What Should I Drink?

Paul Blow

Wine consumption is growing rapidly in this country. But as wine becomes more prevalent, making good wine-and-food matches is harder than ever.

Partly it’s because of a surplus of information. There are charts, books, television shows, magazine cutouts, all meant to tell you what to drink with your grilled salmon and vegetables. Red wine with cheese is no good—it’s been tested and thrown out by various experts. I even got paid by one organization to come up with wine-pairing ideas for Super Bowl snacks like hot wings and seven-layer dip.

At the same time, lots of wineries have shifted away from making wine that pairs well with food toward producing dramatic, look-at-me wines, the kind that get good scores from critics. And following the critics’ lead, most people enter a wine store and buy blind. They look for the shelf-talkers on store shelves that trumpet how many points the wine received.

Witness the plummeting sales of wines from France, the bastion of restrained “food wines,” while Australia’s cumbersome, saccharine Shiraz has made unprecedented gains. The bold, rich reds of Spain are hot. In California, it’s not uncommon to find Syrah, Zinfandel, Cabernet, Pinot, and even Chardonnay above 15 percent alcohol, wines that will chase even the most aggressive dishes right off the table.

So without turning it into an unnecessarily detailed exercise, how do you pair food with wine? The short answer is to pay attention to acid. Acid pairs with acidic foods, so you want a zippy white like Pinot Grigio with a vinaigrette and a high-acid red like Sangiovese with tomato sauce. Furthermore, we like high-acid wine with food because it cleans and refreshes the palate, which is why, say, a nice, sharp rosé goes great with something rich like paté. The fascination with Pinot Noir, a red wine with higher acidity, is partly due to the discovery that it goes well with dinner.

If you want to go into a little more detail with red wine, consider tannin. Tannins are compounds extracted from the grape skins (they also provide the texture and bitterness you taste in tea) that give wine structure and texture. Some grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon, have lots of tannins while some, like Pinot Noir, have relatively few. What’s important in a good wine, though, is that the tannins are ripe, which can mean the difference between a wine with a sweet, silky finish and one that is rougher. But for any rich, fatty meats, you want a wine with tannins—a red wine. Tannic wine cleanses the mouth of unctuous fat and balances each bite in the mouth. With a fatty meat like steak, you want a Cabernet or a similarly tannic red wine. With lighter meats like pork and especially fish, the less tannin the better, so choose lighter reds like Pinot Noir. And don’t forget white wines for those lighter meats; they pair surprisingly well with most foods. Champagne, by the way, always goes with everything.

Of course, sometimes the people you think care the most about this sort of thing often actually care the least. Last week at a conference in Carmel, California, called the Masters of Food and Wine, fancy wine and food were on clearly divergent paths. The conference features cooking demonstrations by top chefs and tastings of prestigious wines; at night the two come together for some long, grand dinners, which consumers can attend for hundreds of dollars a ticket. The strange phenomenon is that the food rarely goes with the wine. I was told by one of the sommeliers who had previously worked with a chef at this event, “They sent [the chef] the bottle of wine his course was going to be paired with months in advance,” she said. “But it didn’t matter. The wine just sat around for months and he never even tasted it. He just said, ‘This is what I’m going to cook, and that’s that.’”

At the Masters dinner, Grant Achatz, the celebrated chef of Chicago’s Alinea, made a bizarre but flavorful dish involving a frothy sponge of anise, a hollow sphere of horseradish containing a shellfish cream in a chamomile broth, and a dab of intense licorice. Delicious, but it had absolutely nothing to do with the Miura Chardonnay it was paired with. Licorice with Chardonnay?

And if you happen to like a pairing that doesn’t follow the rules, great. Remember that none other than Eric Ripert, the chef at Le Bernardin, drinks big red wines with fish. If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for us.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.