Wine pairing, what a headache..
Not that it has to be.
I feel slightly guilty to be griping about wine pairing now, because once upon a time, it was a favourite pastime of mine. I was the biggest advocate, coaxing my poor friends to pay more attention to their wine and to their food, the juxtaposition. I was nibbling, sniffing, and pontificating away, out loud. Annoyingly going on about how this would go with that, how this could be made to go with that, how we should be drinking this or that.
At the time, I was also playing around in the kitchen with wine in mind, often composing menus starting from wine as opposed to the traditional other way around. It was so much fun. Eyes wide open to this other alchemy at play; I was beginning to understand how I could take a leap up from cooking something great by taking a dish over the top with the right wine, especially if I let the wine lead. I was on the first, steep part of that learning curve, eagerly attending wine tastings, excited to detect every last note in a wine, and to tweak out every little nuance in my cooking. I loved the challenge, and found it rewarding; the energy and patience required came easy. I was devoted to finding the ‘perfect fit’. Most importantly, I was backed up by a deep wine cellar and a team of sommeliers. Key.
The thing is, no matter how green or cushioned I was then, I believed in it wholeheartedly, and now I don’t. The ‘perfect wine fit’, that is. I do in theory yes, but for real life, no.. Of course, I know a wine can elevate a dish, and make it sing, and vice versa. A wine can also wreak havoc on a dish (and vice versa) or simply lose its character, a crying shame. From a chef’s point of view, it is worse when the food doesn’t shine because of a stupid wine. At best, a wine doesn’t get in the way and is something you enjoy drinking, period.
The bottom line
I love wine as much as ever, and am just as curious about it in all its variety; I just couldn’t be bothered to spend too much time on preliminary farting around, speculating how it might interact with food in this guise or that. Beyond considering a few basic principles, the truth is only revealed in trying things out; every particular meal and circumstance is unique. And most of the time, it isn’t practical to return to the kitchen and fuss with seasonings once the wine is open (which I might have readily done before). Personally, my number one consideration in choosing a wine now comes down to what I feel like drinking, perhaps a wine that has peaked my interest that I’m eager to try, or simply something familiar that I happen to be in the mood for. Number two is matching the body or style of wine with the food - light body with light body, big with big, approximately matching the weight and intensity of flavours. Obviously, there isn’t much point in opening a whopper of a red with a delicate shrimp or fish dish, nor firing up a pepper steak when a complex, aromatic Riesling is on the agenda. That’s the bottom line.
On top of that, I do always keep some general guidelines in mind, and I pay heed to the tried and true: classic pairings like Sauvignon blanc and chèvre, lobster and burgundy, as well as personal rules like crisp white most of the time, Riesling with Proscuitto, Oysters with Prosecco, and Chianti with Bolognese, Champagne and good Burgundy anytime. It always depends if food or wine is the priority too; keeping the one that is off-setting the other good, but restrained.
The elements at play - games and headaches
There are other tidbits I’ve learnt over the years that I bring to the table, the very things I once got off on, but am now calling on others to dismiss, because herein lies the headaches.. Without any desire to play sommelier or pick specific wines, I can’t help but have my opinions on what goes with what, in a broad sense. I know that my customers often get worse advice from professionals with respect to my food only because I know my food and they don’t. Knowing the chef’s style is as important as knowing the ingredients. Many wine guides have people thinking that if there are blackberry notes in the wine, they should be eating blackberries. Goddamn it, I don’t care what the wine specialists say, it isn’t true. First of all, fresh blackberries don’t go with any wine, worse than artichokes or asparagus, trust me. For sure, a fruity wine will go well with a fruity dish, but it might go even better with an earthy dish, say mushrooms or root vegetables. Often a same taste cancels out a same taste. A gamey wine can go with a gamey dish, but it won’t be great unless they both have something else to offer. The wine has to be fruitier than the fruity dish, acid, body and everything else in order. Acidity, fruitiness or sweetness needs to be more prominent in the wine for success. Salty food calls for acid and/or sweet. Acidic food needs acidic wine so that the wine doesn’t fall flat, but fresh and sweet can provide a nice foil. Sugar (not just dessert, even caramelized onions, squash or corn) can kill a wine, increasing bitterness, sourness and astringency, so something sweeter, but multi-dimensional will compliment; focus on the fruit when you want a dry wine. Rich food needs a squeeze of lemon, so something fresh fits the bill, but you need body so it doesn’t taste acrid or disappear. Flesh calls for tannins, and long cooked delicate meat the opposite. Umami can also bring out bitter/sour notes, but with salt, it can really soften a meaty, tannic mix, and provide surprising links.
You can often balance a dish with a wine, but I believe most in balancing a dish first (with acid, salt, sugar, umami, heat); not only because food is my priority, but it is the easiest thing you can do to cover your bases and let a wine shine, assuming you are serving a balanced wine with it. It is trickier to play off the food and wine dance, relying on one to bring out the best in the other. In this scenario, you really have to think about wine as a condiment, finishing a dish, with a boost or a calming effect, offering layers of flavour. But for the condiment to work, the players have to be from the same domain in style and in heft. (think girls, boys, ladies, men).
At the restaurant, my cooking is always flavour forward, yet subtle, with underlying touches of earth and unami, always some sweet or fruit in there somewhere, alongside acid and salt, and religiously somewhere between ‘boys’ and ‘ladies’ in body and soul. I never serve a big rare steak, so a tannic wine never works. My food is too delicate for a super oaked wine. Because of the freshness always, a lighter red is appropriate. And for the first few courses, a girly white, something tart and aromatic is usually winner (because I start cold and light, and there is always seafood or charcuterie with aromats like wild ginger..). And a soup and salad of some kind follows. For the main course, duck or venison usually, a Burgundy, an old Bordeaux, possibly a Merlot or new world pinot goes well - so a lady-like red.. Whatever the ingredients are, I know this is what suits my cooking. It happens every once and a while in fall/winter when I have a creamy sauce with corn and lobster or pintade that calls for a new world Chardonnay, or a bold dish with sweet harvest vegetables that calls for a manly Shiraz, but honestly, it’s almost never. I feel like I could give the same wine guide every week and be in the ballpark. That might be a cop out if I was a sommelier.
Enough is enough
But I know that's good enough. Despite all the taste experience and mental notes I have up my sleeve, I can't pretend to effortlessly fall upon exquisite food-wine pairing. Although extraordinary matches do surface, more often than not, they are just Ok, but it never stops me from enjoying the food or the evening, and I’m pickier than anyone. There seems no point in worrying about every little note.
The ‘perfect fit’ is a lofty goal, and so easily thrown off by a side dish or punchy sauce or some finishing touch by the chef. It’s even more readily mangled by all the variables that make up a real life dinner, be it at home or at the restaurant. People showing up here and there, ordering a martini, going for a smoke, munching on this or that, bringing wines they want to drink. There are people’s varied palettes always at play, their likes and dislikes, and how they eat. Most people don’t change wines with every course, and the best wine to accompany two or three courses is rarely the same as any of those that would be best for any one dish. So given the company and the menu, how many wines and what wines should you choose?
The only time an attempt at spot on wine-pairing is realistic is with a one pot meal at home say, and that still requires some forethought, experience and luck. The best way to play the extreme wine pairing game is in the hands of a well orchestrated professional tasting menu that delivers one wine with every dish, preferably in a top notch establishment where much effort has gone into fine tuning the dishes and the matches. In this case, it makes sense from the restaurateur’s point of view to invest the time, expertise and money to hash out the details, because customers are coming for that experience and are paying for it. Finding the kind of balance, complicity and contrast in the elements, the specific recipe and cooking technique, that culminates in the kind of marriage that makes you sit up and take notice ( Hallelujah!) is something. To systematically reach beyond the realm of crapshoot requires work.
With modern-style globally influenced multi-component meals, smart wine pairing is more complicated than most make it out to be, and then, paradoxically, not. Although technically, it is, with the hundreds of chemical compounds at play; in reality, it actually is not, only because the average person doesn’t care so much. If you are really tasting what’s in your glass and what’s on your plate, tentatively swirling them around together and thinking about it, you will catch the jiving or jarring notes, and you know how rare the 1+1=3 thing is. But almost no one does this. So it doesn’t matter as much as we make it out to. It’s all about avoiding big clashes, trying to keep both wine and food intact, and optimising synergies.
I think back to numerous catering events where only fine wines were being poured, all carefully coordinated for each canapé or course, only to largely and ultimately pass on muted taste buds and blocked minds. Besides the odd keener or bored person with nothing else to do, many guests seemed annoyed with the complicated formula, being forced to change wines so frequently. After all, they just started sipping a delicious Meursault, and now what – something sweet for the foie gras? Shy to say they were less than enthusiastic with the host’s wine plan, they would hold tight to their glass, and eventually admit that they would rather just drink Champagne or even jump to red. At many a tasting menu dinner in many a restaurant, I have observed that few people keep up; they’re drinking anything with anything. Come to think of it, I don’t really like to change wines at every course either.
Another example of misguided wine-pairing efforts: Every week, I witness sloppy wine pairing (funnily working out just fine).. When customers bring my menu to the SAQ and ask a ‘conseiller’ for advice, I discreetly groan at the sight of the wines they show up with. Just because the ‘expert’ saw ‘venison’ for instance, the unfortunate guest comes armed with a ‘costaud’, tannic Cabernet, which I know goes awfully with my food. You need more than ‘venison’ as a clue to choose the perfect fit! And Cahors with duck - stop it already! But if some ‘expert’ told them it was the best choice, chances are they will convince themselves of it. I’ve seen it countless times. Even with connoisseurs who pick wines from their cellar based on the menu, they seldom say anything other than that their selections were just right. Either I have a bunch of Einsteins as guests and I cook magically to match all wines, or I suspect there is some of that subjective, positive feedback, rationalizing normalizer at play (placebo effect), mixed with people not tasting too carefully. Not that I blame them, and I should be pleased. If everything tastes good without thinking too much, and everyone is having a grand time, what else matters? Food and wine are supposed to be fun, not stressful, and just as much about the setting and the people.
The fact is, the older, jaded me drinks and eats separately anyway - sipping, then devouring, then sipping some more, not too concerned with marriage. On occasion, in a stolen moment at a tasting menu event or alone say, I silently linger longer, savouring the party on my tongue, thinking long and hard about it if I’m allowed. But when the company is good, I hardly do more than notice if the wine is corked, adequate or not; I’m definitely not worrying about the perfect match, and none of my friends are ever.
Beyond the odd aficionado, no one wants to go there anyway. Most diners prefer to nod to the illusion of a perfect marriage, and go on talking. Likewise, people like to let someone else choose the wine, or simply drink what they like to drink. So even if a California Cab or St-Joseph is not what’s ideal, if that’s what they are used to drinking with everything, then chances are they will prefer it to the Loire Valley red that would be the better mate. If they hate white wine and three white wines are recommended with the menu, they won’t be thrilled. They might be won over at Toqué or L’Eau à la Bouche where a professional, knowledgeable sommelier is there to charm them into loving a wine they don’t; but in the real world, forget it..
At Les Jardins Sauvages, I give up
When it comes to recommending wines for my menu at Les Jardins Sauvages, I find it impossible! Because there is no simple answer to please everyone. Because I know how elusive that perfect fit is. Shoving perfection aside, I still know how so many different wines could do the trick in other ways, so I don’t know where to start.. Mainly, it’s because everyone wants and expects something different. And I don’t have the knowledge, resources or patience of a sommelier.
Some are looking for a different wine for each course; others want the super bottle to cover the meal. Groups of 4 or 6 might decide on 3 wines for the meal. Then of course, there are their individual likes and dislikes, and their respective budgets. A few are just seeking some general guidance because they have a cellar. Others don’t know squat about wine but are willing to go the distance to impress their guests, so they ask for specific SAQ numbers, and they will go across town to secure the wines. Yet others want something reasonably priced and widely available (at the SAQ in rural Quebec).
So that means I need to recommend a wine per course (7), as well as shorter wine selections of two, three, four or five wines, then another one for that conservative couple who will share one bottle. And for any suggestions I might have, I need to offer something suitable in several price ranges, never forgetting a red option if I give a white (because Quebeckers still are white weary). Let me tell you, it’s quite a job. Only a treatise would do, and that would likely overwhelm the average diner looking for a little help, not to mention take up too much of my time.
Then, there is the inherently problematic nature of my menu.. There’s all the wild stuff, all the greens, so much going on in the multi-course meal. I don’t mean for it to be the kind of menu that hurts upon reading, but because I need to mention all the wild edibles (what people come for), and the main gist, as well as any allergenic ingredients, it is wordy and rife with terminology, certainly enough to confuse a sommelier (so it’s hard to blame the poor SAQ guys). I know my menu is sound and balanced on delivery, but with all the ingredients at hand, when I think of wine pairing, I get a headache too. The fact that I change my menu every week only makes matters worse. But the changing menu is essential to the quality and magic of dining at la table champêtre, more so than the wine. My gut and experience tell me that the best thing I can do to ensure happiness all round is to cook to the best of my abilities with the best ingredients and let the gods (wine and otherwise) take care of the rest.
Opting out (or not), for fun
As you can see, I’ve been beating around the block, circuitously building a case to opt out of wine pairing. I'll continue to follow my own curve, but on a professional level, it’s just too hard to find proper matches for my menus while pleasing all sets of customers. Especially when I know that it doesn’t really matter in the end! I think everyone should just bring what they like/want to drink and all should be fine. If you want to take it up a notch and practice your food-wine pairing skills, then think about it, do some research, consult a sommelier, and have fun with the exercise, which will be reward enough. You don’t need me. And I have to stop bugging Bill.
Or maybe I just need a courageous sommelier. Either way, I’m opting out. I want to keep wine and food FUN, no more headaches please.