Pairing wine and food is a favorite activity for me. Finding a complementary match creates a culinary experience that is invariably greater than the sum of its parts.
A food dish on its own may be an exhilarating experience, tantalizing our taste buds with a unique combination of flavors – and aromas. It may start with a simple summer salad of vegetables purchased on the spur of the moment from the local farmers market – spicy baby Asian greens, baby yellow and red beets, dressed with freshly made orange citrus vinaigrette and topped with morsels of organic goat cheese.
As delicious and refreshing as it is on its own, the salad is beautifully enhanced with a glass of Grüner Veltliner, the crisp white Austrian wine with full acidity and a touch of pepper and minerality.
When consumed at the same meal, the crispness of the lettuce and dressing become more pronounced with a sip of the Grüner. The wine’s individual flavors explode in one’s mouth. The peppery taste of the salad is much more discernable when complemented by the peppery taste of the wine. It is as if a new dish has been created, one that is at once bold and sensual, simple and exotic.
With practice, this form of pairing is not difficult to achieve. And, if one is preparing a meal for someone with similar tastes and dietary preferences (or restrictions), a mutual sensory pleasure is inevitable.
But, clearly, we don’t all have compatible dietary preferences or needs. Twenty years ago, carnivores dominated the culinary planet. Hefty steaks and juicy burgers were de rigueur. Today, there is a growing proliferation of omnivores, herbivores and locavores.
Each may have a specific diet to match with wine: high protein, low calorie and low fat are just a few, not to mention those ubiquitous fad diets. At the other end of the spectrum are the allergy diets: gluten-, lactose- and nut-free. And don’t forget the “earth-friendly” diets growing in popularity: organic, vegetarian and vegan.
Challenges arise when attempting to pair wines with the proliferation of diets that abound. Compounding this is the difficulty we now encounter when planning a dinner gathering. Vegans and Atkins-diet proponents tend not to dine together well at a communal table.
As difficult as it may be to satisfy these conflicting culinary preferences/needs, it is less difficult to pair these meals with wine. A number of wines can coexist with varied menus. These are wines that tend to be well-balanced. Their fruit and acidity live in harmony and are compatible with – and an enhancement to – a broad range of ingredients. A Burgundian-style Pinot Noir tends to be medium-bodied and balanced, with a mild fruit and spice profile. These characteristics make it as ideal for mild meat courses as for robust vegetable dishes.
The rule of thumb I generally follow is to match the wine with the dominant flavor of the dish. A balanced Pinot Noir will be the perfect foil to a peppercorn-encrusted grilled salmon with roasted Brussels sprouts – or a pungent classic ratatouille.
An Italian Barolo will pair as well with a roasted organic mushroom fricassee as with a char-grilled porterhouse steak served with caramelized onions.
The carnivore and the vegan can graze in harmony at the dinner table with these congenial pairings.
Other wines that I find will ameliorate potential food and wine conflicts include:
- Beaujolais, the unheralded ambassador of culinary détente.
- Wines derived from the Sangiovese grape, which tend to be a bit more acidic than other red wines, creating balance between tomato-based dishes as well as wild game roasts.
- Sauvignon Blanc, which can just as easily tame fiery Asian vegetarian dishes as it can punch up the subtlety of seared scallops.
Wine is the great mediator of all food diets. Take advantage of this unique characteristic for your next gastronomically diverse meal.
Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 20 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.