There can be no doubt that food is a significant part of culture with whole societies having a cuisine relative to their culture. Also there are regional cuisines that reflect subcultures within an overall society. Think about some of the holidays you might have had in foreign lands and the common food you have found there, the staple food eaten by the general population. China, Thailand, India, Nepal, Spain, France, Italy ….. all with recognisable cuisines. In France you will then find differing cuisines in Burgundy, Alsace, Languedoc, Jura, Normandy ….. in Nepal there are food variations with are both geographic and caste based, and even in England we have different traditional foods between the North and the South, and then across counties with significant variations between Cornwall, Lancashire and Yorkshire for example. Geography, agriculture, animal husbandry and religious beliefs all play a significant part ………. you won’t find rice paddy fields in England, wheat fields in the Nepal Himalaya, nor herds of beef cattle in India!
But this post is about wine and it’s “cultural” relationship to food, so at a very simplistic level, personal experience of travel has shown me that drinking a wine with food, any food, tends to follow the same basic connection as that between the food and its “cultural location”. So, French wine with French food, Italian wine with Italian food, Spanish etc etc. Of course this seems to break down when you are in China, Thailand, Nepal, Norway, Denmark for example! More on this in a paragraph or two.
In my early days as an apprentice wino I followed the ancient advice of red wine with meats, white wine with fish, sweet wine with desserts and Port with cheese. Pretty basic, but for our little group of wine loving friends it worked as we drank white Burgundies, red classed growth Bordeaux, sweet Sauternes, and vintage Port. Nothing basic about these wines though, checking back through some of my log books from the 1980s I was buying classed growth Bordeaux for £7 that would cost closer to £100 today!
Nowadays it’s all so different, complex infographics as information is thrust upon us from two different directions to recommend specific pairings of wine with a food or food with a wine. You might need to stop and think about that one but here’s a couple of examples:
“Chef, Adam Byatt recommends pairing the Pinot Noir with his modern take on a traditional Italian recipe; Sardine Bolognese. The delicate crunchy red fruits work really well with the oily fish, bouncing off the tomato sauce. Cool climate Pinot is an ideal pairing because the structure is elegant yet still retains freshness. Other classics that pair beautifully with Pinot Noir include Earth mushroom recipes, as well as duck based dishes where the silky tannin and elegant freshness of the Pinot Noir really balances the richness of the duck meat.”Gusbourne Vineyard, Pinot Noir 2020, Food Pairing recommendation by Adam Byatt, chef/owner, Trinity Restaurant, Clapham, London
So here’s the first question, “If you liked Pinot Noir and were visiting the Gusbourne Vineyard in England, would you buy it, then on the way home think …… Ah, I need to buy some sardines or duck?” Hold that thought. The next food pairing comes from my favourite celebrity chef, Raymond Blanc, whose Brasserie Blanc in Cheltenham is one of our all-time favourites.
“For my Chicken braised with white wine and mustard I recommend the Domaine Chevassu-Fassenet, Cotes du Jura, France 2015. Bone dry and made in an oxidative style it’s 100% Savagnin, Sherry-like and textual, almost with a bitter edge and with marked aromas of windfall apples.”Raymond Blanc writing in Decanter Magazine, June edition 2021
So here’s my second question, “If you fancied having a Chicken braised with white wine and mustard in Brasserie Blanc would you have a bottle of Savagnin from the Jura to go with it”?
And now back to my original thought about pairing wine with food or food with wine, which comes first …… the chicken or the egg ….. sorry, I mean the food or the wine? Surely the general issue is to eat and drink what you like and not what somebody else thinks you might like, and to conduct your experiments at home where you are not paying large amounts of money for a food and a wine. In the two examples above I personally love Pinot Noirs but not sardines or duck, and equally love chicken in white wine but NOT Savagnin based wines in an oxidative style to accompany it. So, what to do?
A Personal Approach
- Choose a wine that YOU like to accompany your food choice. In my own case that would mostly be a wine based on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Bacchus. But there are exceptions!
- Choose a wine based on your MOOD and the OCCASION which may be happy, sad, celebratory etc. In other words choose what you FEEL like!
- Consider choosing a wine based on WHERE you are. For example I have chosen Picpoul de Pinet with seafood in the Languedoc, Chateauneuf du Pape with a beef stew in the Rhône, a Muscadet with seafood in the Loire, a Pommard with Coq au Vin in Burgundy, a Manzanilla with tapas in Madrid, Furmint with Asian Fusion in Budapest, etc etc. So “think local drink local” on your travels. Use the local food culture to guide you in your choice of wine too ….. it works!
A Novel Approach!
A couple of years ago I read a book by Tim Hanni, an American Master of Wine, it was titled “Why You Like the Wines You Like” and, to give you a flavour, here’s a short extract:
“For many years I have been making it a point to order the wrong wine with a dish, or vice-versa, whenever I have the opportunity and encourage others to do the same. When I have guests at my house for a meal we make this a game. If I am dining out I will ask, “What wine would be terrible with this dish?” and then order a glass. I find virtually identical success trying the wrong combinations versus trying to find the “right” matches. The rule is that the wine needs to be something that you would like on its own flavor merit. Of course wine you hate will in all likeliness be horrible regardless of the food.”Why You Like The Wines You Like, Tim Hanni MW.
Does that make sense to you? It certainly did to me when I first read it, and reaffirmed our own family strategy of only choosing what we like …. but once again there are exceptions……. be patient!
Tim Hanni has gone further as this quote from his presentation to the 2019 Sauvignon Blanc Celebration in Marlborough, New Zealand. Here’s an extract:
“A perfect wine pairing doesn’t exist. 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?”Tim Hanni, MW
So there you have it, wine and food pairing is bullshit, except it isn’t, provided you know how! To be fair to Tim Hanni, one of the sections of his book describes how two “components” of food and/or wine can totally alter your sensory perception of the harmony between them, salt and acid. You can try this for yourselves at home, I’ve done it with friends using a range of common wines and a plate of charcuterie comprising mostly cold meats and seafood. Let’s use a prawn/shrimp as an example. Pour yourself a glass of any wine you think might NOT pair with the prawn then try it. Good or bad for you? Hold that thought. Now repeat the same pairing, but put a squeeze of lemon juice (acid) onto the prawn. Taste different, worse or better? Try pairing different wines with different items on the charcuterie plate in the same way with and without salt or/and lemon juice and noting whether additions makes any difference or not. It can be quite a fun evening if you have a good range of wines and charcuterie and I can guarantee a few surprises!
The fact is that salt and acidity are two culinary components either in the food or the wine that can make or break a food-wine pairing. This is what good sommeliers are doing for example when they recommend specific wines that may be high or low in acidity to match foods that are low or high in fats, oils, creamy sauces. But ….. you can achieve this yourself, depending on the choices you make, by adding salt or lemon juice to your food. I won’t go into the chemistry or neuroscience of this here but I’m sure you’ll accept the validity of this with the general knowledge about receptors on our tongue being sensitive to sweet, sour, salt, bitter, umami.
And so, back to the culture thing. It is my contention that in many societies wine has become embedded in culture at a local societal level based on local cuisine. I’ve already given examples but I’ll repeat them here using the most glaring examples of it across France. There are quite different foods between the regions of Alsace, Burgundy, Loire and Languedoc. Equally there are quite different grape varieties grown in those regions, Alsace has Riesling, Pinot Blanc/Gris and Gewürztraminer, Burgundy has Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Aligote, Loire has Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadet. Languedoc is a massive coastal region and has an equally large range of vines, especially the heavy reds from Syrah, Grenache and Tannat, and the piercingly fresh whites from Picpoul.
In each of these regions you will find perfect matches between the huge portions of white meat based dishes of Alsace, the escargots of Burgundy, the river fish of the Loire, and the red meat stews and seafood of the Languedoc. Is this all by accident or early recommendations of Roman sommeliers? Neither, it’s a cultural thing, with local wines being matched with local foods across hundreds of years from the clever monks who planted the right vines in the right soil, and the peasants who drank wine rather than polluted water at every meal with their food through to modern day France where local wines are drunk daily to accompany local fresh foods. You will find the same approach in every vine growing country across Europe. All continued to this day as ordinary folks in all of these countries and regions follow their ancient cultural traditions.