Try the WRONG Wine and Food Matches by Tim Hanni, MW

wine and food pairings by tim hanni, master of wine

You may be very pleasantly surprised!

I am convinced that almost all wine and food matching occurs in the fertile imagination of usually well-meaning and earnest wine and food enthusiasts and professionals. How did I reach this conclusion? For many years I have been actively engaged in making it a point to try all of the wrong wine and food matches. I find virtually identical success for enjoyment in trying the wrong combinations versus trying to find the “right” matches.

When tasting with your service and culinary team, give this a try; even make it a part of your on-going wine and food program. You will find the people who passionately love pinot noir will love it in all sorts of combinations. The sauvignon blanc aficionados will often be delighted to see how great their favorite wines blend with lamb, steak and about anything you can come up with. Do you have any staff that really loves sweet wines? They will love sweet rieslings, moscato and even white zinfandel with almost everything.

We make out like there is some specter of “wine and food disasters” looming that can befall poor, unsuspecting consumers if they make the mistake of ordering or serving the wrong wine with the wrong food. This is, in fact, a very rare occurrence and the exercise of trying “wrong” matches will demonstrate the fallacy of this thinking in a heartbeat.

A really bad experience usually results from a couple of things falling into alignment:

  1. Having food that is high in sweetness and/or umami results in a very predictable reaction akin to brushing your teeth and drinking orange juice.
  2. Having a wine you dislike in the first place and the flavors of the food magnifying the unpleasant character of the wine.

Here are recommendations for wines to match with Peking duck, proffered by experts weighing in on a message thread asking for ideas:

  • Riesling, a sauvignon blanc or châteauneuf-du-pape, Oregon pinot noir, dolcetto and ripe vintages of rosso di Montalcino, sangiovese, Australian 100% pinot meunier champagne, Alsace blends, a big ol’ Pride cabernet, sparkling cabernet, gewürztraminer, grenache, a good Portuguese wine from Douro, or dry rosé, especially ones based upon Rhône red varieties like grenache, and syrah or Italian varieties like barbera and sangiovese.

Holy moly! Everyone is simply weighing in with their favorite wines. Basically everyone just conjures up the dish, conjures up the metaphorical match, and then goes to the mental rolodex of wines they love in their heads and comes up with their choice. The process is not based on any reality—just our fertile imagination and personal wine favorites. Note there is nothing wrong with this, but just what the heck is the average consumer supposed to do with this information?

You can bet that all contributors would defend their choices, AND you can bet that if it is a wine you love, it will be great with the Peking duck. AND if it is not a great match, a dash of soy sauce (which is erroneously referred to as a wine enemy) and a tiny squeeze of lemon (for those who are more highly sensitive to bitterness) will set the dish right with any of the wines recommended.

A simple means to get consistently great results with wine and food:

  1. The wine must be in the realm of a wine you would enjoy. If you hate high alcohol zinfandel, white zinfandel, pinot grigio or whatever, then it WILL be terrible, with your food or without.
  2. The more emotionally you are tied to wine and food matching, the more likely it is the imaginary wine and food matches you conjure up will work together. This is a psychological phenomenon and self-fulfilling prophecy of wine and food matching, not an experiential reality.
  3. The more “hypersensitive” you are, the more likely you will get a bitter reaction from strong (high extract, higher alcohol) wines with foods that have lots of umami. A tiny addition of lemon and salt will cure most negative reactions, but you don’t tend to favor huge reds or oaky whites in the first place and usually stick to the wines you love the most.
  4. The more “tolerant” you are, the more you will love big, extracted reds with whatever you are eating, and it is less likely you will get any bitter reactions. You just want big, red wines and you know who you are! A delicate riesling with sushi is not in the cards for you.
  5. If you love the metaphorical matching of heavy wines with heavy foods, and searching for that ultimate synergy when the wine and food elevate the experience to a whole new level, complementing and contrasting the flavors and textures, then keep on doing that. Just understand that the experience is personal, subjective and mostly all in your head!

It is time to radically address the role of enjoying wine and food together. Things are completely out of control and the misinformation, false premises and misunderstandings are at an all-time high. Go ahead: spend a week diligently trying the WRONG wine with your food, or vice versa. You will be surprised at the success you and your guests have finding delicious matches you never imagined.

1 Comment

  • Tim — Yes, all well and good for at-home eaters; but what about the waiter at a restaurant? He/she needs training to be alert for individual palate types so you don’t do what I did yesterday with artichokes and cabernet!