A recent comment from a reader, responding to my review of a wine-and-food match, made a lightbulb appear above my head. He asked whether a wine's ability to interact with food should be considered when we rate wines. "You must agree," wrote Vince Liotta, writing from Elmurst, Ill., "that some wines have more ability to do this than others."
Indeed I do agree. But it's not really an either-or situation where wines that drink best with more types of food should be considered superior. In my view, it is exactly the opposite. "It's true that some wines are more versatile," I wrote. "In general, the less dramatic and compelling the wines, the greater variety of foods they can match with, simply because there are fewer flavors and other characteristics in the wines to get in the way."
The give-and-take, which went for another round, led to an insight for me. We seem to get riled up about our differences, but it's only because we all bring our own preferences to wine. Some find any wine that doesn't tingle with tartness bland. Others might consider the same wine sour. Which is correct? That's the wrong question We all have different tolerances. Some may prefer tart wines with food, but that doesn't mean it's right for the rest of us. The right question is simple: "What's right for me?"
A strain of commentary on wine these days insists that any taste of oak is anathema and 14-plus is too high a percentage for alcohol. On the other hand, it seems to me that the same people railing against oak and alcohol have a high tolerance for brettanomyces, a common spoilage organism, even though its gamy, garbarge-like, wet Band-Aid character kills a wine for some of us. At least I don't hear the anti-alcohol, anti-oak crowd complaining about it.
Strong characteristics such as these, or high acidity, or underripe or overripe flavors, along with intense fruit flavors or mineral character, are what make a wine dramatic. And it has been my experience that the more distinctive the wine, the narrower the range of people who will like it, and the likelier it will be to clash with a specific dish. This is a well-known phenomenon in the food world. People can find more to both love and hate in foods with a lot of character. Commercial products are often bland because they must be inoffensive to as many people as possible. (Music and movies too.)
Most wine-and-food gurus advise that the best way to a happy pairing is to choose something like Muscadet or Chablis, Riesling, PInot Gris or unoaked Chardonnay or, among reds, Beaujolais, lighter styles of Pinot Noir, Merlot and Syrah. In other words, wines without extremes.
I even go so far as to advise friends, sotto voce, to avoid high-scoring wines if they are after an ideal wine-and-food match. Pick something in the mid- to high-80s, maybe up to 90 or 91. Wines with more going on in the glass have always received the most praise from all critics (even the low-alcohol, no-oak crowd), and they command the highest prices. But they are simply not as versatile with food. They can make great matches, even the greatest when the moon and stars align, but it has to be with the right food or you can create a clash.
Mahler symphonies, Verdi operas and Beethoven late quartets do not make the best background music, either. Composers in the Baroque and Classical eras wrote easy-listening music (called tafelmusik) to play during dinner. There's a reason. You don't want too much going on when you're trying to eat and socialize.
And, as I have pointed out many times, nearly all of us really do drink most of our wine without food. Oh, we may have it at the table with us while dinner is going on, but keep track of how many sips you actually take after a bite of food and you will be surprised how much more we consume before and between courses and after we've finished eating.
There are many reasons to drink wine. Pairing it with food is an important one, but another is simply appreciating the expression of place and the artisan who captured it in the bottle. I'm sure you can think of a few more. And that's why the top ratings go to the most complex wines. The symphonies, as it were, get the highest scores, not the tafelmusik. Plan accordingly.
David Rapoport — CA — March 11, 2011 9:59pm ET
Eugene Kim — Houston, TX — March 12, 2011 12:44am ET
Jonathan Lawrence — somewhere in the world — March 12, 2011 8:17am ET
Adam Wallstein — Spokane, WA — March 12, 2011 2:24pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — March 12, 2011 3:01pm ET
Bruce Schoenfeld — Boulder, Colorado — March 12, 2011 3:14pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — March 12, 2011 3:34pm ET
Adam Wallstein — Spokane — March 12, 2011 3:35pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — March 12, 2011 3:44pm ET
Jonathan Lawrence — somewhere in the world — March 12, 2011 8:03pm ET
Stacy Hughes — Regina, SK — March 14, 2011 5:39pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — March 14, 2011 6:01pm ET
Vince Liotta — Elmhurst Illinois — March 15, 2011 9:04pm ET
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