Choosing a Wine for Your Meal – Peculiar Pairings and Common Couplings

There are a lot of opinions on what wine to pair with what food. Most of these are built on years of trial and error, and on tastes shared by a majority of aficionados. However, there is also a lot of myth in wine pairing lore, such as one should always have a red wine with beef, or a white wine with fish. There are absolutely no absolutes in wine pairing. So much is dependent upon the type of meal, how it was prepared, and most importantly, your personal tastes. Pairing any wine with food is about the subtle changes that can occur on your palate when the flavors and aromas of the wine interact with those of the food, changing the character of each – for better or worse, depending upon the choice you’ve made. Meals with many courses often have a different wine with each course, while tastings have a variety of fruits, cheeses and hors d’oeuvres so that each participant can mix and match, finding what combinations work best for them. If you’re interested in learning more about wine, the different varieties, and what each has to offer, we strongly recommend joining a local club that has tastings, or many restaurants have seasonal tastings that you can participate in on the fly, for a small fee. Sharing your impressions with others is part of the joy of wine and food.

Having said this though, there are a few recommendations we have, as well as a few warnings about combinations that we found particularly off-putting.
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Let’s start with a few general suggestions and anecdotes:

  • Strong flavors go well with strong wines, and vice versa. This is the source of the red meat with red wine and fish with white wine axiom. Too bold a wine may drown out the sweet flavor of a nice white fish, though pair well with a strong, wild salmon. Too delicate a wine may taste like water next to a well-seasoned filet.
  • Spicy foods often work well with sweet wines, usually whites. Though an unusual mix of cultures, fusion, if you prefer, a fantastic culinary mix is a German Gewuerztraminer with a spicy Mexican or Indian dish. The heat of the dish is offset by the sweetness of the wine and preserves the palate so one may continue to savor the food. Some sweet Rieslings can work here as well, or the late harvest wines, where the grapes are picked after the first frost, which ups their sugar content.
  • Wines with earthy notes work well with pork or game meats. A Pinot Noir or a nice Chardonnay is great with roast pork with an apple glaze and potatoes. A Chardonnay is even a great mix with a hot-dog (or bratwurst) and mustard. Once at a wine tasting for a rather expensive Chardonnay I was asked by a local restaurateur, “What does it taste like?’ Expecting some complex variant of the chart handed out with suggestions like cut grass, asparagus, apricot, woody, etc…, etc…, etc…, he instead received, “It tastes like a hot dog on a hot summer’s day with a dollop of mustard!” He looked at me a bit dazed, took a sip, and proclaimed, “Exactly!” The moral here is that wine is about how it makes you feel and how the tastes help you enjoy your meal.
  • Wines with berry flavors (black berry, currant, etc.) go well with beef and game meats, as well as very strong cheeses. A Tempranillo or Malbec works great with a New York steak with a heady mushroom or green pepper sauce. Strong reds pair beautifully with blue cheese. A favorite of the DIY Bistro after a nice meal is a full-bodied dry, red wine with a rich, creamy blue cheese and fresh baguette. Red, white and blue, and had I my druthers, it would be my last repast on this Earth (hopefully not anytime soon).
  • Light whites, like a Sauvignon Blanc or a dry Riesling go well with white fish and subtle fruits or light salads. Nothing too acidic as it might overpower the wine. With tangy food we recommend moving toward a Chardonnay or one of the sweeter choices mentioned above.
  • Your mood and the day can also call out to a particular wine. We find a cold dry white wine, like a Pinot Grigio is a wonderful beginning to an evening on a hot summer’s day.
  • Sitting in front of a fire on a cold winter’s day may call for a mulled wine (a sweetened spiced red wine served hot) or even a Feuerzangenbowle (more on that in a later post, though not too much later, it snowed for the first time today this “Fall”).
  • A sparkling white is great with sweet fruits, such as strawberries, it even works with many fish dishes, even strong ones that may warrant a Rosé or Red wine, like salmon.
  • Rich desserts go great with an extremely sweet wine, like a Spaetlese, or Eiswein, made from the sweeter grapes harvested after a frost or hard freeze.

We could add unendingly to this list, but that is the point. Wine pairing is not about right and wrong, it is about a culinary journey that only you can undertake. Try new things, make unusual mixes, and you may find something wonderful and unique, or a few things that you won’t ever want to try again. On that list we have happily only a few cautionary tales. Though, as each person has a unique sense of taste, these may in fact be something nice for others.

  • Chardonnay and sautéed mushrooms. Wow. Sounded nice, right? A little butter and garlic, earthy flavors, a no brainer… Maybe it was just us, but the mix reminded us of mildew in an abandoned locker-room. We switched to a Sauvignon Blanc to save the day (and the meal).
  • Merlot. Not our cup of tea or glass of wine. Having dutifully tried many bottles from economy to eclectic, our palates perceive them as bitter. Pairings with a spectacular meal may mitigate this somewhat, but often leaves us wishing for a nice blend (where Merlot can nicely offset some notes in a wine, like a harmony) or a nice Chianti, Valpollicello, Cabernet, Rioja, or another full-bodied red. However, if you love tannins in your wine (and many do), this may be the one for you.
  • Pinot Noir. A difficult wine for us to pair. Sometimes great with the right food, sometimes like a mix of grape juice and 10w30. We tend to be skittish because it can go both ways.

In the end, wine pairing is about you. It is personal, about what you enjoy and jumping in with both feet, finding wines that fit your budget and taste buds. Ultimately the choice is yours. Yes there are charts of how to describe wines with internationally accepted terms, there are rules about what wine goes with what foods, and many that subscribe to this doctrine look down on those that dare to be different. But to hell with that. They attempt to chart the unknowable, rather than let everyone experience the journey for themselves. We encourage you set off on your own, savor and experiment, it is all about your tastes, not ours. Salut!

This is our entry for the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge! Follow this link to view The Drunken Cyclist and check out the other entries!

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