Stop the average person on the street. Ask, "What do you know about pairing wine with food?" Most likely, you'll get either a blank stare or a clueless "huh?". No sirprise: wine just isn't part of the American cultural tradition. If you're lucky, you'll get "white wine with fish, red wine with meat," which actually works pretty well as far as it goes. But if you care about making the best food-and-wine matches possible -- just as you care about making the food you cook as good as it can -- there's a bit more you need to know.
Lucky for us, the basics of food and wine pairing are very simple, very straightforward and very intuitive. In fact, you use the concepts already, probably without even realizing it, in many other parts of your everyday life.
The basics boil down to just five simple principles. Using them, you can start with virtually any food, or any wine, and not only make any number of great matches but avoid bad ones as well.
Simply put, wine and food in certain parts of the world have evolved as partners. In places where wines have a long history, they tend to taste good with the local foods. And so we have the rieslings of Germany with their sweet-spicy sausages, Chianti with Tuscan pasta and, closer to home, local cabernet sauvignon and merlot with Sonoma lamb, Long Island duck and Texas wild game.
The geographic or regional principle works nicely up to a point. For today's creative cooks, however, it just doesn't go far enough. For one, there are exciting, delicious cuisines from many parts of the world where wine is simply not a part of the heritage -- Southeast Asia, Latin America and sections of the United States, for example. Moreover, today's inventive "fusion" cuisine, which combines ingredients and techniques from around the globe, blurs geographical boundaries.
Think of the people you enjoy being with. Your significant other, perhaps; your best friend. It's likely that you have a lot in common: similar backgrounds, interests, aspects of your personalities that act to help forge a bond between you.
With food and wine, the same thing can happen. When you can match a characteristic in the glass and on the plate, the wine and food tend to flow together, to mirror each other, to resonate, emphasizing that characteristic. This is similar to unison in music: when all the voices or instruments are sounding the same note, the effect is powerful and dramatic.
If you start with a wine that has strong cherry character for instance, such as a merlot or pinot noir, and make a cherry glaze or dried-cherry stuffing for a meat or poultry dish, the cherry flavors in the glass will echo those on the plate. Or start with a fresh pineapple salsa for grilled fish and choose a fresh, pineapply chardonnay to magnify the tropical flavors of both.
Saute a chicken breast in butter. Finish the dish with some heavy cream and add salt. Choose a creamy, buttery chardonnay. Try the two together. Do you like the way the flavors and textures match?
Sometimes, however, having something in common isn't quite enough. You might find it more interesting to choose a partner or friend who has different interests, so you can learn from each other, or whose personality complements rather than matches your own. This is comparable to harmony in music, when different notes, chosen deliberately, sound pleasing together.
In the kitchen, we create such balances as sweet and sour flavors, hot and cold temperatures, smooth and crunchy textures. This lets us add another dimension to something simple. Likewise, when you pair a food with a wine because of intentional differences, the whole, ideally, can seem greater than the sum of its parts. This is the contrast principle, and it brings added interest and complexity to food-and-wine matches.
Although the similarity and contrast principles seem contradictory, both are equally true and equally valid. And both can actually coexist in the same food-and-wine pairing.
[With the same chicken dish we tested for "similarity", pour a sauvignon blanc that's tart and citrusy, without any herbal character. Notice the contrast as the wine's acidity cuts through the rich sauce, cleansing your palate for the next bite. Go back and forth with these two wines, and choose your preference. You may like both wines for different reasons.]
The most important thing to remember, though, when pairing food and wine, is to keep one from overpowering the other. Both partners should have about the same weight in the mouth, the same strength of flavor. This is the equal intensity principle, and it holds true whether the food and wine are both delicate, both full-flavored or both middle-of-the-road.
You can also fine-tune the equal intensity principle if you want either the food or the wine to stand out in any given pairing. Start, for example, with a dish that you really want to show off. Instead of choosing an exactly equal partner in the glass, pour something a bit lighter. Likewise, if you want the wine to star, cook your dish more simply.
We all have our own tastes, in everything from clothing to cars to entertainment to food and drink, and our preferences can be vastly different from those of the next person. In matters gustatory, our tastes come about through a combination of heredity -- a unique layout of aroma sensors and taste buds -- and environment -- what we ate and drank growing up and what we have come to like or dislike as adults. With food and wine, personal preferences can follow traditional lines or break wildly from the norm.
Our tastes, moreover, change over time, and they vary according to season, time of day and our own unpredictable moods. Those sweet-spicy sausages that went so well with that chilled riesling on a summer afternoon might taste much better in the dead of winter with a hearty red zinfandel. And if you're grilling up some herb-marinated lamb chops at dinner, you'd probably opt for a red. But sizzle them in butter for lunch and you might just prefer a chardonnay.
What's more, you might go through a white-zinfandel-with-everything phase or suddenly get to love complex, tannic reds. Anything, quite literally, is possible.
And you'll find that the more you learn about wine, the more there is to know, the more there is to like. Keep as current as possible by haunting your local wine shops and by reading wine publications that explain the different flavors of different varietal wines. (You've got one in your paws right now. What a coincidence.)
Hone your skills even further with wine tastings, where you and your friends sample different wines both alone and with food. Try themes: six sauvignon blancs, for instance, or pinot noirs, or Italian reds, or sparklers from around the world. See what they have in common and how they differ. Or pour a random mix of different varietals, white and red. Serve up a few food faves family style; turn everybody loose and compare notes.
You'll not only learn a lot about wines and the way they work with food but also a great deal about your own palate. Plus, you'll be adding an extra dimension to the enjoyment of a good meal, a dimension you can keep enjoying and exploring every time you pull the cork on a new bottle of wine.