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It’s not the points, it’s the pairing

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I have never heard of a wine critic who didn’t try to educate the public that the higher scoring wine isn’t always the best one to drink with the food.

I’ve tried to get this point across since forever. Sometimes, the principle is proved in dramatic ways. Marilyn made lamb shanks with roasted polenta on Saturday night. This is a rich dish, being at once creamy, sweet, smoky, spicy, fatty and meaty. It obviously called for a red wine, but which variety?

I immediately ruled out Pinot Noir, for obvious reasons. But that left many other possibilities. In the event, here are the wines I opened (my reviews and scores will be in future editions of Wine Enthusiast):

Mayacamas 2007 Merlot. From Mount Veeder, it had alcohol of 14.5%.

Corison 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon. With 13.6% alcohol, this was a typical Corison Cab, dry and rather austere.

Hunter III 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, with ABV of 14.5%.

Clif Family 2009 Gary’s Improv Zinfandel. The alcohol was 14.5%.

Sanguis 2009 The Prophet Syrah, alcohol at 15.7%.

Sanguis 2008 The Ballad of John Henry Red Blend, alcohol 16.3%.

Can you guess which wine was the perfect match?

The Mayacamas Merlot, good as it was, was simply too lean and tannic to stand up against the food, which made it taste and feel even drier and harder than it already was. Ditto with the Corison.Very lovely wine, ageworthy, but too aloof for the food.

Regarding the two Sanguis wines, I had high hopes. I personally have no problem with high alcohol in California table wines if they’re balanced, which Sanguis wines always are. I’ve been reviewing them for a couple years, and I get off on that heady richness.

I figured, intellectually, that a big, rich, high extract, high alcohol wine was just what the lamb-polenta dish needed, but I was wrong. Oh, the match was okay. I wouldn’t have thrown a hissy fit if you’d invited me to your home for dinner and paired either one. But neither of the Sanguis wines really fully meshed with the food. It was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Then we came to that Clif Family Zinfandel, and badda bing! Perfection. It wasn’t just the complementarity of flavors–spiciness, smokiness, sweetness–or the wine’s rich tannins, which cut marvelously through the greasiness of the lamb. It had also to do with the wine’s weight in the mouth. Yes, the Sanguis wines (I’ve been trying throughout this entire post to avoid pluralizing Sanguis as “Sanguises”) were full-bodied and dense, as was the food, but they [the wines] were too full-bodied and sweet and hot. The lamb dish, rich as it is, had an earthiness that was perhaps from the herbs Marilyn added, or the charring of the meat before she braised it, or the polenta’s slight corn starchiness, or a scattering of root vegetables she had put in there; and with these elements the Sanguises (there, I said it) failed.

The Zinfandel by contrast was perfect. Element for element, there was perfect complementarity. The dish itself is slightly rustic, which is just the kind of food Zinfandel loves. It also was less expensive than most of the other wines, and the score I assigned it was lower than for the Sanguises, although not by much. The point being that score alone is simply not enough information to consider before deciding what to pair with what at the table.

So what does point score reflect, anyway? It reflects the success of that bottle relative to all other bottles of that type in the taster’s experience (which is why tasting a whole lot of wine over a long time makes one a better taster). It reflects the reviewer’s impression of that success, or lack thereof. Put into another context, it reflects the degree to which the wine “has texture and pleasure,” in the simple, cogent words of Michel Rolland, as quoted to me by Screaming Eagle’s Armand de Maigret. Point score reflects all these things (and a good deal more), but what it does not reflect, and never cab, is how well or badly a wine will accompany any particular food.

So we’re back where we started. Buy wine for the pairing possibilities, not for the points. That’s the single most important lesson score-obsessed consumers should remember.

  1. What is missed here is that the average consumer does not enjoy the luxury of trying 6 different wines with their dish. Sure I can debate with you all day about food & wine pairings, and how for some palates certain specifics shine more than others. Point scores and food pairings are two completely separate categories making the comparison story irrelevant.

    What would have been more insightful would be to write a glowing review for each of the wines, and accentuate the positives that each brought to the party (not even a mention of the Hunter??). Sure… opinion will generally produce a favorite, but your opinion on the perfect match betwixt the dish and your selected “perfect match” is just like the point score….an opinion….perfection is in the palate of the consumer.

  2. Thanks for this post. It’s so hard to convince people that scores don’t really matter and that you should look for something you like and something that goes well with what you’re eating.

    Bonus points for teaching me the word “complementarity.”

  3. To simplify and further develop Julius answer: Points are for technical, scientific, objective measure. Pairing is subjective, artistic measure. In latter beauty is much more in the eye of beholder (yes, every reviewer will dab some subjectivity into his points too…).

  4. Points are not for “scientific, objective measure.” They are for projecting an unjustifiable degree of precision upon what ultimately is a matter of subjective taste and fashion. How is it that a decade ago 16% ABV Rhone Rangers were the embodiment of greatness, while today 13% ABV coastal Syrah is the chic choice? Objectivity has little to do with that. It’s no more or less objective to say wine X tastes good on its own or that wine X tastes good with food Y anyway.

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