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When Style Is Substance: Pairing Wine with Food

Hen of the Wood Restaurant
Hen of the Wood Restaurant

In my experience there is no food-and-wine match that is guaranteed to please—or displease—everyone. All of us have probably experienced perfect combinations or occasions when the wine became one with the dish, but these are individual, or at least not universal, experiences. Perhaps we should be thinking about the relationship of tastes more conceptually and then selecting one of many wines from a “family” of styles that share fundamental taste characteristics.

Unreliable Variety

Most Americans see wine as a beverage labeled with the name of a grape variety such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Sauvignon Blanc. This contrasts fundamentally with most traditional European wines that are named after the place they were grown; for example, Chablis, Rioja, or Barolo.

      While these classic appellations appear mysterious to the uninitiated because the grape is rarely identified on the label, varietal labeling can be misleading. Unnamed varieties may be blended into the wine; the legally permitted allowance for other, unnamed varieties ranges as high as 15 to 25 percent, depending on country and denomination. For example, a Cabernet Sauvignon with a California appellationonly has to be three-fourths Cabernet. That remaining one-fourth can change the wine significantly.

There is a second and more consequential reason that varietal labeling is not always a reliable way to make a restaurant wine purchase: each variety has many possible stylistic variations. For instance, Cabernet Sauvignon from Maipo, Chile, has a different flavor profile compared to Cabernet from Coonawarra, Australia; the former may be of medium weight and concentration of flavor, possibly with tarry notes, while the latter can be much darker, denser, richly fruited,and tannic when young with black currant and black olive accents. Chardonnay from Chablis, France, is typically subtle and dry and is not at all like the ripe Chardonnay with tropical fruits from Santa Barbara, California.

Have we been going down the wrong track by focusing on the grape when we make recommendations to our customers? Contrary to conventional wisdom, it may make more sense to place emphasis primarily on wine style, not simply the grape. There is no doubting the fundamental role played by the grape in a wine’s overall taste. Nevertheless, origin, climatic conditions, and winemaking techniques contribute significant stylistic attributes that can be as much a determinant of taste profile as grape variety.

Style Categories

If our aim is to select wines to pair with food, it would be far more helpful to categorize wines by style first, with grape variety an important but not exclusive element of the formula. To achieve this new paradigm, we need to characterize wines by their critical attributes, notably:

  • concentration, the “extract” determining taste intensity
  • weight, the degree of fullness in the mouth, partly due to alcohol
  • acidity, a critical component for food pairing
  • tannin, if any, an astringent taste (bitter to some people) in red wines that balances fatty foods
  • sweetness, if any, remaining from the grapes
  • wood influences, if any, ranging from barely noticeable to marked (woody, coconut, vanilla, clove, cinnamon, and so on)

Using these attributes, we can group wines into a number of categories by [ital]style[ital] rather than grape variety; in fact, the same grape could appear in more than one style category. 

Matching Style to Style

Before you can pick wines by relying on their style profiles, you need to answer two crucial questions: (1) What is the overall taste profile of the dish? (light and subtle; sharp and herbal; full flavored and fatty; heavily seasoned or spiced?); and (2) What wine options share the same overall personality, or which would serve as an attractive contrast?(light, dry white; aromatic and intense white; full-bodied, firmly defined red; refreshing rosé; or soft, ample red?)

The basic point is to match style to style. Any of the wines that are cited within the categories could comfortably partner with the same types of food preparations.

“Should I be drinking a Chardonnay with this trout?” would be the typical query from a diner, having ordered rainbow trout with butter, lemon, fresh dill, and capers. A reply informed by knowledge of style would be: “Since trout is a very delicate fish, and because you have the sharpness of lemon juice, the slight bitterness of capers, and a subtle herbal element, a lighter, dry white wine with low to moderate alcohol and no oak influence would be complementary. What about a Petit Chablis, Verdicchio, or Grüner Veltliner?”

To develop confidence in applying this strategy, remember first to profile the dish and understand its composition. Then pick the style of wine that would play a harmonious—or contrasting—role. You no doubt will find many choices that share key attributes even if they represent different regions and grapes. Let go of the varietal mindset and think style, and you will discover a liberated world of wine and food pairing!

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