Why the obsession with food and wine pairings?

All you need is common sense.

Trust the modern obsession with perfection to come up with the idea that there is such a thing as the ideal food-and-wine match. Long before the age of celebrity chefs and “the world’s top 50 restaurants” people dined well enough, guided in part by their preferences when it came to the menu and the wine list, in part by the sommelier who, if consulted, would steer them away from catastrophic combinations. While no one was looking for marriages-made-in-heaven (after all, a kind of Victorian realism used to prevail), most people were acutely aware of the food and drink equivalent of the bunny-boiler.

You can work out most of the basic rules simply by applying common sense. Why would you serve an acidic wine with tart food – and get double the acid hit, or a light red with a heavy dish, so the wine flavours get swamped by a rich sauce? In bygone days the advice offered to those who wanted a rule of thumb was “light before heavy, dry before sweet, white before red, white wines with white meats and red wines with red meats”.

It’s true that a slavish attachment to these guidelines can be self-defeating. For example, it’s customary to serve white wine with fish, but not all fish is “white meat” and some fish – salmon is the best example – is not only not so white, but its high fat content makes it better suited to a light-ish red wine like a pinot noir. The little bit of tannin which comes with a well-made pinot breaks down the fat and helps to bring out the flavours in the fish.

Fatty food usually needs more acidity in a wine – which is why when you are serving crustaceans with a lemon butter sauce you instinctively seek out an unwooded white wine, preferably with quite grippy, citrus notes. Those South Africans who discovered prawns in Lourenco Marques before the revolution will remember that they were served with beakers of vinho verde, the fresh crisp “green” wine produced quite far north in Portugal.

There are a few useful ‘no-nos’ – combos which really don’t work well. One is artichokes, which coat your palate in such a way that the wine flavour is replaced by a tangy sweetness. The other is sharp acidity: avoid strong vinegars, even lemon juice, and use tomatoes sparingly for the same reason: acidity in the mouth turns the sip of wine into a bracingly tart experience. Strong spices overwhelm delicate flavours (which is no more than common sense). That’s why the conventional pairing for Indian and Thai food is either aromatic off-dry whites – like gewürztraminer – or the more welcome mug of beer.

While there are the occasional sublime moments – the wine enhancing the food, the food enhancing the wine, everything greater than the sum of the parts – these are few and far between, and are usually the result of happy coincidence, rather than rule-driven guidelines. It’s vastly more important to decide which is the more important (or less flexible) component – the food or the wine – to avoid the obvious clashes, and to make the most of the occasion.

This article is part of a series sponsored by RMB WineX. Moneyweb readers qualify for a special discount on RMB WineX tickets: click here to book with the discount code: MONEYWINEX2015


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Interesting article. There is something so pretentious and fake about the wine industry, i.e. “hints of cigars with chocolate undertones, lovely citrus flavours coming through the nose with a dash of avocado trapped in gooseberries blah, blah, blah”.I mean where do people get all this cr@p from????

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