Most Wine/Food Pairings Make No Sense: Towards A Meaningful New Format

Traditional Wine/Food Pairings

Restaurants in conjunction with wine distributors/retailers promote a product that works very well for them: wine and food pairing dinners. For restaurants, these events fill seats that might otherwise go empty. And wine merchants are provided with another marketing vehicle.

Typically, these pairings involve four to seven courses with a separate wine for each course. “Rules” have been drawn up by self-professed “experts” on what wines taste best with different foods. For example, Ray Iles’ 15 “rules” for wine/food pairings (Food and Wine Magazine):

  1. Champagne is perfect with anything salty.
  2. Sauvignon Blanc goes with tart dressings and sauces.
  3. Choose Grüner Veltliner when a dish has lots of fresh herbs.
  4. Pinot Grigio pairs well with light fish dishes.
  5. Choose Chardonnay for fatty fish or fish in a rich sauce.
  6. Off-Dry Riesling pairs with sweet & spicy dishes.
  7. Moscato d’Asti loves fruit desserts.
  8. Rosé Champagne is great with dinner, not just hors d’oeuvres.
  9. Pair a dry Rosé with rich, cheesy dishes.
  10. Pinot Noir is great for dishes with earthy flavors.
  11. Old World wines and Old World dishes are intrinsically good together.
  12. Malbec won’t be overshadowed by sweet-spicy barbecue sauces.
  13. Choose Zinfandel for pâtés, mousses and terrines.
  14. Cabernet Sauvignon is fabulous with juicy red meat.
  15. Syrah matches with highly spiced dishes.

“Off-Dry Riesling”, “Earthy Flavors”, “Old World Dishes” – What? Where did these rules come from? Were there any tasting tests to back these up? No. My reaction – they are nonsense!

A somewhat more detailed list of recommended pairings appears in the following table. I adapted it from a chart appearing on The Bungalow Chef web site. I don’t know where he got it but similar charts are widespread. In fact, the verbiage is so similar as to suggest they were copied one to another.

So apparently, duck is good with Malbec and Zinfandel but not with Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. And shellfish does not go well with any red wines. Other rule-makers claim that asparagus, artichokes, brussel sprouts, green beans and chocolate do not go well with any wine. Oh?

The food-wine pairing dinners normally follow the same format: light, slightly sweet whites with hors d’oeuvres and a couple of introductory courses, then heavy whites with a fish course. Heavy reds are then served with meat followed by desserts with lighter, sweet wines.

For example, here is a wine-food pairing dinner currently being offered by a restaurant near where I live:

Course 1: Tiramisu Pistachio Pâté with a Sweet, Dessert-Type Wine;

Course 2: Antipasto:  Grilled Zucchini & Duxelle of Fennel served with a Light White Wine;

Course 3: House-made Ravioli of Butternut Squash & Sweet Potato, Sage & Thyme served with a Light Red Wine;

Course 4: Roasted Cod & Herbed Viennoise, Tomato Fondue & Grain Mustard served with another Light Red Wine;

Course 5: Roasted Filet Mignon, Foie Gras Sauce, Risotto Croquette with Parmesan & Wild Mushrooms served with a Heavy Red  Wine;

Course 6: Gran Cacio Etrusco Cheese, House-made Pear Chutney, Toast served with a Light Red Wine;

Course 7: Dark Chocolate, Walnut & Confit Orange Torte, Mascarpone & Vanilla Bean Crème served with a Sweet Dessert Wine.

I have problems this format and dinner:

  1. These pairings are imposed, not giving you a chance to decide what food-wine combinations you like;
  2. So you don’t learn what wines you like with different foods;
  3. Several courses include foods that you and I don’t happen to like and never eat.

Towards a Meaningful New Format

Tasters should be able try different wine/food combinations to determine what they like. For example, consider the foods and wines presented in the following chart. The wines range from light to heavy and the foods represent different groups. The wines and foods are not paired. The point is to have the tasters choose what wines and foods pair well for them.

Using these groupings, there are 36 possible pairings. A perhaps more manageable approach is to reduce the wine and food groupings as shown in the following chart. It includes the basic wine types and the standard dinner offerings. It allows for a series of tastings with different wine and food offerings at each. Tasters would get a chance to learn for themselves what pairings they like and don’t like.

What Would Be Learned?

Following numerous and extensive blind tastings of wines, it has been found there is no correlation between what people like and wine prices.[1] Beyond that and more importantly, it appears there is no agreement among so-called “expert” tasters. This strongly suggests that most wines are “good enough” so that what wines you like comes down to individual personal preferences. This may well happen with pairing preferences as well. I happen to like artichoke hearts with light red wines and shellfish with heavy reds….

Final Thoughts

I can understand that some people will continue to enjoy dinners where your wine/food pairings are pre-determined. After all, people pay $1,228 for 2 to have an 18-course tasting dinner at the Guy Savoy restaurant in Paris (wine is extra).[2] And while I prefer Asian cuisines to those of Europe, such food tastings do have an appeal. But when it comes to wine/food pairings, I prefer a format where I can actually learn something.

[1] Robin Goldstein, Johan Almenberg,  Anna Dreber, John W. Emerson, Alexis Herschkowitsch, and Jacob Katz, “Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better? Evidence from a Large Sample of Blind Tastings”, Journal of Wine Economics, vol. 3, no. 1; Sébastien Lecocq and Michael Visser, “What Determines Wine Prices: Objective vs. Sensory Characteristics”, Journal of Wine Economics, vol. 1, no. 1; Robert Ashton, “Wine as an Experience Good: Price Versus Enjoyment in Blind Tastings of Expensive and Inexpensive Wines”, Journal of Wine Economics, vol. 9, no. 2; Lenox Wine Club.


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