20-01-2022 Carles Escolar, Raimat winemaker
January 20 2022
The keys to perfect wine pairing
When deciding on how to pair wine, the first thing to do is to avoid that uncomfortable word –pairing– as much as possible. It implies that certain wines must always be served with certain foods, as if they were “married” to certain foods. The pair becomes immobile and irreversible.
Therefore, we at the blog we propose that you lock up the term “pairing” and throw away the key, replacing it with much more pleasant, democratic, and politically correct terms like “harmony,” “association,” or “twinning.”
Having said that, when dealing with the issue of combining wines and food, it is essential to take into account the fact that this is an exercise that can never be governed by regulatory decrees. After all, it is based on fully subjective assessments.
Therefore, there is no one enogastronomic combination that is better than another: the most appropriate one is the combination chosen as the most pleasant.
Properly combining wine and food is an exercise in sensory skill – something that is always arbitrary and subjective, in which the structure of set rules does not exist.
Harmony and tradition: wine linked to its region of origin
When talking about combining wines and other foods (because wine is also a food, or at least that’s how the laws of some countries, like Spain, consider it), what is sought, in reality, is to enhance the organoleptic experience brought about by a meal. This can be achieved through diametrically opposed paths: through the affinity of flavors or, on the contrary, through flavor contradiction. Although we must not forget that cultural background also plays a key role when choosing a wine for this or that dish: that noble Rioja red wine that you uncork to accompany the magnificent cured Manchego cheese does not represent the best choice from the point of view of taste; however, we cannot ignore a habit that has been repeated since the dawn of time. Thus, this is a clear case of cultural association between wine and food.
Probably for this reason one of the best principles to keep in mind when establishing links between the pleasures of wine and food is the concept of regionality: try to choose your wine in accordance with the origin of the recipe or the meal’s ingredients (or vice versa). In the Spanish context, this works very well most of the time: seafood from the Estuaries of Galicia with fresh white wines; typical roasted lamb from the Castilian wood oven with a Ribera del Duero red wine that is tasty and deep; Iberian ham with a fine Sherry…
Of course, it is also not a good idea to obsess over the regional aspect of your combinations, as then you would run the risk of invalidating some classic combinations that are of well-founded effectiveness and pleasure. For example: sparkling wines and oysters.
Because, of course, there are not many bivalve molluscs of this variety lurking around the Montagne de Reims region or in the Penedès region... and Porto is also far from the Roquefort zone, yet the vintage of the Portuguese region almost provokes ecstasy if you place it on the table next to the famous French blue cheese.... There are wines and foods that don't even need to speak the same language.
Intimate enemies: some foods that don't go well with wine
In a science like that of enogastronomic combinations, in which set laws have not validity and absolute truths have no place, it is equally true that some ingredients simply contradict with certain types of wine. They are the "culprits;" the fateful “misalignments” on which it is better not to insist too much.
Artichokes, for example, do not combine with practically any wine. Perhaps they could go with a young rosé with plenty of acidity if the vegetable has been cooked previously. If it's raw, nothing can combine with it.
Vinegar is another of the great enemies of fine wines, despite the fact that the two do indeed have family ties. By extension, a salad generously dressed with vinegar can become an obstacle to wine enjoyment. That’s why many great wine lovers prefer to dress their salads with a few drops of lemon juice.
Also enemy to wine’s faithful expression on the palate are products such as paprika, onion, and garlic. The latter, especially if eaten raw, is able to completely take apart the fragrance of white wines and wreak havoc on the tannins of red wines, especially if the wine is young. Therefore, the only suitable companion for Aioli sauce is a glass of water. Or a jug of water, preferably.
The onion is less dangerous, because its extreme acidity can be controlled by washing it in water for a few minutes. Celery attacks specifically how sparkling wines taste, although it can coexist with a glass of an aromatic white wine. And, watercress enhances the astringency of certain red wines.
Also eggs, depending on how they are made, can impair how some types of wine are expressed on the palate. Egg yolk, because of its peculiar texture, destroys almost all white wines. On the other hand, Spanish omelette and scrambled eggs can work very well together with young reds. Some recipes even boldly link certain wines with eggs: this is the case of the Italian Zabaione (which mixes Marsala with egg yolk and sugar) or poached eggs in Burgundian style.
Some picky specialists also try to include smoked foods among those harmful for wine, an attitude that others, like ourselves, do not share. Of course, to properly neutralize the salty nuances that dominate in this type of food, wines must be selected accurately: trout and salmon are associated with white wines, cured beef like cecina and bresaola can accept a young red wine or even a fleshy wine.
Only experience and a lack of preconceived notions can lead to the most sublime pairings.
The chemical composition of food and its influence on wine
The root of these proven dissonances is none other than a lack of chemical compatibility between the sapid components of the wines and the organic composition of these “cursed” foods.
In scientific terms, a wine is nothing more than a hydroalcoholic solution that contains between twenty and thirty grams of difference chemical substances in a solution (this is what we call the “extract”) and these substances determine the taste, in addition to other volatile substances that define the aromatic profile.
These substances can be sweet (and, in turn, enhanced by alcohol), acidic (there are up to six organic acids in wine: tartaric, malic, citric, lactic, acetic, and succinic), salty (of mineral origin), and bitter (related to the development of tannins).
Each wine, depending on its origin, type, and the method with which it has been made, “plays” with this palette of flavors, increasing some and moderating the expression of others. In addition, the different types of vinification and aging also help determine the texture, which decisively influences the combination of these aspects with food. A glaring example is that of sparkling wines: in cava, champagne, and other "sparkling" wines, the carbonic acid enhances the acidic notes and structure to the point of making them perfect companions for spicy and complex cuisine. On the palate, the effect of the bubbles contributes to a feeling of “cleansing”.
Meals with aromatic spices and wine: a pleasure to be discovered
But just as there are foods and wines that are simply incompatible, there are also pleasant combinations that we do not usually experience because of certain prejudices and taboos passed down to us.
This happens with very spicy cuisine, which many Orthodox wine lovers deny with arguments as inaccurate as the one that claims that spicy foods “kill” wine.
The ancient Europeans did not believe that. They, seduced by spices from the Silk Road, applauded a bit of peppercorn to lighten foods that were heavy to digest, a bit of nutmeg to give a scent to vegetables and stews, as well as a cinnamon stick or two to provide complexity to desserts and stewed beef.
Since then, many chefs and gourmets have tried to create a table to list the best combinations of herbs, spices, and wines. As always, these are associations conceived from a completely subjective point of view, but they can help to clear up doubts when it comes to accompanying spicy dishes with a wine wisely.
Cinnamon, for example, if it is used in desserts or pastries, is enhanced in terms of sensuality if paired with a glass of young Muscatel, for example. Saffron, also very perfumed, perfectly accepts young white wines, as well as rosé wines. Clove, on the other hand, is extremely intense when used in game stews, and it requires a powerful and fleshy red wine: a Priorat wine, for example, or one from the Rhône (Saint Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage). Cumin, with its charge of voluptuous exoticism, can work well with an aromatic white wine (Riesling or Gewürztraminer). And nutmeg, which should never be added to dishes excessively, combines with white wines of pronounced acidity (Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc).
In terms of herbs, the rugged flavors of oregano are enhanced with the red wines of the Greache grape variety. Mint, with its lush fragrance, interacts very well with a Sauvignon Blanc. Parsley accepts young reds. Finally, basil, depending on its format, can combine with a rosé or a sparkling wine.
Wines and exotic cuisine
And what about the exotic cuisines, so generous in their use of these ingredients and far removed from the culinary traditions of the countries that produce wines?
Truth be told, as this is almost uncharted territory, it is a fascinating adventure to research the possible combinations. And while it is true that certain sapid ranges of the most ardent dishes of these cuisines can be lethal for some wine, it is also true that there will almost always be another variety with which we can have a happy experience.
Thus, if we are speaking about one of the many types of cuisine from China (Europeans are barely familiar with a small selection of the dishes of the Asian giant), especially a type that abounds in its use of soy and sweet and sour sauce (ingredients that are detrimental to the enjoyment of many wines), it is best to drink a dry sparkling wine: cava, champagne, or any local alternative like a blanc de noirs from La Rioja. Although a blanc de blancs, which with its floral aromas and broad palate, can combine nicely with dim sum (subtle steamed dumplings) and dishes in which a sweet/salty contrast predominates. But if what you are going to eat is a lacquered duck, it is almost better to choose a red Crianza wine, something balanced, like the wines from La Rioja – for example, Viña Pomal Crianza 2016.
Dry sparkling wines, like Anna de Codorníu Blanc de Blancs Reserva, are also a good option to tackle most of the foods of Southeast Asia: Thailand, Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia... Thai cuisine, well represented in the West and reputed to be one of the most refined in the world, dazzles with recipes that combine coconut, coriander, chili peppers, and herbs with intense flavors, such as lemon grass. A good combination for a cava of some aging, like Codorníu Ars Collecta 456 2007, or for a white barrel-fermented wine of the Verdejo or Godello variety.
Much less known in Spain and other parts of the world is Korean cuisine. Here, the most popular specialty is bulgogi, a meat macerated and then grilled that can be accompanied with a red wine with good fruit expression, such as Legaris Roble 2018 wine from the Ribera del Duero region. Another basic recipe from that country is kimchi, a dish made from fermented vegetables and which perfectly accepts a white barrel-fermented wine – a Viognier variety would be perfect, or a Chardonnay in its absence, or even a fine Sherry if you want to combine exotic flavors.
The cuisine of Vietnam is also not very widespread in this part of the world. This is a type of cuisine in which stewed vegetables, sweet and spicy soups with seafood, and fried starters abound. Again, a dry sparkling wine can help us to face such complex flavors.
The union of wine with Asian cuisine
Continuing with Asian cuisine, probably one of the most difficult types of food when it comes to establishing combinations with wine is Indian food. Generous in spices and acidic sauces made from dairy products and being hot to unexpected limits, Indian cuisine even gets many fans of drinking wine with meals to give up in favor of beer. But it must be said that vegetarian recipes and popular samosas (dumplings filled with cheese, meat, or vegetables) willingly accept an aromatic white Muscat wine, or a Gewürztraminer. The tasty and fiery curries, on the other hand, require you to uncork a Mediterranean-style red, rich in expression of ripe fruit and with a high degree of alcohol. For example, a Murcian Monastrell or a Bobal from Alicante.
There is also Japanese cuisine, which has conquered the world with sushis and sashimis. The array of raw fish proposed by the Japanese is a perfect excuse to uncork great champagnes or look into the Galician white wines, both Albariño wines from the Rías Baixas region and the excellent Ribeiro wines. If you switch to more elaborate Japanese dishes, such as meats cooked in Teppanyaki style (grilled) or Muguiro (marinated red tuna, spicy), it is preferable to choose some type of Alsatian white variety, such as a Pinot Gris or Riesling.
Cheeses and wines together
But exotic cuisines are probably not the most complicated challenge when it comes to establishing combinations of wines with other foods. Without a doubt, the world of cheeses is the one with the most surprises and disappointments.
Associated almost by default (and who knows why) with red wines, some cheeses are able to completely destroy any red that crosses its path. This is the case of most French soft cheeses like Camembert, Pont l'Eveque, and Brie, which find their best companion in dry white wines that are of austere and mineral expression, such as the simplest Chablis wince and the fine Sauvignon Blanc varieties from Sancerre. A Tupí cheese from the Catalan Pyrenees could well be combined with a white Grenache from Priorat; for example. Blue cheeses, whatever their origin (from the English Stilton to Roquefort and Cabrales), share their preference for more powerful Ports wines.
Although you can also try these cheeses with a Sauternes, a sweet Oloroso, or an aged Moscatel. And, of course, with any sweet, natural, or fortified red wine, such as those made in Murcia or the south of France (Collioure, Banyuls, etc.).
Thus, when it comes to cheeses, it is better to reserve red wines of a certain substance, such as Reserva wines from La Rioja like Viña Pomal Reserva 2014 for hard cow and sheep cheeses. Although not exactly the most cured, they combine better with a Palo Cortado or an Amontillado.
It is fair to dedicate the final lines of this text about the mysteries of wine combinations to these great Sherry wines. Because the Olorosos, Amontillados, Palo Cortados, Pedro Ximénezes, and other wonderful Sherries are without a doubt the most versatile wines, able to hold their own with even the most complex and varied dishes, when all chances of combining a wine with food seem lost.
Along with the sparkling wines, the great jewels of the Marco de Jerez region (and Montilla Moriles) are the wildcards of the art of blissful wine and food pairing. Sorry, I mean combining. When all is said and done, this is nothing more than the art of eating and drinking as you please. It’s as simple (and difficult) as that.