There’s a lot of rubbish talked about wine and nowhere is there more rubbish than in discussion of the pairing of wine with food. Some have given up the struggle and say drink what you like. Others are still writing ridiculously precise instructions like “serve with butternut risotto”. I’m somewhere in between. You can enjoy most food with most wine; and what you enjoy is conditioned more by custom than by universal truth. But I do discern some principles at work: pair an acid wine with acid food; pair a sweet wine with sweet food; pair a delicate wine with lightly flavoured food; and pair a full-bodied wine with strongly flavoured food. Although, of course, rules are there to be broken.
How does this work in practice? Let’s start with fish. It’s not enough to say the wine should be white. If it’s a lightly flavoured fish choose a light white such as a Sauvignon Blanc or Muscadet. But if it’s in a strong or creamy sauce you’ll need a fuller white, like Chardonnay, or even a light red, like a Loire red or a Beaujolais. And if it’s salmon, tuna or monkfish, which have such distinctive flavours, a red goes especially well.
And beef? Similarly, it’s not enough to say it should be red. On the whole go for a full-bodied red (a Rhone, Bordeaux, Rioja, Languedoc or any number of New World wines). But if it’s in a tomato source, which is acidic, you need an acidic wine, like Chianti. That’s why Italian reds go so well with Italian food (which is indeed another ‘rule’ which has some validity – drink the wine of the region from which the food, or the recipe, comes).
Chicken? Don’t serve a light white – the chicken will swamp it. A Chardonnay would be fine or a light red like a Pinot Noir.
Cheese? Only serve a fresh white wine if the cheese is very light, like a fresh goat’s cheese. Any stronger cheese will swamp it so serve a stronger white or a red, and up the intensity of the red with the strength of the cheese. Ripe Camembert needs something with the heft of a Bordeaux. Or pair it with a sweet white like Sauternes. Sauternes and blue cheese are especially wonderful together. But if you are offering several cheeses are you going to have to offer several wines as well? The solution is to step out of line and serve an amontillado sherry, or a sweet Muscat or a Port.
At last, dessert. The French go back to the champagne they were drinking at the start of the meal. That’s ridiculous! Tart and sweet don’t go well together. Instead, knock their socks off with the sweetest sherry there is – Pedro Ximenez – or a sweet Muscat. And if you are serving chocolate, how about whisky or brandy? Chocolate kills almost any wine.
But, of course, there’s a problem; and the problem is greater the fewer people there are at the table. If there are just two of you, how are you going to cope with the need for maybe five different wines? A medium red will cope with most food. And if it’s a special meal, end it with the sweet sherry, Muscat or Port that is already open – they will keep for weeks or months if you recork them.