Do you know how to pair wine and food?
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Suggestions from Wine Pass about the realities of Piedmont's regional cuisine; techniques on wine and food pairing
When speaking of cuisine, food, and choosing recipes, a particular and sometimes delicate theme often comes up: the relationship between wine and food.
Food and wine pairing: the right wine with the right dish
Much has been discussed regarding the philosophy of pairing food and wine in order to arrive at the conclusion – more of an armistice, really – that the categorical imperative exists at the table insomuch as it does for any other personal preference; that is, set-in-stone pairing rules do not make sense because they can actually inhibit a person from appreciating wine, particularly those of high quality and ample personality.
However, some rules do exist that, if followed, allow a diner to enjoy the sensation of harmony between one dish and one wine, or one menu and one entire list of wines, each bringing out the best qualities of the other. Before entering what we might (pompously, perhaps) call “pairing techniques,” it's worthwhile to remember a sort of first-level classification of wines according to their organoleptic characteristics that may be useful as a reference for any type of situation that calls for a pre-determined dish. Our reference is the panorama of lower Piedmont viti-production.
The classification starts with light, white wines (Langhe Favorita, Gavi, Erbaluce di Caluso) and continues to medium-bodied whites (Gavi di Gavi, Roero Arneis, Langhe Chardonay). Continuing up the scale are rosé wines, which don't play a part in Piedmontese viticulture; and next are young, medium-bodied reds (Dolcetto d'Alba, Langhe Freisa, and Grignolino d’Asti), followed by bigger-bodied reds (Diano d'Alba, Nebbiolo d'Alba, Barbera d'Alba, Barbera d’Asti) and ending with the great red wines that age well (Barolo, Barbaresco, Ghemme). In their own department are aromatic wines, both still (Moscato d'Asti) and sparkling (Asti and Brachetto d'Acqui), and then “meditation” wines (Barolo Chinato).
With this type of classification, keeping in mind that there are exceptions such as whites and reds aged in wood, follows another category that divides wines between “still,” “frizzante,” or “spumante” (produced in the autoclave like Asti or in the bottle like Alta Langa metodo classico), "passiti" or "liquorosi" (Piemonte Moscato passito) and "aromatized" (Barolo Chinato).
That being said, it's possible to outline the first two primary confines for food and wine pairing (although the contrary of the following “rules” may also hold true): white wines go well with fish, and reds go well with meat. Some assert that the color of wine must complement the color of the food – that is, more or less dark and important wines according to the importance of the meat dish.
Another fundamental element of valuation is the structure of the dish. A savory dish cannot be supported by a simple-structured wine lacking in aroma and flavor; likewise, a light meal with simple flavors won't stand up to a wine with too much complexity and structure.
When pairing food and wine, it's also necessary to avoid some common errors that lead us to misrepresent characteristics of served wine. For example, the common opinion is that vegetables in the Italian pinzimonio, which is the name for serving raw vegetables with a simple dressing of olive oil, salt, and pepper, are not optimal for appreciating wine (especially fennel and celery); that chocolate, gelato, and vinegars can't tolerate any pairings; and neither can vegetables conserved in vinegar, soused fish, very fresh cheeses, and the mix of fruit called macedonia that includes citrus and liquors, even though many commonly held views turn out to be in disagreement with each other.
The reality of regional cuisine and food pairing
In Italy, the differences in regional cuisine often bring out situations that completely contrast with the rules previously addressed. Every territory of Italy is closely tied to a preselected menu of wines that is based on each zone's particular viticulture, and tradition often plays a determining role in choice. For this reason, you might come across a fish dish paired with red wine, and vice versa. Now, while these pairings aren't excessively inflexible to variations, in most cases, the match between wines and regional dishes almost always highlights the traditionality of the area's cuisine. In other words, go with it.
However wine and food may be paired, to happily join them in what some call a “marriage of love,” we should look for the diverse elements that characterize wine on one side and food on the other.
Harmony can be found the moment that not one single element (acidic, bitter, sweet, salty, fatty, spicy) of either the food or wine overpowers your palate. For example, if what's served for dinner is high in fat like the New Year's classic lenticchie e cotechino, or lentils and cotechino sausage, and the wine served with it is soft and alcoholic, the diner will find some disconnect. The soft structure won't hold up against the high fat content of the food, and the alcohol will seem dominating with such a plate. A better choice would be a young, fresh, even slightly sparkling wine with light tannins to cushion the sweet and soft cotechino, the frizzante effect “cleaning” the mouth of fat.
Another technique for food and wine pairing is called “by likeness,” particularly well-adapted for sweets where pairing with a brut spumante often happens, giving quite a punch (too much). In desserts, in fact, there is often a dominant component that poorly matches dry, fresh, and lively wines. Therefore, a lightly sweet, or even fortified (“liquorosi”) wine would be the better choice (always depending on the type of dessert, of course, keeping in mind if it's made with cream or it's dry, if its soft or hard, etc.).
If the function of wine at lunch is to clear the mouth and prepare the palate to taste another portion of food with new smells and flavors, then it is necessary the wine be at the same level of quality as the plate in such a way that it highlights the food's flavor.
Pairing “by contrast,” on the other hand, serves to avoid similar elements being brought together in the food and wine (bitter, acidic, sweet). It is true, however, that many heavily-scented foods are anyway paired with wines with complex and important aromas, while delicate foods with subtle aromas are paired with similarly-structured wines.
To conclude, the texture of a wine is a foil for the level of bitterness and savoriness of food; the alcohol responds to the juiciness; the tannins to oiliness; and acidity to fattiness.
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In some cases, the process is quite simple. In others, accompaniments might seem too bold. Keep in mind that a plate cannot be considered on its own and apart from the rest of the menu, but it may be inserted in a gastronomic sequence of courses that would do better with positioning a wine earlier or later in the meal.
Many "main" dishes (a broad category) can hence accompany a more or less simple-structured white wine as well as a young red that is lively and medium-bodied, if not more complex.
In the end, the right choice depends on personal taste, the mood of the day, the availability of the cellar and – why not? - the desire of anyone who would like to experience particular sensations of a plate or an entire menu (an exaggerated example: Barolo every day for lunch!).
Reserve the right to uphold that a better judge than yourself doesn't exist when it comes to deciding taste, preferences, and creativity. Buon appetito, and cheers!