Wine and food pairing: don’t overthink it
I get crazy over the craziest things. Right now, I’m trying to figure out the perfect wine to drink with a frittata made with prosciutto, mozzarella, Parmesan cheese and boiled potatoes. White, probably, but rich and oaky, like Chardonnay, or light, like Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio? On the other hand, I was tasting some Pinot Noir and had a leftover glass with the frittata and it was pretty good. Am I overthinking this?
Such are our worries, when there are so many important things going on in the world. Others might condemn us for dwelling on trivialities. I myself read Architectural Digest the other day and went away in wonderment that people can really direct their gardeners to trim their ornamental trees in such a manner that, from a mile away, they provide perfect symmetric beauty. (That was Bunny Mellon.). That is, or was, the one percent gone gaga. But perhaps that is simply their equivalent of stressing on the perfect pairing for frittata.
I never was big on the perfect wine and food pairing. It always seemed to me that we (“we” being the collective media) made too big a deal of it. Consumers were already freaked out by wine; now they have to worry that, whatever wine they choose, it will be wrong for the food. How horrible, to pile on peoples’ insecurity with additional insecurity about their hosting capability.
That’s why, whenever I reviewed a wine in my former career as a critic, I tried to include multiple dishes to pair it with—everything from simple, inexpensive stuff to more costly things, like lamb, lobster, steak. I’ve had super-expensive wines with super-expensive foods and it’s been, Big deal. I’ve also had fabulous Pinot Noirs with the most economical foods. Kathy Joseph, at Fiddlehead, once made a lunch for me of beef tacos with her best Pinot Noir, and the fact that I’m still writing about it should indicate how beautiful that pairing was. You don’t have to drop a fortune to pair a great wine.
There are certainly some wines and foods that don’t pair well. Sushi hates oak; it makes the fish taste, well, fishy. But an unoaked Chardonnay can be nice with sushi. But grilled meat? It wants oak. Char loves char. This is where we get into the tall grass. The classic steak pairing is a big, rich Cabernet Sauvignon, but Petite Sirah actually is better because it’s more tannic and better structured. Yet if you go to an expensive restaurant they’re not likely to recommend Petite Sirah with steak, because Petite Sirah is still considered (by some sommeliers) a little déclassé.
I celebrate the adventurous somm whose boss lets him or her venture into odd, offbeat and less known territory. But a little freedom can sometimes result in the bizarre. I’ve been in restaurants where I put myself into the hands of the somm and the results were disappointing, if not outright awful. These episodes make me tremendously sympathetic to the somm’s plight. They try their best, and while they might think they’ve succeeded, somebody like me comes along and hates it. Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place.
Still, I can’t go along with the “drink whatever you want with anything and don’t worry about it” school. I love that small-d democracy, but there do have to be rules. If you’re inviting me to dinner, I was raised to be polite, so if you give me something truly horrible, I’ll never say a word. But if the pairing works, I’ll congratulate you all through the evening. Such, too, is the behavioral code for our small and rather strange but wonderful world of geekdom.