Bianca Sanon’s article in Eater entitled “It’s Time to Forget the Old Rules of Wine Pairing” gets off on the wrong foot but ends up making excellent points anyway.
There is a long history of the all-knowing wine guru telling you that you absolutely must have X with Y. Sommelier courses like the Wine and Spirit Education Trust train and test students on traditional, tried-and-true pairings, maximizing the enjoyment of food and wine. This skill is among the most important components of the sommelier’s expertise, a supposedly quantifiable measurement that, in reality, is completely subjective.
Hmm. Not exactly. There are “tried and true” pairings that any somm should know because they work and have worked for decades. Grilled Steak with a rich, tannic, Cabernet Sauvignon; Stilton cheese and LBV Port; lobster with drawn butter and Chardonnay—there is widespread agreement about these among amateurs and professionals alike. If they were “completely subjective” there would be no such agreement. However, what is subjective is that we all have personal preferences that influence whether we enjoy a particular pairing or not. If you like lobster and Chardonnay, then you will enjoy their combination. If you don’t like lobster you probably won’t.
However, she is right that there is no “secret formula” that will “unlock the full potential of a dish.” There are no formulas, secret or otherwise. Pairing wine and food is a matter of find a match between an individual wine, and individual dish (which likely won’t be the product of a traditional recipe), and an individual person with their distinctive preferences and sensitivities. Cabernet Sauvignon and grilled steak might be a great pairing but it doesn’t follow that any Cabernet will work with any grilled steak, especially when you have to consider the sauce or other ingredients on the plate. Generalizations are just not going to apply.
When you add to this particularity the way we often eat today—ordering several small plates for the table from diverse global cuisines—your chances are finding a wine that pairs with every dish are very slim.
She provides three new rules of food and wine pairing that provide a useful framework. (Although we need to stop thinking of them as rules. They are guidelines for exploration)
“Pair to the vibe, not the plate.” Take into consideration the environment, the gathering and its purpose, the music, the weather, etc. It’s more important to serve a wine that fits the occasion rather than the Mélange of dishes on the table.
“Change the Vocabulary.” A subject close to my heart. Describing wines as brooding, shy, elegant, or vivacious tells us more than wine’s technical vocabulary about how a wine will capture the mood of an occasion. As she says, “drink a wine because of the way it makes you feel…”
“Just Drink What You Like.” As she notes, “The key to wine knowledge is a willingness to explore. The “wrong” wine is not a villain out to ruin a meal. Food is what’s bringing complex taste interactions into the mix and may affect the balance of the wine, not the other way around.”
This is too often overlooked in discussions of wine and food pairing. A wine will seldom ruin the food you’re eating. At worst they may just produce a standoff with no interaction at all. But food can absolutely ruin the wine you’re drinking. A dish with too much sweetness will make that $150 Napa Cabernet taste thin and sour.
Wine and food pairing is loads of fun if you approach it, not from the standpoint of “right” or “wrong,” but as a taste adventure and a form of play.