The Wine Rules, copyright 2004 by Ernest Valtri
Originally published in Wine & Spirits Quarterly Magazine, Fall 2004 issue
Understand the rules. Break the rules. These are my two rules regarding the well-established rules of pairing wine with food. The rules exist because many experts over many years have discovered that there are indeed certain combinations of wine and food that not only compliment each other, but can also greatly enhance each other. Thus, the rules are worth knowing. However in some circles the rules are used to manipulate people, make them feel inferior, or to extract unnecessary funds from unknowing pockets. Again making the rules worth knowing…not to do these dastardly deeds, but to recognize them when you see them.
Then there’s your tongue. If it tastes good, well, isn’t that what really matters? If you want to drink a big, bold, full-bodied cabernet sauvignon with your salad because you like it, that’s okay with me despite it being “against the rules”. It’s much like artwork. Perhaps it’s hard to explain in art history terms why you like that picture of the Mona Lisa over your sofa, but hey, “I like it! She makes me feel good.” That’s sufficient reason to display your DaVinci. (Never mind that Leo didn’t give her any eyebrows.)
So what are the basics? White with fish, red with meats. We’ve all heard it and it actually is generally true, but with many exceptions that deserve not to be missed. My favorite accompanyment to salmon (prepared any way…from poached salmon to salmon jerky) is pinot noir, a relatively light bodied red. Whether you choose a pinot from America or Burgundy, the two best sources for it, you’re augmenting your salmon and making a lot of taste buds happy. Likewise, I’ve had some big, thick chardonnays that stand up well enough to a steak. I honestly prefer a substantial red wine with my steak, like a cabernet sauvignon, merlot, or zinfandel (that would be a red zin…the only kind), but breaking the rules with a gutsy, bold chardonnay on occasion is, well, a good rule to follow.
Know the following general principles and you’ll know what the wine world has agreed is best and you’ll also know what to do when you get the urge to strike out against the grain. Try the “big reds” with beef dishes of all sorts. These include cabernet sauvignon, merlot, zinfandel, shiraz/syrah, and the less popular but worthwhile petite sirah. With lighter meats like pork, chicken or turkey, you’re getting into the crossover area between red and white wine. These reds would be pinot noirs, Burgundies (which are also made from the pinot noir grape), Rhones, sangioveses and Chiantis (generally made from sangiovese grapes), while the whites are chardonnays, white Burgundy (which is also chardonnay) or semillon.
Fish dishes can often be divided into “light” and “heavy”. Generally, cold water (and typically larger, oilier) fish like salmon, tuna and swordfish are in the same crossover area just described, going very nicely with the same wine selection, plus Riesling. Lighter fish like sole or halibut match well with nearly any white wine short of the heaviest chardonnays. There are certainly many more varieties of meat, fish and wine to consider, but let’s keep it simple for now.
Is there any objectivity behind all this or is it just a matter of taste? Indeed there is! Most fish go well with an acidic condiment like lemon juice, vinegar or capers. Likewise, relatively acidic wines (whites are slightly more acidic than reds) compliment fish well. The tannins in big red wines (tannin is the compound in wine that makes you pucker and is most evident at the rear, outside area of your tongue and thought to be quite desirable when present in just the right amounts) are a very distinctive, often bold sensation and best compliment a similarly bold flavor, like beef or barbecued meats. (Okay, so maybe it isn’t entirely objective, but it’s true!)
There are many other factors serious oenophiles try to account for when matching wine and food, like temperature (of both the wine and the food), body (again for both the wine and the food) and the order in which the wines are best drunk. All worthy subjects for my future meanderings.
Learn the rules. Then decide for yourself whether the smoked salmon deserves a Gewurztraminer or a Chateuneuf du Pape. And if you don’t like the combination, you have only yourself to point your finger at because you know the rules…and when to break them!