Wine Pairings at the Restaurant

It is often said that wine is a social lubricant and who can argue that wine is best enjoyed in a group? Wine derives even meaning when it is paired with food. The more thought that is put into a pairing, the bigger the potential for achieving something truly special.

What do I mean by special anyway? I’m referring to none other than the revelatory power of wine to showcase flavors and textures, to bring out the best of a dish, to act as a seamless (as possible) transition between each bite and each gulp. So if you are organizing a diner party or have to plan one for work, finding a wine that will go with each course is a challenge that should be taken up.

The pairing exercise can be as simple as possible or it can become frustrating in its complexities. There’s such a large part of subjectivity involved since we are dealing with different people’s taste buds, is it any wonder why it’s usually the wines we like that are present when it’s time to eat?

Maybe that’s the most important factor of all, since in my humble as well as my professional opinion, wine paring is not a science. Of course books by guys like François Chartier (author of Taste buds and Molecules) will take up the subject on a molecular level, let’s just be realistic about how close we can get to truth. Chartier himself admits that the perfect pairing doesn’t exist.

Oh, then what oh? (As my Italian friend would say) Well, there are rules that can serve as guidelines when pairing food and wine. I think these should presented and explained, afterwards I’ll go into my pairing philosophy at the restaurant where I work.

Rules

First off, always keep in mind that a wine should never dominate a dish but complement it.

This seems obvious but it’s essential to understand why and how often this occurs. I like to use the bridge analogy for thinking about wine and food. Wine is a bridge to the food and vice versa, hence the idea of achieving balance between competing flavors on the palate, each vying for our attention. Why drown those different flavors under a wave of intensity, or straight to the point: we would you kill your flank steak with a tannic red wine? And who said that beef or red meat for that matter needed hearty reds to pair with?

I get it, some people like big Californian Cabs or big tannic oaky Italians. You’ll enjoy your food all the more if you can actually taste it. Keep in mind whether your red wine is new barrel aged and for how long. The longer the wine is aged in oak barrels, the more wood is imparted flavor-wise, sometimes to detriment of the fruit aromas. Keep in mind the vintage characteristics: an overly warm growing season will impact the richness of the wine, giving it more concentration and a propensity for higher levels of alcohol.

Should you insist on drinking very tannic reds than do so with braised cuts of red meat because the longer the meat has cooked for, the more tannins are required to even it out. It’s why a tartare dish doesn’t require a tannic wine, it won’t crushed by one or that a blue filet mignon requires less tannins because of the caisson. Just remember that less is more sometimes. If you are having beef flank steak, try a Morgon or a Blaufrankisch instead of a Cabernet Sauvignon next time.

 

Secondly, a course by course pairing needs to have a logical build up.

Your tongue is not a clean slate as you enjoy each pairing, it has been branded by the food and the wine that came before it. The food menu has its own logical sequence: the wines must as well. If you begin with crisp whites that have good acidity, you need to follow through with richer white that are full bodied. Don’t assume there’s any going back, that you can play around with acidity and tannins at your whim. The wines won’t showcase themselves properly, by this I mean they’ll taste flat, the nuances of texture and aroma muddled. Why would you do yourself like that?

Acidity, that word again. The tongue is stimulated by it. It prepares the tongue for what’s next. Bubbles are a great way to ready to the tongue for a multi-course meal. Whereas bubbles are highly underrated (a bottle of Champagne can go distance for a full meal, especially with red meat as a main). To better appreciate the salty minerality of a Romarantin from the Cour Cheverny, serve it before the Alsatian Pinot Gris, which is fattier and richer.

Speaking about sequence, it isn’t necessarily true that no white should follow a red. Says who? If you follow the rules about acidity, there’s no reason why an exuberant white couldn’t be the focal point for the evening’s main course. This assumes that the red served before it wasn’t too tannic. Thus, the wine must offer something that red does not: more volume, more depth.

This ties in to the final rule: the buildup.

Just as each course gains in complexity, the main course is the focal point, if at this point during the meal, you don’t have your best wine, why bother? This is the part where you put in your best shot: the bottle with the most going for it, be it age, vintage, the prestige associate with the particular domain. You decide. The rule, as expressed by our teachers in Sommelier school was that each new wine served must not make you regret the previous one.

If you served the Côte d’Or Burgundy on the first or second course, you can’t drop in price for the next one at the risk of the wine tasting flat. If you have Crus wines, serve them at a strategic moment: make them the focal point of the meal!