Wine and Food Magic
As one might expect, people often ask, what’s your favorite wine, or more generically, what’s your favorite grape variety? I usually answer, “Who’s paying?” but once we get past that I always want to know, “What are we eating?” Why would it matter? Wine and food can change one another’s personalities, sometimes in dramatic and fascinating ways.
We all have our ideas about “what goes with what,” but there’s a consensus that your likelihood of enjoying a specific wine and food pairing is not entirely predictable. Often it involves an element of discovery, if not surprise. My strategy for solving the wine and food matching puzzle at Legal Sea Foods has been influenced, not coincidentally, by literally thousands of interactions with consumers, chefs, students and colleagues over the years, regarding what it is they’re tasting and whether the combination works for them or not. Preferences aren’t random, but everyone’s palate is somewhat different (based on culture, experience, and genetic predisposition), so take the following with a grain of salt, no pun intended.
Two magic words structure my thinking about wine and food together: Balance and Acid. Simply put, the goal is to have the strongest flavors of the wine and food in balance, so that each enhances (rather than exaggerates, or drowns out) the other. For me, acid is the key wine component that creates balance here because of how it accentuates the natural flavor of so many of our fish and seafood preparations. For a group of four or more interested in sharing a bottle of wine, a communal act always carrying with it the potential to create magic connections, a wine with prominent acidity harmonizes best with the widest variety of dishes. It can be white, red, sparkling or rose. Color or style doesn’t matter.
A wine whose signature note is strong acidity most often originates in relatively cool climate vineyard areas, and is made from grapes that taste less sweet and more tart when harvested. The categories that fit this bill include: Sauvignon Blanc, dry Riesling, dry Chenin Blanc, traditional method Brut sparkling wine (the exemplar being Champagne), Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Sangiovese (the latter three in either red or rose versions). There are some other “special cases:” cool climate Chardonnay, like Chablis, cool climate Cabernet Franc such as Chinon, and also Barbera and Nebbiolo that are not super-concentrated in tannin. All of these are what I would call highly versatile choices with food, especially fish and seafood. If I were to simplify it further and narrow the list of “all-purpose” food wines down to three choices, they would be Sauvignon Blanc, traditional method sparkling wine, and Pinot Noir.
What about these high acid wine categories makes them so delicious alongside a wide variety of dishes? The tart often citrus, apple or strawberry-like fruit flavors balance dishes that taste crunchy (fried fish), creamy (chowder), rich, high in fat (lobster or crab with drawn butter), or salty (raw shellfish, or smoked fish or cured meat), adding complementary elements that leave your palate refreshed and craving another bite. The acid is literally mouth-watering. Also, somewhat counter-intuitively, these are wines that smooth out the tart flavors of dishes on which you’ve squeezed lemon juice (like many fish), have dressed with vinaigrette, or have a tomato influence.
You may sometimes hear people talking about “minerally” flavors, particularly in describing wines originating from European vineyards with ancient, weathered soils. This mineral salt element accentuates whatever acidity is present, so the combination tastes even more food-friendly. This is why wines such as Sancerre (white, red or rose) or Savennieres from France’s Loire Valley, or Alsatian Riesling, or Chablis, or Champagne, or red Burgundy come into their own and can taste so amazing with food: the natural acid and soil-derived mineral notes balance out tart or salty food flavors to perfection. The ideal is a true interaction and mingling of flavors and textures, a proportional equivalence between the intensity of a particular dish and the wine with which you’re drinking it. This is the essence of balance. In my experience, these combinations are the ones that most often create a wine and food match where each element magically completes the other and they both taste more interesting together than separately.
We’ve mentioned Champagne several times. It’s unfortunate that so few people in the US enjoy a crisp, minerally Brut Champagne in any context other than celebration. The dissolved carbon dioxide is actually an acid which makes the wine’s naturally tart mineral flavors even more amazing with food. Try a glass of Champagne the next time you’re having raw shellfish, or steamed mussels, and you’ll no doubt enjoy a heightened flavor experience, along with the sense of well-being people often have when sipping a glass of bubbly.
This is an inexhaustible topic that you can devote countless hours trying to understand. The principles I’ve laid out above will get you in the ballpark of a good educated guess, but in the last analysis the joy is in the discovery. If you remember one thing, it should be that wines with prominent acidity, supported by mineral notes, most often create balanced matches with fish and seafood.
Sandy Block MW