The Rules of Food and Wine?
The very idea conjures a book from the 1960s, The Wit and Wisdom of Richard Nixon, and the joke was that all the pages were blank. The first rule of food and wine is to drink what you like, eat what you like, and try to do both with people you like. The second rule is there are no other rules. But there ought to be recommendations. They seem to be needed, since so many people are embarrassed or intimidated by their lack of skill in this area. Chances are that anyone reading this article has bought a wine to accompany some food more than once this year. You're still alive, right? Then why are you so tense and unconfident in the faces of those snooty sommeliers, and the perception that there are rules that must be followed? Ignore them. While there are clearly wonderful matches of food and wine, the most important match is between the people and the wine. Palates vary - that should be obvious - and there's no point championing champignons and old Burgundy, if your guests don't like old Burgundy.
No Universal Truths
Truthfully, no universal matches of cuisine and beverages exist. Rather than seeking non-existent marriages between specific foods and wines, our initial approach should be to think about what often doesn't work and why.
But first, why do food and wine go together? We drink wine with food for many reasons, and one is a physiological phenomenon called adaptation. If you smell one thing for a while, it ceases to smell like much. Think of the last time you had prime rib; the first bite was glorious, right? If you're like most people, the third bite was nice, but less thrilling.
Enter the wine. If it's hearty enough, it washes the prime rib and most of its taste elements down our gullets; now the flavor is gone. Instead, a new aroma of heady wine fills the brain. Now take another bite of food, and it's more like that first glorious taste. Then back to the wine, which once again tastes fresh and different. Then the food. Then the wine. Do it some more. Now nap.
The easiest course when negotiating food and wine is to stick to foods and wines that are roughly the same intensity of flavor or richness.
Does this mean that Riesling doesn't go with prime rib? Actually, no. While most people wouldn't try it, top-notch Rieslings can have enough richness to handle an amazing variety of foods.
A perfect match?
Sure, because it's a warm evening and a cold Riesling is perfect for this patio dinner with friends. And since we like Riesling and barbecue, we think it's a great match. Imperfect matches.
What would be an imperfect match? A wide-bodied California Chardonnay, the kind with tail fins of oak, wouldn't taste as nice with the pork as it would without it. That's because spiciness, the hot kind, tends to hide the fruit in a wine. If the wine is really fruity, like an Aussie Shiraz or a California Zinfandel or many Rieslings, spiciness is a fun marriage. Without it, nothing more than the alcohol or the oak may come through.
A match that makes wine and food writers wrinkle their noses concerns California Chardonnay combined with pasta with marinara sauce. For a significant chunk of the population, the acidity in the tomato sauce wallops the fruit right out of the wine. But, as significantly, many people don't have this reaction and would be happy with the combination, if only waiters wouldn't point and whisper.
Many of those who have defended the Chardonnay-tomato sauce match may not be experienced at food and wine pairing, but use logic in coming up with an explanation. The pasta has lots of flavor, one might explain, and the Chardonnay has lots of flavor as well. There seems a rough parity between the two. What this strongly suggests is that most diners don't give two corks about the so-called rules, but instead follow internal concepts. Balance is the notion wine and food mavens drone on about, but balance is to a strong degree in the mouth (and nose) of the beholder.
A Matter of Taste
It's absurd for someone to proscribe, doctor-like, a specific wine with a specific food, unless that someone is willing to become familiar with all the likes and dislikes of the diner.
And just as some love coconut and others hate it, there's nothing wrong and everything right with people wanting to drink certain wines above all others, regardless of the cuisine. Still, let's acknowledge that certain flavors in foods and beverages can help or hinder the co-habitation of the two in your mouth, however temporarily.
For most people, tartness (acidity) in a dish will emphasize the bitterness in a wine. For many people, salt in a dish will soften the bitterness in a wine. For almost everybody, a dessert wine tastes best when it's as sweet as or sweeter than the dessert it accompanies.
These tendencies reflect common, but not universal experiences, and few diners are aware of this preference unless in some sort of clinical setting.
Most diners simply prefer matches that seem fair, equitable, and equally respectful of both components. When marrying food and wine, remember that a perfect consummation is a strictly personal experience.
But don't worry too much about it all, either. The game of wine and food is more like hunting with hand- grenades than with bows and arrows. Getting close will probably get the job done. Remember "Wine is Food" and wine is for everybody. Always drink what you like.