Paring Down Pairings of Wine and Food

Bob Andrzejek, a longtime Wine Consultant with Surdyk’s, probably has seen more than his fair share of panic. After all, nothing’s quite like the pressure of imminent holiday entertaining to unsettle an otherwise confident buyer.

As Andrzejek muses, “Someone once said that if people would just drink the wine they liked with the food they liked to eat, they would save themselves a lot of headache.”

His statement may be very true, but if Mother is coming to dinner, which of us never has entered the liquor store with quaking knees, searching for that perfect “holy grail” wine to grant victory to our holiday dinner? According to Andrzejek, taking up that quest, while admirable, may be no more than a fool’s errand.

Photo by Hubert Bonnet

Andrzejek says, “People get overly concerned and anxiety-ridden trying to find the one perfect wine with everything. But everyone drives a different car, and listens to different music, so why do they have this idea that there’s one magical wine?”

The myth of the perfect wine pairing must be a recent invention in the broader spectrum of culinary history, but it is nevertheless a strongly held idea. Giving it undue weight is the old adage about pairing white wines with fish and poultry, and red wines with red meat. Neither Andrzejek nor any of the other wine aficionados I interviewed rejects this sentiment entirely, but they caution against taking the pairing “rule” too far.

Andrzejek states, “Chicken with white wine—that’s a good one—but if you have chicken cacciatore or coq au vin, it’s more about the sauce.”

Wines respond much differently to meats with heavier seasoning, so a good pairing will take into account not only the meat, but also its preparation.

Maybe it is a comfort to some that there are no food and wine police, and no hard and fast rules, but that leaves most of us completely stumped at the liquor store without much to go by.

Zander Dixon, formerly of Zander Café, demystifies the process: “Generally, when I’m pairing food with wine, I go about it one of three ways. The first would be a parallel-component match, which would be if the wine is showing characters of cherry and herbs, I will try to match those characters directly. Then, there’s the contrasting pairing—if a wine is showing a lot of sweetness, I may put it with a bitter or a hot flavor. And then, there’s the complementary pairing, and that would be a situation if a wine is showing a smoky quality—Rhones can be a little smoky and chewy sometimes—so, when that’s the case, I may pair that with pork, because we associate smoke with pork.”

Dixon takes his pairings one step further, explaining, “Because wine is so complex, and it invokes a lot of emotion, it has a mood, so you have to consider that, too. You have to consider the event it’s being served at. If it’s a family gathering, you want it to be comforting. You don’t want it to be overstated in its elegance, but you don’t want it to be too simple, either.”

The single most common wine-pairing mistake that we Americans make, according to Roy Goslin of Z Wines, isn’t choosing a wine that conflicts with the flavors of the food. Our flagrant faux pas is choosing a wine that completely overpowers the food.

In Goslin’s words, “A lot of wines today are being made to grab your attention with the first sip, and those wines don’t necessarily work well with food.”

Goslin insists those big, bold wines still have their place—on their own, paired with a robust steak, or served alongside a chocolate dessert. Nonetheless, they are probably not the best choice with most holiday fare. Instead, he recommends giving less attention-grabbing wines a second try.

As Goslin suggests, “Take the wine home, and have it with dinner, and you will find it works better.”

The wine with the showiest rating, the rave reviews, and the biggest price tag might not be your best bet, either. Just because one wine enthusiast loved it doesn’t mean that you or your family will, and that you’re in the wrong. Everyone’s palate is different, and one man’s sweet may be another man’s off-dry.

With the overwhelming selection of different wines available from all over the world, learning about your personal preferences for wine and food pairings is bound to take some time. However, it is also perhaps the easiest and most pleasant topic to research. Available are several good books on the subject, as well as frequent classes around the Twin Cities, but all one really needs is a good liquor store and an open mind.

After all, Dixon points out, “You can read all the books you want, but if you’re not drinking the wine, you’re not learning anything.”

With Thanksgiving come and gone, and Christmas around the corner, not all of us have enough time for what is essentially an educated trial-and-error tasting process. So, for those of us who just are starting to strategize pairings, Andrzejek, Dixon, and Goslin have spotlighted a few of their favorites.

Goslin, who hails from South Africa, tends to avoid some of the sweeter accompaniments with a holiday turkey in favor of traditional roasted vegetables in butter or olive oil, along with a nice, rich gravy. In his native country, a red wine would be served more often with such a meal, but here, customers favor a Vouvray, Riesling, or Gewurztraminer.

A lovely wine available at several locations throughout the Twin Cities that Goslin feels works wonders with turkey is Bush Camp The Sundowner, a Chenin Blanc—priced at around $12, it is also an incredible value. If your holiday meal includes ham, he would recommend a good rosé, or an off-dry white. However, you could opt for a lighter-style red, or a true pinot noir.

As Goslin notes, “A pinot noir should show some strawberry or a hint of raspberry, but it should be subtle, and not over the top. And it should show a little bit of earthy characteristics, like some wild mushroom, and there’s a characteristic that people in the trade describe as ‘forest floor.’”

Goslin, who strongly recommends avoiding cheaper versions, opines, “I think a lot of [cheaper] pinot noirs are rubbish. Obviously, there are exceptions, but you would have to work to find them.”

Making a good point that it is not necessary to pick only one wine to go with dinner, Andrzejek observes, “If you’re serving for more than just a few people, try a variety of wines. You’ve got 10 different items on your table. Get some different bottles, and have people try what they like.”

Andrzejek often favors an American Gewurztraminer (such as Firestone or Snoqualmie Naked), which offers a little sweetness, as well as hints of cinnamon, apple, and nutmeg. With sides of sage stuffing and cranberries, a Beaujolais, a Pinot Noir, an off-dry Rosé, or a Riesling with a touch of sweetness can suffice. For customers on a budget, he suggests saving money on whites, and spending it on higher-end reds.

Like Goslin, Dixon is a fan of a South African Chenin Blanc with turkey, if you keep your seasonings light. However, with a darker gravy, candied yams, and the like, he may reach for a Zinfandel, alongside a Beaujolais and a dry rosé as alternatives. After dinner, he often serves a locally made Ratafia from Alexis Bailey vineyards.

Dixon adds, “Of course, you can’t beat a nice bottle of champagne for dessert. If you want to impress that special someone, it certainly fits the mood.”

Let’s hope your liquor store has someone like Andrzejek on staff to assist customers. But if you absolutely are flying blind, Dixon’s motto is to steer clear of wines with cute, kitchy labels.

As Dixon remarks, “It’s a good sign they’re not using the quality of the wine to sell the wine—they’re using the label to sell the wine. It’s not a hard rule, and I probably miss some wines because of that, but I find it to be true more often than not.”

No hard-and-fast rules about wine exist, but one overwhelming rule that governs the industry is change. The Chardonnays of today will not be those of the next generation. The market is shifting endlessly in response to consumer demand, which is fickle.

When the film Sideways premiered, everyone suddenly spurned Merlot, and began buying up Pinot Noir. The industry then responded with a liturgy of cheap Pinot Noirs.

My article has nowhere the same audience, and this magazine’s readers already march to the tune of their own drummers. I, therefore, don’t anticipate creating a huge butterfly effect in favor of South African Chenin Blanc. But if I do, I hope it will result in a lot of successful dinners and happy guests.

Happy holidays, all! Eat, drink, and be merry.

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