Everyone had just taken a sip of a perfect steak wine: an exemplary Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon — generous yet structured, with bright fruit and well-integrated oak, and some herbal undertones.
“Now, take a bite of the meat, and then a sip of the wine,” added workshop host Mark de Vere MW. After everyone had grabbed their bite of the plain grilled steak, voluntarily devoid of any spicing, and their wine, he asked another question.
“Is the wine tasting better?”
Well, no, it wasn’t. Not even close. The flavors seemed muddled, the wine’s character less clear.
A Master of Wine and long-time educator, de Vere was trying to get an international group of wine professionals present at the Robert Mondavi Winery, in Oakville, to forget everything they thought they knew, or were afraid to ask, about wine and food pairings.
What’s protein got to do with it?
The demonstration included a similar test involving white fish and white wine, with similar results: muddled flavors and definitely no fireworks.
This puts a big hole in traditional pairing theory. If grilled meat naturally pairs with red wine and fish with white, shouldn’t these combinations intrinsically improve both the parts and the sum? After seeing it doesn’t, one can’t help but wonder: in pairings, is meat — or fish, or chicken, or shrimp — just a second-tier ingredient?
“Maybe the time has come to tear up traditional food and wine advice,” wrote Jancis Robinson MW, in an article written in 2001. As far as pairings go, she wisely added “that (a) it is very difficult to get it completely wrong and that (b) it is very, very rare to get it completely right.” Loose translation: relax.
Twenty years later, however, the wine industry still seems intent on making people worried about making purported mistakes. If pairings are the number one search for consumers, says de Vere, it might just be because we’re needlessly stressing everyone out about getting things wrong.
Go with the flow
Marc Almert, winner of the 2019 Best Sommelier of the World competition, would certainly agree with this sentiment. While competing onstage in Antwerp, he was asked by a table of judges masquerading as guests to create wine pairings for a five-course menu on the spot. As he suggested a red for the meat course, one guest interjected that they only drank white. “Wonderful!” Almert exclaimed with a big smile, enthusiastically offering a side-by-side tasting of red and white with the dish.
For Almert, this quick response partly stemmed from working in both Germany, where diners will routinely order whites at a steakhouse, and Switzerland, where people often prefer red, and even have it as an apéritif. Both directions create similar results: happy guests.
This is why Almert focuses on getting a feel for the table and understanding preferences and mood. “Guests come to restaurants for a business meeting, seeing friends after a long time, celebrating a birthday, or perhaps, for a specific bottle of wine they saw on the list.” He says he prefers not to lecture guests about whether wines are an unsuitable match, “but rather go with the flow of the evening. I like to call it wine-guest-situation-food pairing rather than just wine-food pairing.”
How do pairings work, then?
Of course, throwing out all the rules might feel stressful, but it mostly means broader guidelines when it comes to sauces and spices; there’s also a kind of silver bullet involving salt and acid.
During his workshops, de Vere makes participants put some lemon juice and salt on all proteins, making them successfully work side by side with a wide range of wines. Balancing acid and salt, he argues, frees up the choice of wine by keeping the wine’s integrity and avoiding clashes. “There’s a sense of freedom when I do this demonstration. ‘You mean we can drink what we like and not feel bad about it?’”
Another direction is working to match aromas in the plate and the glass. Since publishing the book Taste Buds and Molecules, in 2009, Québec sommelier François Chartier has worked tirelessly, including with luminaries like Ferran Adria, to build pairings based on “molecular harmonies” — the common presence of aromatic compounds in both the wine and the food.
For instance, rotundone is a key compound of peppercorns that is also present in Syrah, so a peppery dish should pop when served with, say, a Northern Rhône red. In the same way, Riesling has aromatic compounds in common with rosemary, and oxidative wines like Madeira or Vin Jaune feature sotolon, also found in maple or curry.
Although this approach requires more work and research, tasting the same compounds successively in the food and the wine does seem to brighten perceptions and fire up the senses.
In a similar mindset, Almert often focuses on “texture as well as the dominant flavor, which often comes from the sauce or marinade.” So strong wines with braised or roasted food, light wines with poached or raw food. As a complement, he also keeps in mind things like seasonality or regionality.
“Guests come to restaurants for a business meeting, seeing friends after a long time, celebrating a birthday, or perhaps, for a specific bottle of wine they saw on the list.”
All the perfect pairings
De Vere also points out that there’s never been unanimity about the classic, perfect pairings. “I grew up in England, and at home, the standard pairing for Sunday lunch lamb was always a bottle of Claret. But when I got to California, people would tell me lamb was delicate and needed Pinot Noir. Others say it has big flavors and needs Zinfandel, yet others would say Rioja is perfect or insist on Syrah.” Not to mention that on a hot day in Greece, you might find it perfect with Assyrtiko.
With so many “perfect” pairings available, the reality is that it can’t really go wrong. Articles from highly knowledgeable wine professionals regularly mention unexpected pairings that shone brighter than the classics. And while a great many people thoroughly enjoy something like oysters and Chablis, that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to go. Michael Broadbent, a paragon of classic wine culture if there ever was one, liked his oysters with a Black Velvet — half Guinness, half Champagne. It’s certainly worth a try.
In other words, be surprised. Try the white with lamb chops or sausages, maybe the herbs are what will make it work. And that steak wine might just shine with sour chickpeas or a tofu and shitake stir-fry.
The joy of wine and food is in its infinite possibilities and combinations. It’s really about the journey, not the destination. As Sting, the famous Tuscan wine producer, once sang, “The search for perfection/ Is all very well/ But to look for heaven/ Is to live here in hell.”