The Marriage of Food and Wine

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A Wine Advice Column by Charles Fredy

wine advice by Charles FredyJune is not only the traditional month of weddings, it also marks the return of the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival: four days of wine tastings, food pairings, cooking demos, and seminars by acclaimed winemakers. I thought it would be fun to explore, as the festival will, some of the subtle elements that create great food-and-wine pairings.

Match the flavors. I look for wines whose flavors mirror those of the food. Let’s say you’re serving a stone-fired pizza with chicken, pineapple, sweet peppers, lime and cilantro. The flavors would be fresh and bright, with citrusy notes from the pineapple and lime, earthy streaks from the pepper, and savoriness from the cilantro. I’d choose a relatively versatile wine to accompany it — a pinot grigio like Alois Lageder, with lots of citrusy notes and minerality, or a Champagne such as Billecart-Salmon Brut NV, if you feel like splurging. Both wines pull in the citrus flavors nicely. 

Match the body. In pairing, you never want the wine to overwhelm the food, nor the food to overwhelm the wine. That’s why light-bodied wines do better with lighter fare; full-bodied wines with substantial meals

Match the complexity. The more complex a dish’s flavor, the more versatile a wine it will need. Simple dishes, such as lobster with butter, present texture and richness, but not complexity. For these, try a full-bodied, balanced chardonnay with rich creaminess — even a more decadent, full-blown style such as a Lewis chardonnay from Napa Valley. 

Suppose you have a ceviche with lemongrass, bell pepper, red chili and citrus. That dish has a lot of complexity going on, and the typical California chardonnay will struggle with the pairing. A better partner is a bright, fresh wine to match the ceviche, something like a sauvignon blanc from California, New Zealand or Sancerre. Frogs Leap from Napa would fit nicely.

Consider the tannins. Tannins are an important factor in pairing red wines — partly because they make reds more structured and substantial, partly because tannins love fat. So a high-tannin cabernet sauvignon works nicely with a well-marbled rib eye, while a lean filet mignon would pair better with a medium-tannin pinot noir.

Consider the acidity. Acidity carries the flavors in wine and food, and helps the wine stand up to the dish. The more intense the food’s flavor, the more acid you need in the wine. High-acid reds with moderate alcohol pair well with tomato sauces, while high-acid whites pair well with fish and pasta and intense flavors.

Sugar and spice. Ever wonder why Thai coffee is so sweet? It’s because sugar cools the heat in spicy foods. A wine with high tannin, combined with hot food, is like lighting a match; you’re better off with something like a reisling that has both weight and a bit of sweetness to it. A dry German riesling from the Rheingau, Pfalz or Nahe regions, with high acidity, no oak influence, and a speck of sweetness, will tone the heat down deliciously. I recently enjoyed the Schloss Schonborn, Pfaffenberg, Kabinett 2009 from Rheingau. It was a stunning accomplishment and well worth seeking out.

Trust geography. One of the simplest ways to pair successfully is to choose wines and foods from the same region. Europe, for example, developed cuisines based on the foods available there, and winemakers in those regions had centuries to select the grapes and techniques that worked best with them.

Pairings, after all, are like marriages: A bad one creates bitterness. A good one creates harmony, and at its best can create a collaboration whose sum is greater than the parts.


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