Sommelier Roundtable: Favorite Unexpected Pairings

Experts from Restaurant Award winners reveal unusual yet great wine-and-food matches, including some they discovered by accident

Sommelier Roundtable: Favorite Unexpected Pairings
Red wine with sushi? Don't knock it 'til you try it, says Maryland-based beverage director Natalie Tapken. (iStock / Getty Images Plus)
Apr 14, 2021

Wine offers endless opportunities for enjoyment, and food pairings open up a whole other world of possibilities. There’s nothing like experiencing a truly seamless match, when the weight and flavors of the wine and food enhance one another for an even more memorable bite. Duos like Sauvignon Blanc with goat cheese or a bold Cabernet Sauvignon with steak are classics for a reason, but sometimes the most magical wine moments come from the unexpected. Six sommeliers from Wine Spectator Restaurant Awards reveal their favorite nontraditional pairings, whether discovered by a stroke of inspiration, happy coincidence or completely by accident.

Wine Spectator: Do you have any favorite surprising wine pairings?

Natalie Tapken, beverage director at Bluepoint Hospitality Group in Easton, Md.

Takeout sushi with Robert Foley Charbono [from Napa Valley]. Typically his wines are big, opulent Cabernets, but he fell in love with Charbono and that’s why he became a winemaker. You don’t see a lot of 100-percent Charbonos out there in the world anymore, but it’s so high-acid that it actually went really well. I discovered it just by having some left over, and I didn’t want to open a new bottle; it was one of those completely happenchance wine pairings.

So because of it, at Bas Rouge, we did a monkfish dish with a chorizo emulsion, and poured [the Charbono] out of magnums for our pairings.

Mark Cartland, wine director at Island Vintage Wine Bar in Honolulu

I was filming a segment on Burgundy for our Instagram account, and the videographer’s friend brought in a Domaine Raphet Les Bussières Chambolle-Musigny that she generously shared with us after we were finished filming. I just happened to be eating an açaí bowl from our sister restaurant, Island Vintage Coffee, and casually took a sip of the red Burgundy. Without thinking, I followed the sip with a spoonful of my açaí bowl.

Talk about an unlikely, yet magical pairing; I was stunned at how harmoniously these two strange bedfellows matched! The tart acidity from the açaí, with earthy notes from the freshly-ground almond butter, paired stunningly with the high-toned red fruits and earthiness of the Burgundy. It was truly a magical moment of wine-and-food alchemy that reminded me that with wine and food, you just never know until you put sip to bite!

Christian Shaum, beverage director at B. Hospitality Co. in Chicago

Vin jaune and French-fried shrimp. This one came about at a Chicago institution, Redhot Ranch, famous for their fried shrimp. I got a takeaway and ate underneath the train while drinking Lulu Vigneron 2005 Vin Jaune [from France's Côtes du Jura], and it really made the wine shine. All the oxidation flavors and ripe fruit were balanced out by the fat of the shrimp, with enough acid to make the whole experience feel lighter. It was straight fire—expensive, but fire.

Kuan Lim, wine director at Lucky Palace in Bossier City, La.

I’ve had a few food-and-wine pairings that surprised me over the past 20 years in the business, but the most memorable one would be the duck on scallion pancake, our house specialty, with the 2010 Domaine Huet Vouvray Demi-Sec Clos du Bourg from France’s Loire Valley.

It was at a blind tasting with a few of my friends at Lucky Palace. We had six different wines; dinner was served family-style and the pairing was discovered accidentally. The richness of the aged Vouvray had just enough weight to go with the duck, and the acidity of the wine cut through the fat, and the sweetness of the wine paired perfectly with the hoisin sauce that we have on the scallion pancake. Who would have thought a white wine would pair perfectly with duck?

I am also working on a selection of Madeira with Asian food pairings at Lucky Palace; hopefully I can turn more people to more unconventional pairings and the confidence to trust their own palate.

Shanning Newell, head sommelier at Bourbon Steak in Nashville

Riesling and hot dogs all day long! During the summer, there is genuinely nothing better than a char-grilled frank and a chilled bottle of Kabinett [Riesling]. My particular favorite combo is a bahn mi dog with Sriracha mayo, jalapeños and pickled carrots with a Riesling Kabinett like Robert Weil Estate Riesling from the Rheingau in Germany.

Jen Reyneri, co-owner and sommelier at the Grove Pizza Cucina & Wine Bar in Hobe Sound, Fla.

Amarone and ice cream, specifically mint chocolate chip. Definitely discovered by accident, and now indulged in purposefully.

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