wine food pairingThe recent column by James Lawrence about the increasing popularity of food and cocktail pairings was instructive. As the article points out, cocktails are versatile because you can adjust levels of sugar, acidity and alcohol to match the food you’re serving.

Over the past few years, I have observed with glee the growing emphasis on challenging the hegemony of wine as the automatic food-matching option – certainly in London, where sommeliers appear increasingly open to the possibility that certain dishes may benefit enormously from an alternative pairing.

I’m not quite as enthusiastic about cocktail pairings as Lawrence apparently is. Wine is still the best option for food pairing generally. But his column reminded me of a recent pairing conundrum  that is all too common.

I was working on developing a lentil stew recipe in which I use dates and caramelized onions to sweeten the broth and bring some life to the dish. I tried varietal after varietal searching for a wine that would stand up to the sweetness of the dish and also match the earthiness of the lentils. With sweeter dishes my go to wine is German Riesling. But Riesling is seldom earthy. Dessert wines would be too sweet. I need a semi-sweet red with interesting aromas.

In certain parts of Italy you might find an earthy red with some sweetness—Lambrusco comes to mind. But most of the Lambrusco we get here in San Diego is just fruity and insipid. There are the red blends at the supermarket with plenty of residual sugar like Apothic or Jam Jar but they are just pumped up fruit bombs without interest for wine lovers. If I were in the Midwestern U.S. where wine lovers still have a bit of a sweet tooth I might have scored a semi-sweet Frontenac or Marechal Foch that would work. But they aren’t available here. If I dug around long enough I might have turned up a late harvest wine that stopped short of dessert-level sugar. But that would be a long and difficult search.

I settled on Amarone. It’s earthy and most have enough residual sugar to pair with a dish sweetened by dates. It’s a bit heavy and high in alcohol for the dish but it will have to do. It’s a less than perfect match.

In the wine world we make a big deal about how wine is made to be served with food. But we don’t make wines that will pair well with many dishes. French and Italian  influenced food will of course pair well with wine. But stray beyond those cuisines and the options are too narrow. Which I take it was part of Lawrence’s point. As much as I hate to admit it, he’s right. We need more sweet options that provide interesting taste experiences if wine/food pairing is to succeed across all cuisines.

Granted, sugar covers up a host of wine faults and many sweet wines are cloying and unpleasant. But they don’t have to be.

We should lose some of our prejudices about sweet wine if the essence of wine is really its ability to enhance a meal.