wine and food pairing 101: do charts work?

Sally Schneider's Tuscan Pork Roast

Recently, a reader sent us link to an interactive wine-and-food-pairing website called Italian Wine Pairing 101 wondering what we thought about it. You choose a food group – say beef, or shellfish or fruit tarts – then recommended  wines appear in a list below. (It’s one of many food-and-wine pairing charts and sites on the internet.) So we asked our very astute food and wine contributor Anthony Giglio to give us his take on it. As usual, he gets to the deep and essential heart of the matter (bold-faced below).

The opening line gives anyone who knows grapes pause: ‘Italy produces the most wine in the world. But Italian wine can be intimidating for beginners due to the unfamiliar names — it’s more Nebollio (sp) & Verdicchio than Merlot and Chardonnay.’  [More succinctly, it's place names more than grape names that confuse...]

The simplicity of matching is safe and could certainly work — if one has a really open mind (keep reading).

I went directly to “Chocolate” because this is one of those questions I’m often asked (wine to pair with Chocolate — and I’m often asked to host Champagne and Chocolate seminars: A TERRIBLE idea in theory!) This site smartly recommends sweet wines and sparkling sweet, but also Amarone, a huge, often tannic red, which can only work if the chocolate has high cacao/bitterness to riff on the wine’s tannins. I like the suggestion, but it’s risky and will taste horrible with milk chocolate (hence: what kind of chocolate?)

Click on “Chicken” and it gives you all the obvious stuff, but what we don’t know is what’s ON/WITH the chicken? Ginger sauce? Garlic and thyme? Served with what? Brussels sprouts? Asparagus? Mashed potatoes. All factors that would impact greatly what might work and might not.

In the end, it’s safe and easy for a novice.

That said: I’d also say that there are no “perfect” answers, either, given all the factors that come into play on a plate (which is why I don’t like these kinds of charts, interactive or not), coupled with the subjective taste we all possess singularly. Which is why I say, let’s change the subject from wine to coffee and see who lets me tell you what to drink? You own your caramel frappuccino and I am a double espressso-black-nosugar guy. I can’t make you drink mine, so why trust my palate?

Trust your own palate and an open mind and have fun. Chardonnay with Boeuf Bourguignon? Sure, why not? Chardonnay hails from Burgundy, so let’s see what happens…? Let’s IMPROVISE!

Our friend Josh Eisen, who also knows a huge amount about wine and food pairing, echoed Anthony’s thoughts, feeling that the food categories were too general, and the wines too specific and missing many essentials. For example, when you click “salume” on the site, there’s no mention of the Piemontese wines classically drunk with cured meats: Dolcetto and Barbera. Nor are any white wines recommended for cheese – often a stunning pairing.

Our concern: these automatic wine pairings don’t tell you what the thinking behind the pairing is, where the nexus of flavors are, and so on. If you’re an absolute novice, maybe use the chart as a starting place, though we’d do it in league with a basic book that we could use to get our bearings, learning as we go and taste, like What to Drink with What You Eat: The Definitive Guide to Pairing Food with Wine, Beer, Spirits, Coffee, Tea – Even Water, even taking THAT with a grain of salt; it’s got limitations, too. We’re waiting for Anthony to do a book on the subject that no doubt will include his his very wise counsel: Trust your own palate AND an open mind and HAVE FUN.

BTW: You’ll find the recipe for the Herb-Scented Tuscan Pork Roast, above, in Sally’s award-winning cookbook A New Way to Cook, and on Splendid Table’s website.

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One Response to wine and food pairing 101: do charts work?

  1. kellie timberlake 10.09.2012 at 4:31pm #

    Pumpkin Velouté/Serrano Ham/Dates

    Baby Octopus Salad

    Duck Ragu/Corn Risotto

    Chocolate Pistachio Tart
    trying to pair the wines withi menu?

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