Free at Last! Free at Last!

You should get a divorce from the marriage of food and wine
Dec 7, 2010

Now that the Thanksgiving feast is finally digested, it’s a good moment to bring up the miserable matter of marrying food and wine. “Marrying,” the preferred term, is itself full of Freudian undercurrents, not the least of which is the subtext of the formulaic “till death do us part.”

Few aspects of what might be called the “wine life” are more burdensome and less fulfilling than this business of pairing the just-right wine with the just-so dish. What’s more, never in the millennia-old history of wine has the idea of such gustatory calibration been more inappropriate, indeed more futile, than today. Allow me to explain.

This whole fussy issue of choosing the “right” wine for a certain dish came from the French. So if you’re looking for someone to blame, they’re it. Now, it’s not as if the French, in some dastardly fashion, somehow calculated to make the life of the table an unending tribulation wherein the treachery of choosing the “wrong” wine could upset everyone’s equilibrium, to say nothing of embarrassing the host or causing prospective business partners to question your powers of judgment.

Instead, the idea came from the extreme fractionalization of France’s vast local-food differences allied with—let’s be honest here—a certain French exactitude in ritual matters, of which the table is famously their altar.

Keep in mind that for centuries, the French drank only their local wines and ate only their local dishes (and still do, in large part). Knowing this, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how, over a lifetime spent eating, say, boeuf bourguignon and washing it down with your local Burgundy wine, you’re going to become pretty choosy about which red Burgundy goes best with grand-mère’s boeuf bourguignon, especially given the French penchant for delineating and codifying differences. (You didn’t think that the elaborate structure of appellation contrôlée came out of a slapdash culture, did you?)

Inevitably, these considerations about which local wine went best with which local dish congealed into a prescribed absolutism, never mind that folks in Provence wouldn’t have chosen a red Burgundy with their local daube de boeuf on a bet, while the Burgundians probably didn’t even know of the existence of, say, a Bandol, let alone thought to pair one with their version of beef stew.

Fast-forward to the late 20th century. We Americans especially (but by no means exclusively) looked to our culinary betters for guidance and insight in matters of the table. That clearly did not mean the British. And, regrettably, until very recently, it didn’t mean the Italians either, much less any of the great Asian food cultures. It was France, front and center.

That is how we all found ourselves entrapped—that’s the only word—in the matchmaking madness of marrying the right wine with the right dish. Let’s face it: It worked when you had, say, 25 dishes and a comparably limited number of wines, both of which evolved from an isolated regional culture with an equally isolated and narrowly defined palate.

"Good wines can take care of themselves if seated next to a food partner that’s the least bit sociable."

This explains the oft-cited suggestion that you can never go wrong with choosing the local wines for a local dish, e.g., a high-acid Barbera or Nebbiolo with one of Piedmont’s magnificently rich dishes, which welcome those wines’ palate-refreshing acidity to knife through their richness.

The haute cuisine level, for its part, was little different, with a small number of “prescribed” great wines (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Sauternes, a few select German Rieslings) orbiting around a group of equally luxurious dishes.

So what’s a 21st-century wine lover to do? What I’m about to propose may sound radical, even philistine, but I assure you that a) I’m serious and b) what I’m proposing—if you’ll forgive the expression—works.

Here it is (suitable for framing): Good wines can work wonderfully with any food that is remotely plausible for the wine.

That’s it. Obviously you don’t want to serve some massive Napa Valley Cabernet with your Dover sole. But you already knew that. The reality of food and wine today is that there are far too many good wines—I emphasize that because it’s critically important—and far too many dishes from too many cuisines to fuss about a just-right pairing.

Good wines can take care of themselves if seated next to a food partner that’s the least bit sociable. Want proof? Think of the classic pairing in Alsace of that region’s delicious dry Riesling or Pinot Gris with choucroute garnie—sauerkraut with chunks of sausages, pork and potatoes. Now, would you have had the guts to do that pairing yourself? Well, would you? Enough said. It works because the wines are so damned good.

All universal laws—“Good wines can work wonderfully with any food that is remotely plausible for the wine”—admit a corollary. In this case it’s that the more extreme the dish or the wine, the less sociable it is.

Gewürztraminer, for example, is a wonderful white, but like a fascinating but oddball dinner guest, you can’t seat it next to just any dish (onions, by the way, tame the wine wonderfully). Sauternes is another example. Famously, it goes well with foie gras, which itself is pretty extreme stuff. So, yes, there are some “marriages” that call for prearranged matchmaking. But sometimes no amount of matchmaking is worthwhile. Sardines, anyone?

And what about all those writers and sommeliers who devise elaborate pairings and rationales, you ask? I’m not unsympathetic. Everybody’s got to make a living. Besides, if they can convince you that such precision is essential, well, they’re golden, aren’t they? That way you need them. Your insecurity is their meal ticket.

In today’s 21st-century food-and-wine free-for-all do you think that all these oh-so-particular pairings are anything other than entertainment? Is this Grüner Veltliner really the “ideal” partner to that hamachi with horseradish velouté? Does it really make a difference? Or is it all just a much of a muchness? You tell me.

Pairings Opinion

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