If retailers had a dime for every time a customer asked, ‘Can you help me decide which wine to serve with my dinner party?’ most of them could probably retire today.
Despite all the evidence that American consumers increasingly turn to wine as the mealtime beverage of choice, most still seem gripped with insecurity about what foods and wines go together best, especially when serving friends or family. Whether or not this worry is a remainder from the days when a bit of affectation dictated specific dishes with wines, food matching should be simple, even pleasant, if not exactly fun.
The good news for retailers is that the one important new rule in wine and food matching is ‘There are no rules.’ Demystified significantly more than 20 years ago in books like ‘Red Wine with Fish,’ making wine and food matches today is less about rigorous standards and more about personal taste, a willingness to experiment and current consumption trends.
Take, for example, the debate about wines with skyrocketing alcohol levels. Traditional rules would push wines at 15% ABV and above off the charts as a potential beverage to serve with appetizers or even many entrees, yet fine dining restaurants sell pallets full of these massive fruit and alcohol-intense bottles. Contemporary consumers sip similar wines as pre-dinner aperitifs as well, a practice once deemed to deaden the palate for the forthcoming salad or appetizer course. Clearly, those old rules have little meaning today, and when they reigned, New World wines like muscular Argentinian malbecs, with their intense black pepper, balsamic and berry fruit intensity, and intense Chilean carmeneres were rarely found at the table. How we consume our wine is as diverse as the regions from which we source them, so consumers more than anything else today require reassurance at the point of sale.
‘The big thing I tell people is that it’s important to go with what you like,’ says Kerrin Laz, wine director for Napa-based Dean & Deluca. We spoke around the end of November, when, she pointed out, plenty of Napa Valley drinkers had just served the big and fruity local style of cabernet sauvignon with their turkey, not a pairing you’ll find on anyone’s normal suggestion list.
What’s important for retailers, Laz points out, is steering customers in a direction they might not ordinarily go but still within their comfort zone. ‘More often than not, they know that their beef dish will go with big reds or oysters with sparkling wines,’ she says, but might need a little help when it comes to matching varietals outside their mainstream.
No matter the wine, the location or the shop, merchants will always be asked general food and wine questions, so it makes sense for any retailer to craft a set of loose guidelines to serve customers, and to help them make informed choices.
In general, the basic modern rules on wine and food compatibility focus on a particular wine’s overall body and the level of alcohol, sugar and tannin it contains. Think of wines running along the usual modern flavor spectrum (light white wines with no oak aging at one end, and intense, long aged red wines at the other) and do the same with food flavors ‘ raw vegetables and plain cheeses like mozzarella on one end of the flavor spectrum, and spicy foods like curried chicken and barbecued ribs on the other.
While establishing these sorts of guidelines should remind customers and salespeople alike about the importance of flavor intensity, they don’t necessarily offer direct comparisons; in other words, an Amarone or Zinfandel at the far end of the spectrum won’t necessarily work with its food counterpart. Rather, the notion of a flavor spectrum serves as a reminder that intensity will dictate good pairings. For example, fruit forward New World wines tend to hit the palate sweeter than do Old World wines made with a higher acid level and more traditionally balanced, which also tend to pack a lesser alcohol punch. Simple and subtle dishes ‘ especially composed salads, lightly dressed cooked seafood, pastas with light sauces ‘ can be overwhelmed by the New World powerhouses of oak and tropical flavors.
In another example, what to pair with a pasta with red sauce depends on how it’s prepared: if it’s summer and the tomatoes are fresh cooked and lightly seasoned, anything from an herbaceous sauvignon blanc and a full-bodied Italian white up to a dry rosÃ© or a light-bodied red like Beaujolais or Dolcetto d’Alba will do fine, keeping in mind the high acid of the tomatoes and seasoning (garlic, onions, basil, oregano, etc.) dominate the dish. Make that red sauce a hearty and meaty Bolognese, and you’ll head off toward cool climate, medium-bodied reds ‘ Sangiovese, Barberesco, Nebbiolo, Pinot Noir and Garnachas, for instance ‘ and even fuller-bodied warmer climate reds.
One golden rule with ethnic cookery is to match dishes and wines in terms of regionality. Not all Italian wines go well with lasagna or osso buco; not all Spanish wines like jamon or Manchego cheese, but drill down to the level of a dish and a wine’s origin and you’ll find many natural pairings.
Sparkling Wines Through the Meal
Some wines are almost universally food friendly and worth suggesting to party-giving customers. Everyone loves the effervescence of sparkling wines including Champagne, Cava and Prosecco, making them favorite beverages to open an evening or a meal under nearly every circumstance.
‘I always lean toward sparkling; you can’t really go wrong throughout the meal. It’s a great starter and I think its great throughout the night ‘ it shouldn’t be put away when you sit down to dinner,’ says Dean & Deluca’s Laz.
Sparkling wines work well with salty snacks, vegetables with dips, cured or raw fish and seafood, spicy cured meats, fried finger food, cheese, Asian style appetizers; it’s hard to think of anything the style doesn’t make shine. As Laz suggests, many light- to medium-intensity main dishes ‘ sauteÃ©d or roast poultry, poached, broiled or grilled seafood, creamy chowders and stews ‘ benefit from being served with a tart and cleansing sparkling wine.
The recent increase in brands and supply from Spain and Italy as well as CrÃ©ment de Bordeaux and other lesser-known French sparklers, means that retailers can more easily extend their range of sparkling wines they offer, from the high-end down to such Cavas as Jaume Serra Cristallino, frequently sold for a rock bottom $7.
Likewise, fino and manzanilla sherries, while higher in alcohol than most sparklers, are perfect with salty and briny snacks like olives, salted nuts, cured meats, hard cheese, fried seafood or other hors d’oeurves. There’s the added benefit of novelty for most contemporary wine drinkers, and where allowed by law, retailers may find it pays to keep a bottle of one of the popular sherry brands (La Ina, Tio Pepe) in the cooler to offer customers a taste when making the suggestion.
These examples offer two ways to set the stage: both are appetizing and high acid, though sherries are generally higher in alcohol and have more tang. Either style will leave the palate crisp and ready for more intense flavors. Yet many customers will prefer more expected wines styles. Keeping strength and potency in mind, the lighter pinot grigios, Portugese vinho verdes or Spanish albarinos, all generally lower in alcohol with some pleasing fruitiness, are great starter wines.
Seafood and tannin rarely mix well, but that doesn’t eliminate every red wine as a seafood course choice; in fact, salmon and pinot noir are almost a reflexive pairing these days. With lighter-hued fish and most seafood, light is still right. However, preparation is everything; creamy chowders love buttery chardonnays, tomato and garlic based stews prefer a more rounded red like tempranillo, and grilled whole fish, well-seasoned and oiled, do well with reds ‘ flakier fleshed fish like snapper better with lighter young reds, dense-fleshed fish including swordfish, tuna and halibut able to manage medium-bodied reds such as Rioja, Burgundy and barbera.
Chicken, Pork, Game, Beef
As mentioned, the most important factor in matching is to pair a wine’s body with the main or dominating ingredient in a dish. So, while chicken is the most popular American protein source, it can be a bland one, so preparation matters the most. Poached or sautÃ©ed chicken breast is likely to welcome light-bodied whites, but when richly sauced will do well with New World and French chardonnays, and Austrian gruner veltliners. Roast chicken, a stew with onions, mushrooms and carrots, will welcome a heavier-bodied white like oakey Australian or California chardonnay, as well as Chianti Classico, Burgundies and other old world Pinots. Ramp up the intensity of seasoning, and with chicken, you can generally do the same with the reds, getting to the full-bodied reds like shiraz, cabernet and wines from the Rhone.
Pork and game are probably the most versatile of the proteins, managing easy with light unoaked and fruity whites in the form of barbecued ribs and grilled sausages, good with richer whites in the form of pates, with light and medium reds in salamis, bacon and other cured varieties, and many sausage styles with medium to full-bodied reds. Roast pork and game dishes, or creamed or highly-seasoned recipes, follow the same rules as poultry ‘ the most intense seasoning or transformative cooking style will dictate which aisle to shop.
Most beef dishes, except for those highly spiced, especially Asian, normally call for the fuller bodied reds, though lightly seasoned low-fat cuts are fine with medium-bodied reds. The more caramelized the cooking style (high-heat grilling, long and slow cooking), the more intense the wine can be, so you should be looking to cut the fat and intensity with mouth-watering fruit, acid and tannin.
Dry Versus Sweet
In the European-American dining tradition, sweet wines don’t usually get much respect until the end of a meal, but some can provide a welcome surprise when offered with a before-meal cheese snack, with the idea that salty and sugary foods match well.
But there’s a reason why the lightly sweet wines like German spatlese and auslese, Rhine wines and others are frequently offered as matches with spicy foods, especially Szechuan, Indian, Thai and other Asian countries and regions. With high levels of soy sauce and fish sauce, red and green chilis, or other intense and wine-challenging ingredients (cilantro, lemon grass, ginger, cumin, tamarind), these dishes can make many wines seem hot with alcohol, tart with acid or chewy with tannins. There are exceptions, of course; sparkling wines and light and lightly-chilled reds like Beaujolais, or other fruity, low alcohol reds can work great. But the best bets are low alcohol and fruity whites.
Americans increasingly favor vegetarian dishes, but that doesn’t change the easy new rules: judge what to pair based on the intensity of flavors in the dish. Like with other dishes, be aware of the level of sweetness and other potentially dominant ingredients like vinegars, chilis and pungency.
There are always the vegetable wild cards, among them artichokes, asparagus and ramps, which mostly shine with the more delicate of white wines, though there are exceptions. Which is always the case in this New World of food and wine pairing, a situation that should be welcomed as wines from Greece, Eastern Europe and other regions become more widely available here. They call America the melting pot for a reason, and for retailers just like with consumers, the discovery of new wine and food matches that work should be a cause of celebration.
For Goodness SakÃ©
Brewed like beer but served like (and with the average potency of) wine, sakÃ© every few years generates a new group of converts in America, a significant number of them sommeliers. Without tannin, but frequently imbued with the mouth-watering qualities of umami (meaning deliciousness or savoriness, umami is the fifth taste after sweet, salt, sour and bitter), sakÃ© has a broad adaptability with food, facilitating pairings with dishes containing lots of vinegar, fiery spices, pungency and otherwise aggressive flavors.
Selling sake, however, has always been a problem, as the range of categories, label identification and other details of the production methods and use escape most American consumers and stop their decision-making at the cooler door.
Yet with the emergence in many American cities of izakaya bars (rustic, raucous and fun Japanese-style spots where food is secondary to drinking), sake is finding fans among younger consumers, who love its food-friendly qualities and range of flavors. SakÃ© sales figures have started to grow by double-digits in the last year or two, helped by the marketing impact and awareness built by branded sakes, like those from Japanese-produced Ty Ku, American-made SakeOne (whose brands include Momokawa and Moonstone) and longtime presence Gekkeikan. Restaurants, sensitive to both international dining trends and the shifting of the American palate, have started including sakes on their menus – PF Chang’s serves sake flights in some locations in order to help customers determine their preferences.
The bottom line on sake is that it can take its place as a food match in place of any white wine group ‘ crisp and dry, fruity and floral, sweet and luscious, robust and challenging. Retailers who keep a range of sakes cold and ready to drink (warming the rice wine has long been
considered a way to hide the faults of a poorly made variety) will have another option when a spicy and difficult menu question is posed by customers.
The Psychology of the Ask
The fact that many customers still turn to sales people for help when selecting a wine should be a source of opportunity for merchants, but unfortunately, most customers usually don’t ask the right question. Instead of directly answering, ‘What food would this go with,’ or ‘What should I serve with (blank),’ it would probably be smart to respond with some questions of your own.
Like, ‘What’s your favorite wine or varietal,’ or ‘Do you like the wines from a particular part of the world?’ Narrowing down their field of comfort will make providing a range of selections easier. If a customer only drinks California chardonnays or likes Washington State merlots, then they’re telling you a lot about their taste preferences and limits. You may have just sampled a remarkable Austrian blauburgunder that you think goes great with many dishes, but now’s not the time, nor this the customer.
Some of your questions are likely to stop the conversation flat. Customers are notoriously cagey about sharing how much they’d like to spend, afraid that they will be upsold into something unfamiliar, so steer clear of, ‘What price range are you thinking of?’ Instead, once you get a general idea of their preferences, steer them toward a style or region that you stock in a range of prices. Then you can make more specific recommendations based on whether they like their chardonnays with loads of vanilla, or crisp and lively, and let them make the price call on their own.
Rules to Remember
If there is a rule about wine with food today, it’s ‘Make sure you like the wine you’re drinking.’ But there are certain sensory rules that anyone in the wine business needs to keep in mind ‘ here are four:
1. The higher the alcohol in a wine, the more it will intensify the fiery sensation of spicy foods. Wines with some residual sugar and lower alcohol work best, which is why Riesling has often been the go-to wine in Thai and other Asian cuisines using plenty of chiles, fish sauces and other intense ingredients.
2. Fat loves astringency and tannin, and vice versa. Strong salty and fatty cheeses work best with medium to full bodied reds ‘ zinfandel, New World Cabernets, Riojas – while more fresh and sour cheeses, like unaged goat or sheep, want something tangy, like sauvignon blanc from New Zealand.
3. Like sometimes softens like. When a highly acidic dish ‘ a lemony ceviche or summery gazpacho, for instance ‘ is served with a similarly acidic wine, both will taste less tangy when in combination. Salty foods, too, will soften a high acid wine.
4. Most wines will taste sour and tannic when served with a sweet dessert, which is why ports, sauternes and Pedro Ximenez sherries are reliable suggestions for the end of the meal, or with extremely fatty and salty cheese, like Roquefort or other intense blue cheeses.