Pairing wine and food can be daunting, even for the well-trained. The most famous guidance, to match red wine with meat and white wine with seafood, actually turns out to be relatively true in theory but also misguided in reality. It’s too unscientific to be universal, and misses the critical factor that how something is seasoned and cooked is as, if not more, important than what it is before it’s cooked.
One of my favorite pairings is steak au poivre with a really well-aged dry or semi-dry riesling, which is a perfect example of why that famous guidance is misleading. In general, wine should be more acidic than the food. This is especially true when the food is fatty, like this steak example, because the acid helps our taste buds and digestion process the fat, allowing more flavors to be detectable while making the meal go down a bit easier. Also, white wine tends to provide more contrast to the food, any food, than does red wine, so if you want the wine to stand up to, and stand out from, the heavy steak, a white is better suited to do that.
This last point on contrasting versus complementary wine and food pairings is really the main point of this post. When people think about pairing food and wine, they often default to finding the complementary pairing. Not only is it easier, but it’s more natural – we tend to look for compatibility in nearly every aspect of life – and can be very satisfying if achieved.
However, what I want to suggest in this post is that successful contrasting wine and food pairings can be both more fun and more satisfying. Here is another example: there’s nothing better than a fried fish sandwich with a good bottle of trousseau to wash it down.
Pre-planned pairings aside, sometimes you get lucky and stumble on a good pairing. One of my wife’s favorite games to play is getting through dinner and a glass of wine, and then asking if she can have (insert random snack) with another glass. It can drive me crazy, especially when it’s a special bottle of wine and she asks about a poorly fitting snack.
Earlier this week, I opened a bottle of 2015 Wind Gap Gap’s Crown chardonnay, a nice bottle from a now non-operational winery using grapes from a phenomenal vineyard. I had made a big salad topped with sautéed radishes, roasted acorn squash, tomatoes, apples and shrimp. The wine was a bit too acidic and lean for the salad, so the plan became to enjoy the wine after the meal was over.
When we finished the salad, Kayce began her game. She asked if the wine would go with Goldfish crackers. My instincts kicked in and I nearly defaulted to “no,” but I hesitated as I thought about it. “You know what, that might actually work.” She grabbed the Goldfish, and oh man, it was awesome. We had stumbled on to brilliance.
Let me show you what I mean by comparing the tasting notes of the wine pre and post Goldfish. Here’s a note on the aromas, which don’t change with the food, just to get it out of the way: a high-toned and slightly austere bouquet combining sharp lemon and lime zests, slate and crushed gravel, spring flower petals and honeysuckle.
Pre-Goldfish palate: barely medium-bodied with very crisp, slightly juicy acid that is quite long and precisely linear. Flavors include Meyer lemon, tangerine juice, slate minerality, Kaffir lime leaf and starfruit.
Now, here is the post-Goldfish palate: medium-plus in body with rounder, softer and buoyant acid that cuts through the cheese flavor nicely. The palate broadens, adding just a bit of sweetness and more acidic grip to the texture. It’s a more pleasant version of itself with the Goldfish pairing, and more enjoyable to drink.
I had so much fun with the pairing that I posted the above picture of the bottle with the Goldfish on Instagram and had a back-and-forth with friend and fellow wine blogger Isaac Baker of Terroirist.com. Isaac has done this kind of pairing before, and added that Goldfish go particularly well with Champagne. I’m curious to try that combination, and experiment with other cheesy crackers and bright white wines.
These unexpected wine-food combos that work because they contrast each other, rather than complement each other, are really satisfying because they are surprising and don’t hew to normal comfort zones. Try some contrasting wine-food pairings because no one should live their culinary lives according to what they already know. To provide some motivation, here are a few good places to start:
- A sharp chardonnay with a cheesy cracker – look for wines that are lightly oaked or made in stainless or concrete. Quality producers in go-to regions make this easy. You can find these wines really anywhere in the world, but for short cuts check out Chablis, Oregon and the following spots in California: Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Sonoma.
- Fried fish sandwich with trousseau – there isn’t a lot of trousseau out there, but from my experience those who make it do it in the traditional fashion (i.e. light to medium bodied with good acid and fine tannin), which is what you want for this. We had a 2017 Arnot-Roberts trousseau from the North Coast of California with our fried fish sandwiches last weekend, and the duo brought the house down with my in-laws. Traditionally most trousseau comes from the Jura region in France, but there are good producers of it elsewhere. For the record, we make our fried fish sandwiches with lightly breaded and pan-fried white fish (catfish, porgy and cod all work well), processed cheese, Portuguese rolls and a sauce made in equal parts of ketchup, whole grain mustard and mayonnaise. Don’t dare use real cheese, I promise you it isn’t nearly as good.
- Fried chicken and Champagne (or other acidic sparkling wine) – this is one of those under-the-radar classic food pairings. The acid and bubbles cut through the fattiness and crispiness of the chicken beautifully and can help you put down that last drumstick you wouldn’t otherwise consider a smart move. The beauty of this pairing is you can be flexible with the chicken and the wine. For the chicken, even the KFCs and Bojangles deliver in very real ways. For the wine, you need good acid and bubbles. You can’t go wrong with Champagne, but Cremants from Burgundy, Loire and Jura work beautifully as well, as do some of the better sparkling wines made elsewhere.
- Steak au Poivre and an aged dry or semi-dry riesling – this isn’t easy to pull off, but if done right the fattiness and pepper of the steak goes just perfectly with the acid and nuttiness of an aged riesling. For this, quality matters because cheap beef tastes bad and cheap riesling can’t reach the point of maturation needed. The cut of beef matters less than the quality and preparation, but for my money I go with hanger steak. On the wine side, go for trusted producers with at least ten years of age (15 or more is preferable) that have been properly stored the entire time. Don’t go sweeter than German’s Kabinett classification (maximum 188 grams of sugar per liter).
- Potato chips and Champagne (optional: and caviar) – late night snack craving meets fine wine meets decadence. In an ideal world, I’d start every dinner party with a plate of potato chips topped with caviar and glasses of Champagne.
- Dry sparkling wine with mac and cheese – this works best if the cheese is a soft and creamy variety.
- Full bodied chardonnay and bacon – I’ve not tried this yet, but a friend of mine swears by it. I’m told it’s critical that the chardonnay be rich enough to stand up to the saltiness and smokiness of the bacon, which makes good sense. Just make sure not to lose chardonnay’s acid as it is key to handling the bacon’s fat.