The art of food and wine pairing

Article written for Taste & Flair Magazine 2020

Have you ever noticed how that gorgeous, fresh and aromatic New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that you had with lunch last week, just wasn’t as impressive during yesterday’s dinner? Assuming the wine itself was not faulty, I would guess it’s the food you’ve paired the wine with that was the differing factor.

Just as the dash of lemon will brighten up the freshly grilled Sea Bream, or the knob of butter to the risotto gives it that silky-smooth and decadent finish, wine should be treated no differently.

Conversely, if the lemon was added to the risotto, and the butter to the fish, the flavour profile would be different. Using this same logic, but swapping the ingredients with wine, if we were to switch the lemon with a citrussy Sauvignon Blanc and the butter with a Californian Chardonnay, the outcome of the flavours would be just as different. Unsurprisingly, we wouldn’t forget to add the lemon to our fish, yet we often overlook the importance of choosing the right wine pairing.

Wine should be treated as another ingredient to the dish (image David Zammit)

What is it about food and wine pairing that scares even the most experienced of wine aficionados? In theory, food and wine pairing is merely the selecting of a wine that will enhance the flavours of the dish to create a harmonious and enjoyable experience – sounds easy, but when you consider the vast selection of different wines, producers, grapes, styles and techniques available, choosing the right wine with your dish suddenly becomes an understandably daunting affair. Many sommeliers and wine industry professionals have written books on wine pairing techniques to help us make the right choice and provide guidelines to help us choose the right bottle for our next dinner party, but there are two fundamentals of wine pairings that wine experts agree on : Balance and Flavour-profile matching

Balance and Equilibrium to create Harmony

The art of wine pairing is a balancing act between the weight of the food and the wine without either outweighing the other. Rich and heavy food needs a full-bodied and powerful wine to stand up to the weight of the dish. This is the secret to the great classic pairings such as a full-bodied Californian Cabernet Sauvignon with lamb stew or a light and mineral Pinot Grigio with grilled fish.

I find Peter Klosse’s revolutionary approach to matching food and wine a great explanation to understanding richness and weight. He splits flavour richness into two profiles ‘Ripe’ and ‘Fresh’. ‘Ripe’ refers to Autumn and winter flavour tones, as opposed to ‘Fresh’ which refers to spring or summer flavour tones. Apples, lemons, strawberries and herbs such as chives, fennel and coriander are considered ‘Fresh’, but bananas, pears, mushrooms, caramel and vanilla are identified as ‘Ripe.

Cooking methods can change the weight and richness, or ripeness, of the food’s flavour, such that the difference in the flavour profile between a fried potato and a boiled a potato is clear, where the former is considered to have a ‘Riper’ flavour profile. In a nutshell, we can classify most flavours as ‘Fresh or ‘Ripe’ depending on the season they are better associated.  

But what does this have to do with wine-pairing? Determining the weight or ripeness of the food is a great start to understanding the weight of the wine needed to counter-balance the richness of the dish. A light-bodied Spanish Albariño would pair well with the ‘fresh’ flavours of lemon-grilled chicken, whilst the ‘ripe’ flavour profiles of ‘Chicken Cacciatore’ or ‘Hunters Chicken’, would require a slightly fuller bodied wine such as Beaujolais Villages or a Chianti Classico Riserva, where the wine is slightly aged, adding to the ‘Ripe’ aromas of oak, sour cherry and aged Balsamic.  

Identify the prominent flavours in the dish and match…or contrast

This is crucial to fine-tuning your wine-pairing. Once you’ve determined the weight of the dish and corresponding wine, you now need to match and enhance the prominent flavours.

A mature, full bodied left-bank Bordeaux or Rioja Reserva with good weight and typical ripe and earthy flavours of mushroom, leather and cigar-box should be an ideal match with the wintry flavours of ‘grilled quail’ or ‘pigeon with truffles’. However. If you swap the truffles for a summery berry- compôte, a lighter bodied Burgundy Pinot Noir would be enough to balance the weight and enhance the red berry flavour profile.  The typical fruity and prominent lychee flavour in an aromatic Gewürztraminer is perfectly matched with spicy Asian cuisines with a general fruity character.    

Of course, there are certain wines that are considered easier to pair with typical Mediterranean food, especially high acid, fruity wines such as Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling or Chianti. However, other wines such as Oaked Californian or Burgundy Chardonnays are best paired with creamy, buttery sauces as opposed to lighter, Mediterranean style, oil-composed dishes, due to their specific creamy and buttery characteristics. These rich wines with prominent ripe vanilla, coconut and brioche flavours have a certain richness that is often misunderstood and wrongly paired with lighter dishes.

I personally feel that since oaked Chardonnays are not easy to pair with our ‘Fresh’ type of cuisine, especially in summer, it has become an under-appreciated, if not rather misunderstood in Malta. This does not mean that they do not pair well with food, but that their flavour profile is so specific that they are not flexible enough to be enjoyed with a different spectrum of flavours, and more specifically lighter dishes. The rich and creamy mushroom risotto recipe to which we added the knob of butter earlier married with a soft, oaked Californian Chardonnay, which further enhances those decadent buttery flavours for a mouth-coating velvety finish, is a match made in heaven.  

Sometimes, just like lemon on oysters, or honey on Stilton cheese, contrasting the primary flavours is the best route to choose. A cool, pungent and zingy New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with grilled Calamari lends a beautiful punch to the calamari in exactly the same way as squeezing some lemon would.

The sweet Sauternes sipped with foie gras is a beautiful play on sweet and salty – a classic favourite of mine. Though beware of matching sweet wines, with sweeter desserts, since the sugar in the dessert can knock the character of a wine, giving a flabby and dull taste.  

I think identifying the most prominent flavours of a dish and selecting a wine to match or contrast the dish is one of the most enjoyable ways of experimenting with wine pairing. Wine, and more specifically wine-pairing, is extremely personal and nobody can tell you what you like and what you don’t, so if you want to open the Hungarian Tokaji (Botrytis sweet wine) you’ve been saving in your cabinet, with Barbecue steak, then nobody should stop you.  I’m not saying it’s a good match, but like cheese on fish is blasphemy to one, it can be delightful to another.  Where it really gets interesting is when you experiment with different flavours you would never have imagined could work.

So next time you’re about to choose a wine to go with your meal, think about the balance and weight, match or contrast the flavours and most importantly have fun!