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14. Food and wine

By Ben Greene

People get incredibly worked up about matching food and wine. Before we add to the confusion, let's qualify this whole article by saying that the most important thing is to drink what you feel like drinking. It's always better to choose something you really like above a theoretically better match.

A simpler time

In the last few decades, our access to ingredients and recipes from all over the world has dramatically increased the range of food we can cook ourselves or buy easily. At the same time the world of wine has expanded enormously and the variety of quality wine now available is far greater than it has ever been. Before all of this happened, matching wine and food was a relatively straightforward exercise. Let’s say white Burgundy with the fish, Bordeaux with the meat, and then a nice glass of vintage port with the cheese. But now there are a far greater number of points on the scale – thousands of different Cabernet/Merlot blends from all over the world, each subtly different from the next – which should it be?

When it will never be perfect

The key is not to worry about achieving the perfect match. For the home cook or the restaurant diner there are too many uncontrollable variables for this to be a realistic outcome. At home, you are probably not 100% sure exactly what the finished product will taste like. In a restaurant, your party are all ordering different dishes, and no one wine will fit them all. The truth is, the only way of achieving the perfect match is through good luck or a great deal of financially ruinous (though enjoyable) experimentation. Far better to use intelligent guesswork to select a wine which will complement the food and refresh the palate between mouthfuls – for any given dish there are a number of wines which will fit this bill, and worrying too much about which of these is the mythical perfect match is likely to be a fruitless exercise. So think broadly and go for a rough match.

Is there a ready-made match?

  • If there is a classic match for whatever it is you are eating, then the job is done. For example – Sauternes with Roquefort and red Bordeaux with lamb are classic combinations. There are many others.
  • If there is no classic match, you could consider whether there is a wine that is local to the food you are ordering. A paella surely calls for a crisp Spanish white, for example.

How to choose - a broad guide

Only some of the following factors are going to be relevant to the particular food you are eating, so focus on them.

  • Body. Consider the weight, richness, heaviness of the dish. Imagine three roasts – chicken, lamb, beef – and three wines – white Burgundy, red Bordeaux, Barolo. Clearly those lists are both in ascending order of weight and should be paired accordingly.
  • Sweetness. A sweet dish requires a wine that is just as sweet, or slightly sweeter, otherwise it will be drowned out.
  • Acidity. Foods high in acidity require wines as high or higher in acidity, otherwise they will taste flabby.
  • Texture. Chewy, meaty dishes require sturdy, tannic wines and light or crisp food requires something correspondingly crisp and fresh.
  • Always imagine that the wine is another ingredient in the dish. You wouldn’t cook a light dish of scallops and then cover them in chocolate, so why would you drink a heavy, tannic shiraz? You might, however, add lemon juice, so why not a crisp, citrusy white? If you were going to add wine to whatever it is you are cooking, what sort of wine would it be? Drink that, and you won’t go too far wrong.

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