Matches made in the glass

I have been doing a great deal of teaching this winter and there is one area where students have shown special interest: the domaine of food and wine matching.

One of the reasons for this interest is obvious:  my students need to understand the principles, and be able to apply those principles, if they are to pass their exams.  The other reason is, many of these students are front-line staff in upscale restaurants and they need to be able to advise their clients on the wines that will best match their entrée selections – happy customers make happy servers…

Most students understand the classic matches:  Sauternes with stilton cheese, Bordeaux red with prime rib, smoked salmon and Champagne, etc., but they don’t know the rationale for these matches.  Step outside the bounds of the classics and they are generally stumped.

The students I work with are not unique.  Most wine lovers have a small repertoire of food and wine matches they rely on – and the converse: food and wine mis-matches they avoid – but they often don’t have enough experience to go beyond the boundaries of their narrow range of proven matches.

As I teach this material I have found it best to assemble some simple rules to help guide me – and my students – through the amazing realm of matching possibilities.  The goal is to expand our horizons by experimenting and hopefully, in the process, conclude that food and wine, properly matched, can enhance the enjoyment of both.

First, some simple rules:

  • Match the body and/or richness of the food with the body of the wine (such as beef stew with a full-bodied, tannic Aussie Shiraz)
  • Combine food with wines that share the same flavour intensity (try spicy Mexican food with Argentinean Malbec, or spicy Asian food with a pungent Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc)
  • Acidic foods should be served with acidic wines (pasta in tomato sauce matched with a young Chianti Classico)
  • Match sweet foods with sweet wines (such as crème brulée with a chilled glass of Icewine or a Vin Doux Naturel made with Muscat)
  • Chewy meats should be matched with high-tannin wines to allow the protein to soften the tannins (beef brisket with Cabernet Sauvignon)
  • Salty foods (olives, certain cheeses, oysters, salted nuts) should be matched with sweet or acidic wines to enhance the food flavours (for instance, stilton cheese and Port, oysters and Muscadet)
  • Pair oily/fatty foods with acidic wines (e.g.  Wiener Schnitzel with Riesling, grilled salmon steak with Grüner Veltliner)

These are some simple rules and they work!

There is a theme to the rules: match weight of food with weight of wine, match intensity of food flavour with wines of similar flavour intensity. Once you have achieved this level of matching refine further to balance texture (e.g. chewy or oily), and other elements such as acidity and sweetness.

Acidity in wines triggers saliva flow and this effect creates the juiciness I describe in many wines. One of the most notable effects food can have on wine is the match one gets when a high-acid wine such as a dry Riesling is properly paired with juicy roast chicken (where acid and fat trump a possible flavour intensity mis-match) or with grilled cold-water salmon (where the acid nicely reduces the fatty character of the fish). Proper matches such as these open doors to wine lovers and even inexperienced tasters begin to appreciate wines that they might otherwise consider too acidic.

if you don’t believe me, try this simple experiment:  open a bottle of extra-dry Riesling that is chilled but not too cold.  Have your entree standing by (for example a filet of grilled trout with some lightly-boiled baby potatoes au beurre).  Sniff, swirl, slosh and swallow a sip of the wine on its own.  Note the juicy freshness of the citrus aromas and flavours.  Note also the intensely-high acidity in the glass and the juices released by your saliva glands.  Clearly this is not a patio sipper wine.  Now tuck into your filet of trout with another sip of the wine.  Now note how much softer the wine is – and how much the flavours and texture of the fish are enhanced by the combination of the crisp and assertive wine and the juices in your mouth.  Sheer bliss!

Here’s another way of looking at matching.  This table provides a picture of the possibilities:


In my scheme green boxes represent the perfect match, an orange box means you should proceed with caution and avoid at all costs where you see a red box.  Note the versatility of sparkling wine (here I refer to a quality traditional method sparkler such as Champagne, Cava, a Crémant from France, or New World delights like the Gloria Ferrer in the last Vintages Release.

I hope this little primer helps you work through the complexities of matching.  More importantly I hope it gives you some cues for your own experimentation.

Enjoy!

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2011.

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Author: John Switzer

I am wine writer, educator and tour guide. From 2005 to June 2014 I published a bi-weekly newsletter, the Winesights Vintages Newsletter (WVN). This Newsletter was closed in July 2014 when the Government of Canada put in place the onerous administrative requirements of Canada's Anti-Spam Legislation. The legacy of WVN continues on this blog spot where I post wine-related articles as well as reviews of a small selection of best-value wines from each bi-weekly LCBO Vintages release. I hold the WSET Diploma, I am a WSET Certified Educator, I teach in the WSET program at the Independent Wine Education Guild in Toronto where I am the past Director of the WSET Diploma program. Since 2010 I have been a judge at Decanter World Wine Awards on the Rhône panel and I am a member of the Society of Wine Educators.

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