Friday, November 20, 2009

Red wine with fish?

"Red wine with fish. I should have known." So said James Bond to the villain Red Grant in From Russia With Love. Not to contradict the man of all men in the Bond movie of all Bond movies, but perhaps he wasn't aware of salmon with Pinot Noir? Or, more properly in the case of Bond, salmon with red Burgundy? More recently, Wine Spectator executive editor Thomas Matthews essentially gave an updated iteration of Bond's position: "I was pleasantly surprised by the way the Rioja paired with sea scallops served with chorizo and polenta," he said of a red wine a restaurant paired with his fish course. Is that such a stretch? The spice of the chorizo, richness of the polenta. A red wine doesn't seem like a stretch or a surprise.

What the sentiment of Matthews suggests is that the old stereotypes about wine and food remain strong. Of course, certain traditional pairings of wine and food attain that status because they work so well. Have an excellent, well-aged Bordeaux with a roasted rack of lamb, and you'll be transported to an ethereal plane. Find a slightly funky, simple, cheap red Burgundy to pair with sottocenere, the delightful cow's milk cheese with black truffles, and you'll gain full understanding of what people mean when they talk about the mushroom characteristics of Pinot Noir.

Traditional pairings aren't bad. Nor are they, however, sacred cows. The wine world has been expanding exponentially over the past few decades. Experimentation has increased on numerous fronts. Winemakers have achieved greater understanding. Quality has increased. Value remains in many respects, as up-and-coming regions reach new levels. In the realm of wine and food, this spirit of experimentation that winemakers have embraced with such gusto needs to make greater inroads when it comes to food pairings. Old ways need to be rethought. Take, for example, the notion that wine goes with cheese. In some cases (see the sottocenere example above), this works out beautifully. Port or Sauternes and Stilton. Parmesan and an earthy Italian red. But for the most part, cheese and wine pair terribly if you eat them together, to try to mingle their flavors. Cheese sticks to your mouth and dominates most of the time. Eaten separately, they can be delightful, but not in the usual "pairing" sense.

A smart winemaker from Sonoma County, John Holdredge, imparts great wisdom in this arena. It applies to wine snobbery in general and the thicket of food and wine pairings in particular. Wine is like food, John says. No one has ever taught you to eat. You either like it, or you don't. If you like it, eat it. If you really like it, eat some more. If you don't like it, eat something else. Wine is just food: if you like it, drink it. If you really like it, drink some more. If you don't like it, drink something else. The same attitude should apply to wine pairings: eat what you like, drink what you like.

The simple truth is that most people don't actually drink wine with their food. They tend to eat with the occasional sip or, at least, don't drink the wine in a way to try to meld its flavors with those of the food. That only provides more reason to maximize your personal pleasure in choosing your food and wine. If you want something non-traditional, go for it. You shouldn't worry about the wine geeks, but if you do, score points for going for contrasting pairings. Have Pinot Noir with grilled steak because you want the acidity to cut the richness of the fat. Drink Syrah with halibut because it's cold outside, and you want to. It doesn't matter. Fight the rules. People tend to still be too uptight about wine. It's just another citizen of the dinner table, like the salt or pepper shaker. Don't let it rule you.

So in the spirit of doing what you feel, here are a few adventurous examples:

1. Roasted chicken with California Syrah
Syrah tends to be a bit fat, and the California incarnations often are big, brawny, and full of forward fruit. Chicken normally would thought to be too delicate, but it also takes on an earthy, herbal quality with common preparations, such as with herbs de provence. This can be really nice during cooler weather.

2. Popcorn with aged Cabernet Sauvignon
Popcorn has become pretty chic in pairing with things like Champagne and Chardonnay. But try it with a Cabernet that has some age on it. It's a tasty way to focus on the wine without tiring out your palate.

3. Filet Mignon with Rose Champagne
A simple filet mignon, pan-seared or broiled, has a delicate flavor but also the unavoidable richness of beef. The sturdier fruit of rose Champagne is enough to stand up to this more delicate steak, and the wine's crisp acidity will help cut the richness.

4. Indian food with Pinot Noir
Often you hear of pairing wines that work well with spicy food with Indian cuisine -- Gewurtraminer, Riesling, Champagne, Zinfandel, Malbec, and the like. But Pinot Noir works exceptionally well with many dishes, particularly if the wine emphasizes the Asian spice quality you can often find in Pinot. Russian River Valley does this quite well, pairing nicely with ginger, mace, saffron, anise, and other commonly found spices. You'll want to avoid very spicy (in terms of heat) dishes, though.


Anonymous said...

yes yes yes to Pinot Noir with Indian food! I find that it really does something different to the meal--as you said, not a good choice for fiery Vindaloo, but being a good North Indian girl, I tend to make dishes that have more layered spice and less heat, so the Pinot can work well.

Unknown said...

Pinot Noir with ANY food! Or with NO food!