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Wine & Food Pairing Without Pain
Matching wine with food is like gambling: There are winners and losers, and there's always somebody who's willing to sell you a system guaranteed to beat the odds.
The oldest, safest system, of course, is "white with fish, red with meat." But while this approach will minimize your losses, it also limits the possibility of your having one of those exhilarating moments when an unlikely combination hits the jackpot and the interlocking flavors of wine and food create a seamless and unforgettable taste experience.
New systems are more complicated. This may be because both food and wine are more complex today than ever before. A single dish might combine ingredients from Asia, France and the American Southwest, for example, in a potent blend of hot, sweet and herbal flavors. And while the options for red wine might once have ranged from Bordeaux to Burgundy and back again, wine stores now stock Cabernets and Pinot Noirs from a dozen different countries in just as many styles. Unfortunately, one result of this greater number of variables is that the chances of making an ill-fitting match--losing your gamble--are exponentially increased.
So if you consult contemporary textbooks on matching wine and food, you'll find less rigidity and more nuance, fewer universal rules and a profusion of situation-specific principles. The most complicated system I've seen breaks both food and wine into three elements--components, flavors and textures--each with multiple subdivisions, and then advises that you base your matches either on similarities or on contrasts in each element. This book even has quizzes at the end of the chapters so you can test your mastery of its principles!
Our system is less comprehensive, but it's a lot easier to use. It's based on a theme that runs through almost all the current systems and was developed at length by editor at large Harvey Steiman in "Wine and Food Made Simple" (published in the Nov. 30, 1991 issue of the magazine, which unfortunately predates our online Article Archive). The key is to analyze a single basic element in both food and wine; we call it "weight," or body.
In a good match, the wine should have roughly the same weight as the food. (If the wine is a little heavier, that's okay, too.) Delicate foods show best with lighter wines; heartier ones need heavier (or richer) wines for balance. You are probably already following this principle to a large extent. For example, when you serve oysters with Muscadet, or lamb with Cabernet Sauvignon, you're matching wine and food weights to perfection. But while these two pairings have the guarantee of long tradition behind them, they don't exhaust the possibilities. Chablis, Sancerre, Pinot Grigio and Orvieto are all light-bodied whites that make fine complements to oysters. Barbera, Zinfandel and Shiraz have weights similar to Cab, and would taste just fine with that lamb.
Unfortunately, the labels on bottles of wine aren't required to list the wine's weight along with its alcohol level. And there are no foolproof indicators. Merlot, for example, may be full-bodied when it comes from Pomerol, middle-bodied from Chile and light-bodied from northeast Italy. Chardonnay fermented in stainless steel is usually lighter in weight than Chardonnay fermented in new oak barrels. And the same red Burgundy will be lighter in a diluted vintage like 1987, heavier in a ripe one like 1990.
This is why we write tasting notes: to situate a specific wine on a more general continuum. Sommeliers and salespeople can also be helpful in deciphering the weight of a given wine. But if you don't have personal experience or expert guidance to draw on, don't worry--there are some generalities that can be helpful. We have divided basic wine types into lighter and heavier categories according to overall type, whether varietal or region of origin. We have done the same with basic foodstuffs. The goal is to increase your odds of at least breaking even when you're looking to put dinner on the table.
Of course, for those seeking flavor nirvana the fine-tuning possibilities are endless. Once you've got the basic weights of food and wine in balance, you can look for ways to extend and deepen the harmonies. Adding a bit of chopped dill to sauteed shrimp, for instance, will bring out the herbaceous notes of a fresh Sauvignon Blanc. The tannins in a massive red Hermitage will cut through the fat in a well-marbled, rare steak and emphasize its juicy beef flavors. And the honeyed sweetness of a rich Sauternes will make a refreshing contrast with the salty notes of a creamy Roquefort cheese.
In the end, you'll most likely find or develop your own system, based on your own taste preferences. Some people believe that wine's first duty is to be red, and these folks prefer red wine with any dish. Other wine drinkers are confirmed Francophiles and will look first to France for any menu. Our basic rule is: Drink what you like and eat what you like. Still, we believe this system of weights can provide basic guidance for matching food and wine.