Food and wine pairing: Serious science or pseudo-science?

Wine and food matching is the process of pairing food dishes with wine to enhance the dining experience. In many cultures, wine has had a long history of being a staple at the dinner table, and in some ways both the winemaking and culinary traditions of a region will have evolved together over the years.

Rather than following a set of rules, local cuisines were paired simply with local wines. The modern “art” of food and wine pairings is a relatively recent phenomenon, fostering an industry of books and media with guidelines for pairings of particular foods and wine. In the restaurant industry, sommeliers are often present to make food pairing recommendations for the guests.

The main concept behind pairings is that certain elements (such as texture and flavour) in both food and wine interact with each other, and thus finding the right combination of these elements will make the entire dining experience more enjoyable. However, taste and enjoyment are very personal and subjective, and what may be a “textbook perfect” pairing for one person could be less enjoyable to another.

While there are many books, magazines and websites with detailed guidelines on how to pair food and wine, most food and wine experts believe that the most basic element of food and wine pairing is understanding the balance between the “weight” of the food and the “weight” (or “body”) of the wine. For example, heavy, robust wines like cabernet sauvignon can overwhelm a light, delicate dish like a quiche, while light-bodied wines like pinot grigio would be similarly overwhelmed by a hearty stew.

Beyond “weight”, flavours and textures can either be contrasted or complemented. From there a food and wine pairing can also take into consideration the sugar, acid, alcohol and tannins of the wine and how they can be accentuated or minimized when paired with certain types of food.

But, as stated before, taste and enjoyment are very personal and subjective, and food and wine pairing should be a journey of discovery and exploration similar to wine. Always listen to your tongue, a wine guru once told me, because that’s the only wine expert you’ll ever need, and that applies to pairing food and wine as well.

I was reminded again of how personal and subjective this topic is when reading the article Food and wine pairing is pseudo-science full of metaphors and misunderstanding by Tim Hanni MW. Speaking at the 2019 Sauvignon Blanc Celebration in Marlborough, Hanni spoke passionately about the need to completely rethink the concept of food and wine pairing.

“A perfect wine pairing doesn’t exist,” Hanni went on to say. “We’re doing a lot of damage the way we’re matching wine and categorising it. We need to start a campaign to stop wine and food pairing as we’ve created a lot of bullsh*t around the idea.

“A lot of people enjoy being arrogant about wine and consider entry-level wines as being unsophisticated. We need to educate the trade to better serve the personal interests of wine lovers.

“We need to celebrate the diversity of consumers, not make them feel stupid. You can serve Sauvignon Blanc with steak – why not?”

Although I don’t completely agree with Hanni, he certainly has a point. I don’t agree that food and wine pairings should be stopped as I’ve attended some events where the pairings were superb and the two “partners” complemented one another perfectly, but I also have been to food and wine pairings that left me wondering what the point was. In both cases I found the experience to be very educational.

With regards to New Zealand sauvignon blanc, Hanni stressed the need for the different styles of the variety to be made clearer to consumers to avoid confusion. This applies to all single varietal wines.

“Otherwise it will all become noise and people will go back to beer and cocktails. Riesling has threatened to be the next big thing since the 1960s, but it never happened because there are too many different styles,” Hanni said.

“I know what my friend Tim Hanni is trying to say and to some extent I agree,” says Bartholomew Broadbent. “However, I think he missed the point of wine and food pairing. Any wine can be paired with any food perfectly enjoyably. However, a great food and wine pairing is one which improves the experience of both the food and the wine, indeed, creating a new gustatory experience which isn’t accomplished with either one on its own.

“Mature Vintage Port and Stilton cheese is a perfect example. Or, as Julia Child once told me right before we were about to conduct a Madeira tasting together: ‘Bananas, we must have bananas! The greatest food and wine pairing in the world is Madeira with bananas’.”

David Bird MW agrees with Hanni and says it’s all about personal taste. “I am doing some lectures for a sommeliers’ association and they spend hours on this subject as if there is only one possible right combination. They were shocked when I told them I drink Sancerre with roast lamb. It’s perfect!”

Robyn Wallace, a very knowledgeable food and wine friend with a highly educated palate, says: “Enjoy what your palate dictates and not what is prescribed. Yes, advise people, but don’t dictate!”

My final thought: Food and wine pairing isn’t an exact science. Like wine, it is personal and subjective, and like wine, it’s a wonderful journey of discovery and exploration. Be adventurous!

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