A friend e-mailed me after my last couple of posts. While she enjoyed reading them, she said she missed my not-so-long-ago format of recipes and wine pairings. She asked if I’d get back to it, at least occasionally, with more pantry staples given how we’re cooking now.
It got me thinking that these days, when substitution is key to making meals with what you have on hand, the traditional ideas of how to pair wine and food may not work that well anymore. Despite the e-mails I get from wine delivery websites promising help with any and all wine pairing questions.
This has been a bit of a controversy recently, as veteran wine blogger Alder Yarrow declared earlier this month that wine and food pairing are essentially junk science.
Yarrow’s post is worth reading, not least because he makes points I’ve stressed before in posts on pairing wine and food. Like that everyone perceives taste differently, and that what we remember as a transcendent food and wine pairing may have had as much to do with the situation and the company as the actual wine and food.
He starts with a discussion of what could be considered “old world” wine and food pairing: if the wine and food are both locally-sourced and traditional to the region they will go together well. This kind of pairing is still valuable, he says, but it falls apart in our current marketplace of worldwide food and wines.
Yarrow particularly dislikes special restaurant food and wine pairings – flights of wines to go with multicourse tasting menus. He stops short of blowing off the sommeliers who create those pairings, however, saying that somms who seek out new and different wines can give you a great wine experience that doesn’t have to pair with your meal. (Frankly, a wise move on his part, since somms would no doubt have their sabrage swords at the ready the next time they saw him…)
Here’s where it gets interesting for me. Yarrow dismisses what he calls the “new rules” of trying to match the intensity of flavor in the wine and food and how the chemical characteristics of wine and food (acidity, sweetness, bitterness) can be combined or avoided. Too many exceptions occur in real life because of people’s individual tastes, he says, and they pretty much make these rules useless.
That might be true. For me, these “new rules” work pretty well and are the basis of most of my food and wine recommendations. But the fact is that if you like a particular food and a particular wine, you may well like them together even if they’re not in line with anyone’s ideas of pairing wine and food.
And I think we’re coming to a different understanding of what we eat and drink. We’re well into what I’ll call the Salt Fat Acid Heat Era, named for Samin Nosrat’s cookbook and Netflix series. We’re learning to balance flavors and (for lack of a better term) chemical and physical properties in our food – or at least coming to appreciate that the great cuisines of the world already do this. It could be that a wine adds an element that a dish may lack, and creates balance through pairing the wine and food. But if all is in order, does well-balanced wine work with well-balanced food more often than not? I don’t want to throw more somm terms out here, so perhaps it’s as simple as good-tasting things can be surprisingly good together because they’re each made to have that balance.
As with everything concerning wine, words and tone matter. The idea that every recommended food and wine pairing is going to be the best thing you’ve ever had (particularly if they’re expensive) is ridiculous. It’s an opinion. No one has to follow it, and everyone’s choice is valid for them.
Of course, I will continue to recommend food and wine pairings — it’s what I do. I started because people asked me my opinion, and they seem to enjoy (or at least tolerate) my giving it. I hope I haven’t given the impression that any of these pairings will change your life. Think of them as suggestions, something to try if you can. Or feel free to ignore.
One last thing: when you’ve changed your usual cooking to less familiar territory to keep to what you have on hand, you may want something familiar and comforting, or off the charts fancy, or cheap and cheerful to drink with it, screw the pairing. Honestly, as long as you’re drinking wine and enjoying it, that’s enough for me – and anyone in the wine industry, for that matter.