Here we are, still at home—eating and drinking away another day in the confines of our own kitchen. And while you’re sitting at home wondering what to make for your third lunch or second pre-meal dinner, may I suggest you harness your boredom by turning your kitchen table into a personal food-and-wine experience?
I mean, why not? What else are you doing today?
I keep hearing people talk about their well-intended goals for this time of quarantine. Meanwhile, I’m over here, like, what wine can I pair with my P.F. Chang’s lettuce cups that will blow my mind? (By the way, the answer is the Union Sacre Belle de Nuit dry gewürztraminer. Ahhh … sublime.)
So if you love the idea of food-and-wine pairings, but you’re not sure about all the “rules” and/or don’t know where to start, here is my take on how to have your own food-and-wine pairing adventure.
I should start off by saying that any “rule” regarding what you should or shouldn’t pair with certain foods can almost always be debunked. Anyone who claims you can’t have a red wine with fish has clearly never experienced a light and bright Italian schiava with an herb-roasted branzino with tomatoes, olives and potatoes. Or if someone tells you that you can’t have a white wine with a steak, pop a bottle of Blanc de Noir Champagne, and gleefully down it with a tender filet mignon. Then tell them they can’t have any.
The point is: Some of the best food-and-wine pairings come in the most unexpected ways. My favorite pairing—the one I request for my birthday every year—is a bucket of fried, greasy chicken paired with a bottle of Gaston Chiquet Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Champagne. If you have never experienced the bliss associated with bubbles and fried food, you truly have not lived.
A lot of people avoid attempting to pair their dinner with an “appropriate” wine, because the idea of food-and-wine pairings seems overwhelming and complicated. There are countless books written about how to create the perfect pairing—how to bridge ingredients to match your food with your wine’s flavor profile. That’s a lot of pressure. I admit I’ve been part of the problem: At times, when a customer has come into the shop and told me they are having XYZfor dinner, and asked what I recommend, I’ve tried to explain a wine’s effect on salt, spice, fats and acid. Once I realize I’ve gone too far, I remind myself: “Down, girl. This isn’t a chemistry class. They just want to know what’s gonna taste good with their meal.”
Rest assured: There is no such thing as a “perfect pairing.” There is no one ideal wine for one specific dish. Just as there are countless ways to tweak a recipe, there are countless grapes from every country in the world, in various incarnations, that can and should be explored with a meal.
Now, that being said, here are a few tips to help you on your journey to food-and-wine matchmaking.
When I talk to people about the flavors and aromas they detect in a specific wine, the adjectives are all over the place. This should make sense, because wine is subjective, right? You’re going to taste what your brain tells you to. So, instead of trying to pair food and wine based on flavors, it’s much easier and, frankly, much more practical to pair a wine to a dish based on weight, texture and volume. Think of it like this: Much of the protein or meat’s power comes from what it’s served with, the sauce that’s covering it and the way it is cooked. I wouldn’t pair a New York strip covered in melted blue cheese with the same wine as a filet mignon topped with asparagus, crab meat and béarnaise sauce. A wine wouldn’t pair equally with chicken parmigiana and kung pao chicken.
If you take anything away from this, it should be that the protein is relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Instead, look at how loud the dish is. Think about how heavy or rich the food is. Capellini pomodoro would be considered a light and quiet dish that calls for a light and quiet wine—like a pinot grigio from Northern Italy. A good example of a quiet but heavy dish would be butter-poached scallops with mashed potatoes. A comparable heavy but quiet wine would be an unoaked chardonnay. Heavy and loud? Let’s go back to that steak with blue cheese. That’s about as heavy and loud as it gets, and a great match is an equally heavy and loud wine like a California cabernet, an Argentinian malbec or a tannat from Uruguay.
Also, there is an old adage that’s pretty hard to beat: If it grows together, it goes together. For example, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better wine match for pasta covered in a San Marzano tomato sauce than a Sangiovese-based wine from Tuscany. If you’re feeling your inner Julia Child and cooking up a French cassoulet, it almost begs for a syrah from the Northern Rhone. And I can’t imagine firing up a pan of aromatic paella without having a layered and fragrant bottle of albarino from the Rias Baixas in Spain. Sticking to tried-and-true classic pairings is such a fun way to explore a country, its cuisine and its wines—from your own dining room table.
Of course, there are going to be tricky dishes, perhaps from regions and countries that don’t have a wine culture where you can pair the indigenous grape to the local cuisine. There will be dishes that are somehow light and loud and heavy and quiet all at the same time. I am, of course, speaking about Asian food. At some point, you’ll find yourself knee-deep in a Thai recipe—all 84 ingredients prepped, diced, plucked, marinated, shaved, julienned and minced—and you’ll ask yourself, “What wine do I open with this?” Here’s my short answer: Riesling. Try that gewürztraminer. You also won’t go wrong with a beer.
And remember: If all else fails, just drink Champagne.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with two decades in the wine industry. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.