Wine and Food: Pairing Without Overthinking

Many people fret over choosing the right wine for a particular meal, but Lettie Teague finds that following a few simple guidelines can lead to great matches.
Source: WSJ


Nov 23rd 

While wine may be worthy of extensive, even exhaustive study, there's one aspect that I think has received far too much scrutiny in recent years: matching wine with food. I could eat and drink quite happily for decades without hearing anyone ever again utter those four consecutive words.

It's not that I don't like putting wine and food together; I do it every day of the week. It's the ceremony that I object to-the elevation of a few common-sense principles to something approximating great art. When did wine-and-food pairing start having to be studied so carefully-as if it were postmodernist art or "Beowulf"?

Once upon a time, not so long ago, food-and-wine matching rarely rated more than a mention on the back label of a bottle: pair with chicken, pasta and fish. Its glorification is a fairly recent event-in fact, I'd date it to 2006. That's when two of the most successful books on the subject were published: "What to Eat With What you Drink," by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, and "Perfect Pairings," by Evan Goldstein, a master sommelier and wine educator.

Oenofile: Wines That Work Well With Meals 

Mr. Goldstein-who has educated tens of thousands of sommeliers over the years, by his own estimation-believes that sommeliers are to blame for the overemphasis on overly exact wine-and-food pairing: "The modern-day sommelier feels very strongly about you having the right wine with the right food-they become quite draconian," he said during a phone call last week. "And it's not always done with the customer's pleasure in mind." (Presumably, those sommeliers weren't educated by him.)

The book by Ms. Page and Mr. Dornenburg is quite comprehensive-every wine in the world seems to have been examined for its suitability to food-while Mr. Goldstein looks at just 12 grapes and pairs them with appropriate recipes (created by his mother, Joyce Goldstein, the San Francisco restaurateur and chef). Mr. Goldstein's advice is sound and the recipes are appealing, but what if someone didn't want to think about pairing? Could he recommend wines that would work with most types of food? 

He could. And they all shared the same attributes, said Mr. Goldstein, who offered a list: moderate alcohol, moderate to high acidity, soft tannins and little or no oak. There were lots of wines with these qualities-made from all kinds of grapes from all over the world-but a few examples that came to his mind first were red grapes like Barbera, Gamay and Pinot Noir, which Mr. Goldstein called "the silver bullet." 

Was there a sommelier who could simplify things as well? Alpana Singh, a Chicago-based sommelier, author and almost-restaurateur (her Boarding House restaurant is opening soon), had a useful rule of thumb: Look for red wines "that you can see through," she said. These included the same three grapes that Mr. Goldstein mentioned but a few others as well, namely Cabernet Franc, from the Loire, and Frappato, a red grape native to Sicily. "I'm drinking a lot of Frappato lately," said Ms. Singh.

What about white grapes? Were there any that she considered just as versatile? "Pinot Gris," Ms. Singh replied decisively. "It's my Velcro of wines. It has acidity but also roundness and a little residual sugar-that's the magic fairy dust of wine pairing." There are only a few Pinot Gris on her list right now, although there are several Chenin Blancs-my personal all-around favorite white grape with food. 

I liked the idea of wines that were so flexible it wasn't necessary to think about how to match them with food. But was it simply too good to be true? I decided to stage a little food-and-wine-matching experiment. I assembled a few of the basic foods cited on those back labels of bottles (meat, chicken, pork, fish and pasta) and made them simultaneously to taste with the wine (no small feat on a four-burner stove). I made a pan-fried steak, a piece of sautéed salmon, a link of grilled pork sausage, a braised chicken breast and a pot of cheese tortellini and paired them with some of the food-friendly grapes suggested by the experts: Pinot Noir, Gamay, Barbera, Pinot Gris and Chenin Blanc. While the cooking wasn't completely successful (see: four-burner stove), the wine pairings all worked-almost

The Gamays (the grape of Beaujolais) were definitely the most food-flexible of all, with just the right measure of acidity, earthiness and fruit. Of the three I tried, the 2010 Julien Sunier Régnié, a cru Beaujolais, was particularly good-substantial yet lithe. The two Barberas were almost as versatile, especially the bright and juicy wine from Elio Perrone. The Pinot Noirs ran a close third. The lighter examples from Oregon and Burgundy were a touch too delicate for the steak, but the velvety-textured 2010 Arista Ferrington Vineyard Pinot Noir, from California's cool Anderson Valley, overperformed, with a bright bolt of acidity balancing all its rich, ripe fruit.

The two white grapes, Chenin Blanc and Pinot Gris, went well with almost everything-the pork, the chicken, the pasta and the salmon all fit, and the wines were rich and viscous but also minerally and clean. (I tasted both domestic and imported examples of each grape.) The only sticking point was, unsurprisingly, the steak. While the wines' voluptuous texture matched the steak's richness, their minerality proved a bit of a jarring contrast, particularly in the case of the 2011 Chidaine Vouvray Les Argiles. (A minerally white just isn't as versatile as a minerally red.) But they both came admirably close to universal usefulness, and I was quite pleased with my food-and-wine-matching experiment, not to mention the advice of my experts.

 Then I had a chat with Thomas Pastuszak, wine director at New York's Nomad restaurant, who said the best match wasn't between wine and food at all but between wine and diner. "I would rather pair the right wine with the right person rather than the dish," he said. How did how that work? Did he ask diners to fill out a questionnaire, submit to a brief interview? It was far more practical than that, said Mr. Pastuszak. He simply gave them a taste of the wines he poured by the glass and waited to see which wines they liked best. More often than not, they cared less about choosing the right match with their food than choosing a wine that came with a good story attached. 

Winemakers clearly know this to be true. After all, their back labels feature stories about the winery, the winemaker and the winery dog-and only a few words about food: "Pair with pork, chicken and fish."