Written by John Kerr
Food and Wine Pairing Disasters and the Simple Steps to Avoid Them.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t drink sweet wine.” The waiter had just placed a glass of off-dry Chenin Blanc in front of me along with the entrée. Earlier, the sommelier had offered to pair a glass of wine with each course and I had accepted the challenge. I wanted to see what wine someone other than me would pair with tonight’s dishes. But with this pairing, it was time for me to hit the brakes.
The entrée? A sort of Caribbean pasta dish with hot chilies and mangoes. After tussling a bit with the sommelier, I agreed to buy a second glass of wine—one of my choosing. I took a sip of my old friend, a dry wine that’s normally versatile in pairing. But when I accompanied it with a bite of the dish, it turned from fruity and balanced to harsh and alcoholic. I then did the same with the Chenin Blanc. The sweetness disappeared, and instead was replaced with a beautiful fruit and crispness that was in perfect harmony with this spicy dish. Lesson learned.
So this month, my mission is to save you from common wine pairing disasters that we see every day. I’ll steer you around the wreckage and offer you a clear path to pairing bliss. But don’t take my word for it. Like the sommelier did for me, put yourself to the test and pour two different wines with your next entrée. I think you’ll be surprised.
But before we go on, I want to remind you of the Cardinal Rule of wine: “Drink and eat what you enjoy.” Hey, they’re your taste buds and no expert knows you better than you. I once had a friend who always looked forward to grilled halibut accompanied by a glass of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Suit yourself. But remember: At gatherings, it’s not just your taste buds on the line. So, consider the guidelines if you want to keep your friends.
Disaster 1 – The Wedding Reception
Nearly every week, I am approached by a couple who wants a little guidance pairing beverages with the cuisine at their wedding reception. On this special day, they want everything to be right. The conversation goes well—at first. With a little give and take, we find the wines that work both as an apéritif and pair with the meal, but also fit the style that Aunt Hilda likes. But then we hit the rituals of the Champagne toast and the cutting of the cake. The dialogue comes to a halt.
“We only like Brut sparkling,” they insist. Yes, both wedding cake and Brut sparkling are fine on their own. But when they are served together, they are the opposite of synergy. The wedding cake tastes both bitter and too sweet. And the sparkling wine tastes acidic and metallic.
The sparkling wine I often recommend for weddings is Weinbiet Secco, a value priced semi-sparkler from Germany. It has just enough sugar to make it taste rich and creamy but not perceptibly sweet (which is the same trick that made Kendal Jackson Chardonnay so popular). The last couple who served Weinbiet Secco at their reception took time from their honeymoon to drop by and thank me for the pairing. To date, no newlywed has thanked me for selling them Brut.
Follow an often-ignored rule: The wine should always be as sweet or sweeter than the food you serve.
Disaster 2 – Wine and Chocolate
If you want to see your favorite wine shop staffer sweat, tell him/her you’re planning a wine and chocolate party. In the world of foods, chocolate and wine are the most romantic and revered—the stuff dreams are made of. But serve them together, and you truly face a recipe for disaster. This pairing is so treacherous that a harmonious combination is hard to get right, even when you follow the guidelines. You’ll have to buy a pound of chocolate and several bottles of wine and test drive the pairings. An expensive proposition, but not the worst way to spend an evening.
The difficulty comes from the combination of sweet and bitter flavors in the chocolate. The sweetness renders a dry wine even drier and turns the fruit sour. And the chocolate’s tannins can conflict with the wine.
You can fix this problem by following an often-ignored rule: The wine should always be as sweet or sweeter than the food you serve. With dessert, a quality port gets the job done. Or consider a dessert sherry made from the grape Pedro Ximenez, so good that it’s one of my recommended wines for everyone’s bucket list. If you insist on a dry wine, make sure it has soft tannins and big, ripe fruit. Many of the modern style Zinfandels will make a decent match.
Okay, we’ve covered two common sweet food disasters. Now it’s time to take on savory fare.
Disaster 3 – Asparagus or Artichokes and Just About Any Wine
No way around this combination. Red or white, most wine pairings here are mildly off at best and face scrunching at worst. You can try to cover these vegetables with a heavy sauce, but you miss the point of serving them in the first place. And eventually their flavor pops through. To a lesser extent, this applies to bitter vegetables as well.
There is one wine that works here and that is Grüner Veltliner. This Austrian white is sweeping the world as the new Sauvignon Blanc. And its new-found popularity is in part due to its universal versatility.
Disaster 4 – Fish and Tannins
The oils in fish can get even fishier when served with a tannic, dry red wine such as a Cabernet Sauvignon. And if you’re really in a self-loathing mood, pair shellfish with a big, bold red. It’s best to serve an unoaked white wine in these situations. A great choice is Muscadet. People avoid it because they think it’s a sweet wine. But this is France’s secret weapon for shellfish, and is the go-to wine for fish lovers who have found this treasure.
If you insist on pairing your fish with red wine, select one that is oak free. Consider Gamay, Pinot Noir, a Rhone blend, or Frappato. Never heard of Frappato? It’s the other red wine from Sicily, where nearly all meals are based around fish.
Tannic wines are best served with cheese or red meat dishes. The tannins add structure and cut through the fat of these two foods.
Disaster 5 – Tomato Sauces and any Wine not Italian
There is no better place than here to apply the old adage, “what grows together goes together.” Tomatoes, introduced by Columbus, are served in many dishes throughout Europe. But tomato sauce dominates in Italian cuisine because it pairs so well with the country’s grapes and style of winemaking.
Tomato sauce is inherently acidic and only the flavors and acid in Italian wines can stand up to it. Yes, you can serve some Spanish reds or an Austrian Zweigelt with pizza. But if it’s a full blown tomato sauce you want, serve it with your favorite Italian red.
Disaster 6 – Spicy, Smoky, Salty
If you’re staring down at a dish with one or more of these attributes, tread lightly. For spicy foods, combat the spice and heat with some sweetness in the wine (which is where we started this article).
For smoky foods, pair like flavors. Consider a red northern Rhone which has notes of red meat and bacon. Waiters and wine shop staffers are often cautioned not to use these terms with customers, lest they chase them off. But if you ask, they’ll be happy to talk to you about a bacony wine. Warning: When buying a northern Rhone, bring a fat wallet. Because of limited production and its cult following, prices are high.
For salty foods, pair with high acid wines. These wines more often hail from Europe although we’re seeing more of these food friendly wines coming from the United States. And if you’ve never served Champagne with potato chips or French fries, you’re in for a treat.
If you’re serving chile-hot food, drinking alcohol just amps up the heat. It’s like pouring gasoline on a fire.
Disaster 7 – High Alcohol Wines
There is a time and place for high alcohol wines. Like when you need to disinfect something, or you’ve had a bad day. But when it comes to food pairing, the heat from the alcohol can dull your taste buds and stop you from tasting the food. And if you’re serving chile-hot food, drinking alcohol just amps up the heat. It’s like pouring gasoline on a fire. High alcohol wines sacrifice complexity. If you can, keep the wine’s alcohol at 13.5% or lower and let the food’s flavors shine through.
Let’s sum up the rules for pairing success. Pair a wine as sweet or sweeter than the meal. Unoaked and low tannin wines pair with just about anything. Serve a tannic wine with cheese and red meat dishes. Save high alcohol wines for a bad day. And when in doubt, serve what “grows together.” Your friends will be glad you did.
John Kerr is the co-owner of Metro Wines located on Charlotte Street in downtown Asheville.