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Food and wine pairing. The basics and the combinations you wouldn’t expect.

Food and wine pairing is nowadays a controversial topic but of great importance in the restaurant world. 

Lately, the best starred restaurants in the world have chosen to offer, in combination with their tasting menus, a very precise selection of wines by the glass chosen by their Sommeliers. A different glass for each dish in order to guarantee the guest an unforgettable eno-gastronomic journey with the right food and wine match

Are you wondering why they are doing this? Here you are the main reasons…

First of all, a bad food and wine pairing could easily ruin your meal. Believe me, no starred chef would ever run the risk of letting their guests dislike his dishes, which he prepared with so much work of blood and sweat, because of an inadequate wine pairing.   

You have certainly experienced this: you tasted a wine you remembered enjoyable to drink but at the first sip you felt it as exactly the opposite, a bad wine. Or even you perceived unpleasant sensations during a taste. You should probably blame the person who recommended you that wine that night. 

You have certainly experienced this: you tasted a wine you remembered enjoyable to drink but at the first sip you felt it as exactly the opposite, a bad wine.

As I told you, the topic is extremely controversial. Every day I happen to listen to conflicting opinions on how to plan the right matching, with schools of thought at the antipodes sometimes. 

My personal experience makes me a firm supporter of the pairing for discordance when it comes to salted foods and for concordance for the sweet dishes. The reason is that I truly think this is the most effective pairing, with few exceptions that you will find explained later on in this article. 

Limiting the discussion to savory dishes, I do not appreciate the matches for concordance because this can lead you to have unpleasant sensations such as feeling a strong bitterness when combining savoury dishes with savoury wines

One historic combination that I consider to be among the worst one is exactly the Oysters / Champagne duet. You can read it as a blasphemy, but in my opinion this match doesn’t work at all. It is just a prestigious combination that does not emphasize neither the oysters taste nor the Champagne, indeed.  

So, let’s see what are the basic criteria for a correct food and wine combination!

Let’s start from the purpose of the combination. What are we aiming at and why it is so important to match it properly.

The purpose of a good food/wine pairing is to prepare at the best the mouth to the next phase of the food tasting and at the same time being able to enjoy our glass of wine. Otherwise everybody would always opt for water, do not you think? 

To experience this wonderful feeling, we must select a wine with the right characteristics and which is able to positively react to the food we are eating. The result is a very pleasant sensation in our mouth. The wine is the right one when it is able to clean our mouth properly and prepare it for the next bite.

The wine is the right one when it is able to clean our mouth properly and prepare it for the next bite

Therefore, enough with the Barolo/raw fish dishes combinations people are used to make at their beautiful dinners. I have stopped counting the times I’ve seen it here in Malta at your tables. The Barolo bottles towering between carpaccio, tartare and sea bass in salt. I’m shuddering at this thought!

Enough with the prosecco that accompany the whole meal. Enough with all these sad and insipid white wines people are so proud of drinking. You can find the same wines in supermarkets all over Europe at 2.5 euros while you are now paying them 20 euros at the table, instead.  

Enough with these faded Rosé. Their colours are so chemical that they seem pinkier than your daughter’s “mini ponies”.

Please, start loving your taste buds and drinking consciously! 

Now that you understood the importance of a proper pairing, I will give you some basic information on how to make it:

  • The first step is deciding the colour of the wine. If this decision is hard for you to take, my advice is just follow the chromatic approach. For fish dishes you can’t make mistakes, in the 95% of the cases, the answer is white wine or a rosé. Red wines instead, are usually recommended only in combination with important fish soups with lots of tomatoes, but still you will opt for a Red wine with light-medium structure. With meat dishes the speech is wider but we usually choose a red wine. After that we will try to understand what structure and features should this red wine have.
  • The food and wine combination is made according with the characteristics of the dish we are going to eat and its complexity. For a better understanding I will give you a quick example..Imagine you are eating a plate of pasta with fresh diced tuna stir-fried with fresh fennel ( I know you are already watering, but please do not blame me for this!). While you are eating, you will firstly feel a slight sensation of sweetness due to the gluten of the pasta that is well-balanced with the flavor of the tuna, the oil greasinessand the aroma of the fennel too. Which wine is the best for our pairing then? As I suggested above, it’s better to match for discordance when it comes to savoury dishes. Considering that there is tuna we are certainly going to choose a white wine. But, which characteristics should this white wine have? In front of us there is a medium-complexity dish, so we will need to match a medium-bodied white wine. We have to contrast the oil oiliness with the alcohol of our wine, so a white wine with an alcohol content of around 13 degrees is a good solution. I would suggest a white wine from the hot areas of southern Italy. Then we have to consider the aromaticity of fennel. So why don’t we go for a a single semi-aromatic or an aromatic grape type like Zibibbo and then the flavor of tuna will surely balance the softness of our wine, perhaps due to aging in large barrels of it. The final result? The perfect pairing. 

The food and wine combination is made according with the characteristics of the dish we are going to eat and its complexity

  • At this point, what happens if we add a little cherry tomato to the sauce? Are we still keen on sticking with a white wine choice? Maybe not, especially if we consider the chromatic approach (and the structure) I told you before. But no worries! It’s already fine choosing a rosé or an orange wine with the same characteristics listed before, so maybe I would say a Zibibbo from the island of Pantelleria that has made a bit of maceration on the skins. We’ll go thus to contrast the greater complexity of the dish with a higher structure of the wine, as well as balancing the acidity of the tomato with a wine of greater softness.  

In broad terms you have now an idea of how to make a good combination of food/wine and what elements must be taken into consideration. As I said, the basis is the evaluation (even if it’s only theoretical) of the characteristics of the dish in order to be ready to combine a wine that may not ruin the tasting experience.  

You will been thinking .. and for desserts instead, how do I do it?

For desserts it’s way much easier, or almost…the criterion to follow is for concordance. Sweet wines are usually combined to the dessert. We shall keep considering the characteristics of both before selecting a wine. This does not mean however that you will be authorized to order a cappuccino with your tiramisu! If I see this, the penalty for you is directly the decapitation. 

Summing up, these are the basic criteria for a proper match

  • Fish -> White Wine
  • Fish with tomato or more elaborated dishes -> Structured white wine, rosé wine or orange wine.
  • Meat -> Red Wine (starting with a lighter structure for chicken dishes going towards higher structured for the game)
  • Desserts -> Sweet wine

It seems pretty easy, right? Now that you are an expert we can move on to the next level. 

Here you are examples of atypical and unknown combinations that work very well!

  • Oysters and….? We have said that the classic combination with Champagne does not work perfectly. Personally, I love to combine a good Moselle Riesling Auslese that with its characteristic sweetness and aromaticity allows a perfect combination.
  • Pizza and ..? Ok, nobody will ever criticize the usual pizza/beer combination, but have you ever tried to match a slice of pizza with a good refermented like a Pet-Nat (French name) or Ancestral Method (Italian name)? 
  • Blue cheeses? The first thought is to match it with a robust and important red wine. But, in my opinion, the most effective pairings are those with sweet or fortified sweet wines such as Sauternes, Passito di Pantelleria or a good Port or a Marsala.
  • And for ethnic dishes, such as Indian or Middle Eastern cuisine? With these cuisines we will face strong aromas and important spices such as the chilly. Sometimes these spicinesses will test our skills of good sommellier in finding a suitable wine. Personally I recommend very soft and aromatic wines like some Gewurztraminer, Malvasia, Moscato, Riesling up to opting for slightly sweeter versions of these wines. For very spicy meat dishes we will also need good softness, structure and aroma.

In the end, I know that making a perfect food/wine pairing is not easy. First of all we need a good mastery of technical knowledge as well as a trained palate. My advice is not to improvise and try to rely as much as possible on the Sommelier advices or simply ask a waiter who will surely help you finding the good option. 

Or, for the most brave begineers, test your skills after reading this article! It will be funny. I hope from now on you can make a suitable match and you will fully enjoy the food you are eating.

And…enjoy your pairing!

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