Cabernet and rib eye, Port and Stilton, even Sauvignon Blanc and asparagus—there are plenty of wine and food pairings out there that qualify as can't-miss classics, or at least common knowledge. But much of the fun in working with flavors is discovering new, surprising and even head-scratching combinations that delight, against the odds.
From rewriting the rules of wine and cheese to finding underrated complements to steak and sushi, these nine wine-and-food pros from Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners shared their favorite eye-opening, underappreciated and even against-the-grain pairings with us. Try them yourself at home, and see if you agree that they work!
Wine Spectator: What's your favorite unconventional or "against the rules" food and wine pairing?
Caleb Ganzer, partner and wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels in New York
Rosé champagne and steak. Most people, I think, still assume you need a full-bodied red with steak. A rosé Champagne, especially a saignée rendition, is a perfect match for a medium-rare chop.
Going against the grain on pairing rules can often have surprising results; I love some dry wines with sweet foods. The rule is that the wine should be sweeter than the food, but I like crisp, higher-acid white and rosé wines with sweeter aged cheeses such as Stilton blue cheeses and aged Gouda, as well as with sweet fruits and fruit-based desserts.
Buy a bottle of old López de Heredia white, and then take it home with you or take it to a restaurant if they'll let you, and order a sashimi, even from the basic sushi restaurant—the salmon, the tuna, the hamachi, the shrimp, the fluke, the most basic thing—and then taste that wine with all of those different types of [fish]. It's absolutely mind-blowing how well that wine goes with the fluke, to the tuna, to the salmon. I've told this to many people who've come back to me, "Wow, that wine is incredible." The fact that it can have the ability to go well with fluke and salmon equally is crazy.
Sian Ferguson Nagan, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Alinea in Chicago
Any Sauvignon Blanc with salt and vinegar potato chips; Catarratto or other Sicilian white wine with a skewer of Castelvetrano olives—a "wine martini," if you will; and Caol Ila Scotch with carrot cake.
My favorite “unconventional” pairing ever is Caravaglio Malvasia delle Lipari, a salty-sweet passito wine made in the Aeolian Islands, and capers. That’s it—just eating capers like candy with this specific wine is insanely good. [It’s] even better if you can get Nino Caravaglio’s capers, which are packed in sea salt, incredibly fragrant, plump and sweet. Both [capers and wine] are available stateside.
Andrew Algren, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Cherry Circle Room in Chicago
I heard of an intriguing idea that came out of [Nashville's] Catbird Seat a while ago. It was a Tokaji rinse on a glass of whiskey. I'd kept that in the back of my head for a while, and when we opened the Cherry Circle Room back in 2015, I finally had the chance to play with it.
Our foie gras course incorporates gelées of smoked duck consommé, and I wanted a pairing that would bring sweetness in and help pull that smoky character out as well. I started rinsing a glass with Laphroaig Quarter Cask, pouring out the excess—to serve to the guest, or myself—and then pouring in Disznókő's 2008 5 Puttonyos Tokaji. The match is a little unconventional, a little classic, and absolutely delicious. I've since played with it at home with more straightforward foie preparations, and it still works incredibly well.
Christopher Cannon, owner of Best of Award of Excellence winner Jockey Hollow Bar and Kitchen in Morristown, N.J.
White wine is infinitely better with cheese.
Rebecca Kirhoffer, owner and wine director at Award of Excellence winner Rebeccas in Greenwich, Conn.
A dessert of tomato tart Tatin with a glass of pink Champagne. It is absolutely, amazingly delicious. My husband, [Rebeccas] chef Reza Khorshidi, and I dined in Paris at the famous restaurant called Mondrian 25 years ago, and I fell in love with it there. Who would think of having a tomato for dessert? When we came back to Greenwich, he made it for me since I loved it so. And the rosé Champagne is a must to go with it.
I mean, are there rules anymore? I feel like it's outdated.
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