignon blanc will work wonders with a simple goat cheese. Just as a Muscadet or a Chablis will be a great marriage with fresh oysters. Or a lamb shank from the oven with a spicy, herby Languedoc. These are classic, straightforward dishes that do not need top wines to still be a great match with their liquid partner. There is a much bigger potential for the food and wine to lift each other up if you start with simple things than vice versa. That’s where I see the biggest added value ànd chances of success in food and wine pairings.

Mr Yarrow seems to realise that : “Our expectations need to be re-set. The bar needs to be lowered. We should absolutely be choosing wine to go with our meals, but our goals should center on enjoyment of both and the idea of “mistakes” should be banished.” I can’t think of a better way of saying it actually. So why conclude then that we should forget about food and wine pairings? There will be times that the food and wine pairing does not give the effect we wanted or hoped for, but we can also have great experiences and discover unexpected pairings. You can only do that if you’re open for it, if you see it as fun to experiment, ànd if your state of mind is rather to welcome anything good that comes out of it rather than to be disappointed if the result is anything less than stunning.

Let me give one example of a great discovery I did myself recently. One of our favorite dishes to prepare when we want comfort food is keema matar, an Indian/Pakistani curry with ground meat and green peas, topped with coriander leaves. As you can imagine, it is a very rich and relatively spicy dish. In Mr Yarrow’s opinion you should drink what you like with your food. I quite like red Burgundy, but I wouldn’t dream of drinking that with keema matar. It’d be an absolute waste of the wine. In the past I had already paired this dish with a very rich and opulent Negroamaro, an Italian wine with very ripe black fruit. The reason why that worked very well was because there was a certain sweetness from the ripe fruit that worked with the spiciness of the curry. Recently, however, I decided to take it up a notch with an Amarone, the Campo Inferi 2013 of Brunelli.

This is, for my standards, the embodiment of a “big” wine. Very rich, bold and smooth at the same time, and with a whopping 16,5% alcohol. This is a wine that is defined by ripe black cherries, milk chocolate, butter scotch and cinnamon. Big and ripe tannins, and a supporting acidity that keeps the alcohol in check. Again there is a sense of sweetness here that works very well to counterbalance the spiciness, and the smoothness and ripeness of the wine complement the structure of the curry. A good food and wine pairing, without any doubt. But what really made me tick in this combination was the combination of the ripe cherries, chocolate and cinnamon with the coriander leaves. A match made in heaven! Yes, this was definitely where I felt that one plus one equals three, where everything blended in so well together that the choir sang a little hallelujah.

The effect of the coriander with the Amarone is an example of how food and wine pairing is not a science, but something that you can discover and that will give great satisfaction once you do. Maybe not everyone will appreciate this combination the same way as I did, but others might. And by the looks of the numbers of people who post their food and wine pairings on social media, there seem to be many people who enjoy looking for that combination that adds an extra dimension. These are people who do not think in terms of potential disappointment, but in terms of discovery.