I think we’re finally gaining some wisdom about wine and food pairings. After witnessing a demonstration in which the Napa Cabernet didn’t taste better with steak, and the fish and white wine produced “muddled flavors and definitely no fireworks,” Remy Charest endorses Jancis Robinson’s advice from 20 years ago
“Maybe the time has come to tear up traditional food and wine advice,” wrote Jancis Robinson MW, in an article written in 2001. As far as pairings go, she wisely added “that (a) it is very difficult to get it completely wrong and that (b) it is very, very rare to get it completely right.” Loose translation: relax.
It really is time to get rid of the rules. There are too many exceptions to them and too many contexts in which they aren’t relevant. They really aren’t serving a purpose.
An excellent wine and food pairing is an aesthetic experience and aesthetics is not a rule-guided activity. To think you could have a remarkable food and wine pairing experience by following a rule is akin to thinking you could create a work of art by painting by numbers. When pairing food and wine we’re dealing with individuals—individual wines, individual dishes, individual diners in a unique situation. Generalizations will seldom be helpful Charest quotes Marc Almert, winner of the 2019 Best Sommelier of the World competition:
He says he prefers not to lecture guests about whether wines are an unsuitable match, “but rather go with the flow of the evening. I like to call it wine-guest-situation-food pairing rather than just wine-food pairing.”
This is not to say there are no great pairings. There are, but it’s a complex matter to get them right. It requires a detailed knowledge of the flavors, aromas, and the chemical compounds you’re working with.
There are a couple of shortcuts he mentions: use acid and salt in a dish to get it to cohere with a wine or pair for texture and weight.
But the bottom line is that if you’re looking for that magical pairing you have to know what you’re doing and work at it. Even for experts there are as many misses as successes. In my experience with tasting menus and wine pairings at Michelin-starred restaurants only about 50% of the pairings are extraordinary.
But this is exactly what we should expect from a complex, aesthetically-rich experience. Some works of art are successful, many are not.
For us non-experts, it’s something to have fun with. Experiment, try the unexpected, and be thrilled when you find a new combination that works.
And Charest is right. It’s pointless to have anxiety about something that should be fun.