Pairing right wines with food is a challenge
June 5, 2007
The pairing of food and wine is a complex and incredibly inexact science. There are too many rules, many of which are outmoded, and too many gurus offering conflicting advice. Over the next few weeks we will attempt to make some sense out of food and wine pairings, with the goal of keeping things relatively simple.
Like almost anything we have a passion for, matching exactly the correct wine with the cuisine you are serving can become an obsession. If you have the time and energy for it – like we do – then, by all means, obsess.
Traditionally, regional wines were served with regional dishes, like tomato-based pastas with chianti (mostly sangiovese) or beef bourguignonne with Burgundy (pinot noir). This principle still works well, and we recommend it whenever possible, and we will be writing about it in later articles.
Over the last 25 years, the principles of food and wine pairing have been turned upside down because of the rapid globalization of both food and wine. In the United States, we have absorbed the traditions of other food cultures – Asian, Latin American and European – and often have blended those flavors into various food dishes known with such names as Pacific Rim, fusion, Tex-Mex, and the like. In doing so, we have found ourselves in somewhat of a quandary when it comes to wine. The old rules, as recommended by wine and food experts, weren’t made with this cross-cultural cuisine in mind.
Let’s begin by giving our readers four important concepts that should be kept in mind at all times. First, you need to be open-minded and experimental. Second, what you like may not appeal to others. Third, you are going to win some and lose some, particularly when you have a number of people to please. Last, unless you are drinking a wine by itself or you are bringing out a rarity, the food is the most important factor in pairing, not the wine.
The most important and basic pairing element is as simple as it gets. Matching a wine to the occasion is way more important than matching the wine to the food. We know this sounds like wine heresy, but save your serious wine for formal dinners, special occasions or for get-togethers with fellow wine aficionados.
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In casual settings, informal occasions and even at weddings, most people are not paying much attention to the wine. This is not the time and place to pull out a wine that has cost you big bucks or that you have aged for years. In informal environments, be simple and relatively frugal and, most importantly, don’t try to impress.
Parties and informal gatherings usually begin with an appetizer. The quintessential beverage for appetizers is sparkling wine. This is one pairing where it’s almost impossible to go wrong. You most assuredly don’t have to serve French Champagne. There are excellent sparkling wines from the U.S. and Spain (Cava) that are made in the methode champenoise style, and cost between $7 and $18 a bottle. If you pay under $7 or over $18, you are probably making a mistake.
Shrimp pita appetizers
This shrimp and avocado salsa in pita toasts is a terrific appetizer recipe designed to go with sparkling wine.
Ingredients for 6 people:
3/4 pound bay shrimp, drained but not rinsed
1/4 cup finely chopped sweet or red onion
1 1/2 cups chopped ripe red tomatoes
1 ripe avocado, peeled and cut into one-quarter-inch dice
1 jalapeño, seeded and minced
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons seafood cocktail sauce;
1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro;
4 pita bread rounds, cut into eight triangles each.
In a medium mixing bowl, combine shrimp, onions, tomatoes, avocado, jalapeño, lime juice, cocktail sauce, and chopped cilantro and mix thoroughly. Refrigerate, covered, for 2 to 3 hours. Season to taste with salt.
Lightly toast pita bread so that it is warmed through but not crispy. Spread pita open and spoon shrimp mixture into it. Serve on a large platter garnished with long sprigs of cilantro.
– Steve and Pamela Adams write a regular column for the Tahoe Daily Tribune. Steve teaches history, political science and culinary arts at Lake Tahoe Community College, and Pamela is an assistant in a wine and food pairing class at the college. They can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.