User ID:

Remember me
Lost password?

Wine And Food Wednesday
GREAT MATCHES: Red Wine and Fish – Part Deux

By Stephen Eliot

Much ado is made these days about “food and wine” pairing, and, on the topic, there are so many truth-telling voices in print and online ready to call in secret and science as proof of their worth as to make one’s head start to spin. There are those that embrace hard and fast, tradition-bound rules and others that encourage a bit of experimentation experimentation and daring. Others take the anarchist’s approach and argue that we should drink any wine with any dish because we are all unique with “tastes” determined by everything from genetics to learned behavior, and that voices of experience rather than offering guidance and advice are merely those of self-professed, status-seeking experts and that any principles of food-and-wine matching are nothing but bunk.

The latter argument goes that a given food and wine match is neither wrong nor right and that if you like it, it cannot be wrong. We would not contend the point. BUT, while we would not dismiss or demean anyone who relishes a combination that we might find unpleasant, we would also argue that there are pairing principles that ring true to most of the people most of the time and that a few simple guidelines make sense. If left wholly alone, how long might it take for someone to eat the same steak dinner with a different, randomly chosen wine before finding something that tastes good? Given the number of wine types available these days, it could take months or years before hitting the mark. Simply knowing that Cabernet tannins are tamed by service with meat fats and proteins, that a bit of sweetness can take the edge off of foods that are spicy or a little too tart, and that white wine acidity will cut through oily fish and cream sauces to refresh the palate is neither the realm of arcane science nor cynically placed barriers to culinary freedom. A rudimentary road map that comes warning signs that a young vintage port may not be the best foil to oysters and that Syrah rather than Pinot Grigio might be a better partner to braised lamb shanks will prevent the novice wine drinker from driving the car off the cliff. What basic pairing principles represent is a certain winnowing, a narrowing down of the options for likely success; a beginning point that comes with some sense of safety. They should not be held as commandments and, even after decades of practice, we still come up with matches that are unexpected successes engage in plenty of experimentation of our own, but, when given their due, such “rules” can easily prevent wholesale disaster even if not necessarily predicting a truly great match.

The idea of the “great” match is what actually triggered today’s ramblings and revisitations to the notion of how food and wine work together. The really remarkable, stop-in-mid-sentence food and wine matches are all but impossible to predict. I cannot say that I have had a bad food and wine match in quite a long time, but every now and then, all of the tiny variables of ingredient, seasoning, technique, varietal, vintage, mood and moment come together at the table in a positively transcendent moment. I have heard from more than one accomplished chef that you might know that a certain recipe and wine will marry well, but just how well is only revealed in the doing. I was reminded of just that this morning when during a break from teaching, my executive chef at the California Culinary Academy came to me said, “remember how you have always said that the greatest matches were something you could not predict, that you really had to actually do it to know?” He then gazed dreamily into the distance and waxed poetic about an especially marvelous weekend match between a bacon-wrapped pork loin and a Grenache-based Rhône blend whose soupcon of Syrah spice to the match to apparently very special heights. There is far more to great matches and meals than a sum of the parts, and I hope and suspect that they will never be explained by science. There is art and discovery and reasons aplenty for experimentation and wandering outside the lines... even while starting out with a few basic ideas.


Quality of Article
by Bill Gordon
Posted on:10/6/2010 3:10:03 AM

Very good article. So many times I have had to endure listenig to comments and convesations that revolved around "pretentios" and "subjective" opinions of pairing food and wine, most frquently using the conversation to pontificate on one's preference for the wine selection! Your second paragraph, beginning with the Cabernet example 'cuts to the chase'! There are elements and flavors in both the wine and the food that can complimnet and enhance the flavor of each in combination, or create "culinary dissonance", or unintended "incongruities in taste" that were surely not intended to be a part of a diminished outcome of either product, albeit by the laborious effort of the winemaker, or the time consuming and creative  experimentation of the creator of the recipes for the food dishes prepared for the meal. So there is nothing to lose and a substantial amount to gain in acquiring at least a rudimentary undestanding of what substances are present in both the wine and the food, so that the most enjoyable experience possible can be experienced in putting he two together.       

Perfect Pairings
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/6/2010 8:04:12 AM

Hello, Bill. Thanks for commenting. We came into winewriting several decades ago based on our interest and food and the growing body of knowledge we were accumulating about how wine made eating a better, more complete experience.

At last night's Connoisseurs' Guide tasting of older Merlots (1994-1997), we used a recipe from Evan Goldstein's Perfect Pairings, published by the University of California Press. It was a recipe developed by Goldstein for use with older Merlot, and having looked through Mrs. Olken's several hundred cookbooks, we settled on this one because it seemed right. The only difference was the addition of a lamb chop to a vegetarian dish of eggplant and other earthy flavored veggies served on top of creamy polenta.

The chop added another layer of flavor to the dish, but the dish itself was quite satisfying and is going to become a staple in our cuilinary arsenal.

I mention this for two reasons. The first is the joy of learning from others who have trod the same path, and the second is to remind our readers that we like Goldstein's first book, Perfect Pairings and use it all the time. His newer book, Daring Pairings, is of less interest. But, we do fully recommend the first effort and we suggest it for inclusion on your bookshelf. It adds tools to the kit when it comes to wine and food combinations.


sword fish memories
by ThomasPellechia
Posted on:10/6/2010 11:10:37 AM

Ah yes, wine and food rules.

When I was in my early twenties and doing some learning about dining out and drinking wine, I remember a bunch of us going to a local joint that had as a sepcial swordfish steak. Having never eaten swordfish to that point in my life I ordered it. I also ordered a Soave to go with the food, but the proprietor of the place talked me out of that wine. He suggested a lean, red: Valpolicella.

Of course, I was going with white wine with fish and could not believe that he recommended the red wine, but I tried it anyway. The message was that the Valpolicella, though red, had what it took to cut through the "meaty" power of the fish.

Red Wine With Fish
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/6/2010 10:47:31 PM

Makes perfect sense to me today, but I agree with you. It took me years to get to the point where I actually prefer zesty reds with the meaty fishes.

And I can go one better than that. Some years ago I was summoned to the Napa Valley to meet and have lunch with a winery owner. That happens some time in this business. You visit a winery, get to know the people, then write something unflattering about a wine (tated blind of course) and you get a phone call.

Well, this time I had no worries because it was a winery that had been receiving pretty good reviews and I had not previously met the owner. We had a lovely lunch on the patio outside his office overlooking his vineyard. When the main course came, a very nice piece of salmon fillet, he pulled out a bottle of Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and I felt a slight chill go up my spine. OK, red wine is the meaty fishes is just fine, but Reserve Cab seemed like it was pushing the envelope a little too far.

Wrong. The wine had smoothed out and its richness, absent major tannins, went perfectly with this butter-sauteed, jerk-seasoned salmon. I still have a hard time believing how good the combination was.

And why had he summoned me to his winery? He told me he had the answer to long life and financial success for Connoisseurs' Guide and he wanted to share it me. "Maps", he said, "you need more maps in your publication

by ThomasPellechia
Posted on:10/7/2010 6:32:26 AM

Was he lost and after meeting you now was found?

Another story: when I operated my winery, one day in the tasting room a woman came in just to taste Rielsing. I asked politely if she would like try the others anyway and she said, "No thank you. I drink only Riesling."

Me: "Do you eat red meat?"

She: "Yes."

Me: "What do you drink with steak?"

She: "I just told you-Riesling."

Me: "May I pour you another taste of my fabulous and food-friendly Riesling?"

Leave a comment below, but please limit your comments to 1,200 characters or less. We find it helpful to make a copy of our comments to be sure that they fit. In that way, you can edit them if they run long.

(Please note: your e-mail address will not be visible after posting)



Note: Refresh your browser to see your latest comments.

Having technical problems with the comment system? Click here.