Bar: Fear Not the 'Improper Pairing'

  • By A. K. Carroll
  • Wed Apr 20th, 2016 5:30pm
  • DiningEat

Among samples of small bites served with tweezers and golf courses with greens fees steeper than a year's worth of student loan payments, one of the most surprisingly useful bits of food advice I got at Pebble Beach Food and Wine was on food and beverage pairings. (And it came from a panel of wine snobs at that!)

The specter of an “improper pairing” hovers over contemporary fine dining the way an ominous raincloud looms over Charlie Brown — will the sommelier roll her eyes at your poor choice? Will your date start checking his watch? — but it's a phrase that's rapidly losing traction in the rarefied world of food and wine. What you drink can make or break a dining experience, it's true, but the old restrictions are giving way to a more democratic ethos: Liking what you drink and drinking what you like, rules be damned. Sounds easy on paper — especially for an adventurous eater with a broad palate — but how can you be certain?Start with bubbles.

Even if you don't begin drinking Champagne at 10 in the morning — as French Laundry vet Christopher Hoel advised — bubbles are a good way to start off any afternoon or evening. The high acid content of a dry sparkling wine causes you to salivate, prepping your palate for food and libation consumption. It's basically foreplay for your meal.Match for body and volume.

Bygone are the days of automatically drinking red wine with red meat and white wine with fish. More important than color coordinating with an entree is matching it with a beverage that's similar in terms of balance. Although I'm prone to quench spicyThai or Vietnamese dishes with a citrusy white, the strength of those flavors is a better match for the blue fruits and peppers of an Australian red. (So saysDLynn Proctor, winemaking ambassador for Penfolds Americas in Napa.)Not much of a wine drinker? Not a problem: Spicy food pairs better with low-alcohol beverages, so choose from the beer list accordingly. A high ABV increases the sensation of heat and spice in your mouth, which detracts from your food rather than complementing it, making lagers and session IPAs good partners for barbecue or curry.

Don't limit your beverage pairing to dinner or drinking to getting drunk.

“It's civilized to have a glass of wine at lunch,” Hoel says. “I have a bottle before going to the gym.” Not all of us can jack up our BAC in the middle of the workday, butKim Beto — vetted somm and president of Southern Wines and Spirits — urges us to ditch the iced tea and have some bubbles at that business lunch. It'll enhance the flavor of the meal and your overall satisfaction (although maybe that's just the alcohol).Properly prep your food.

Sometimes a poor pairing has nothing to do with the beverage selection. If the food is bland, the wine (or beer) may also come off as flavor-free. Incorporating some form of acid (from, say, lemon or vinegar) and a good dose of salt are essential to good pairing, regardless of the flavor profile.Trust your own palate.

In a country where our palates are ethnically diverse and our food is fused until no one knows where it originated, we can be more liberal with our pairings, says Emily Wines, the master sommelier and wine director for Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants. Experiment outside the traditional pork-and-pinto-beans or beer-and-pizza pairings, starting with these for examples.Popcorn and Cuvée

Snobby meets simple when you pair a dry sparkling white with the salty notes of savory popcorn. Carnivores might opt to throw in some bacon bits.In-N-Out and Champagne

For his last birthday, Hoel asked for In-N-Out and a bottle of Champagne. The acid is perfect for cutting through the fat of fast food (or anything fried).Chocolate and Banyuls

“Please: no Cabernet,” Emily Wines says. Red wine and chocolate can complement each other, but that doesn't mean they will — the same goes for wine and cheese, which have less in common than you might imagine. A fortified aperitif made from old vines in France, Banyuls has both the substance and the sweetness to make for a better chocolate partner.Tacos and dessert wine.

Counterintuitive? Perhaps, but the syrupy sweetness of a fortified dessert wine may be just the right antidote to one jalapeño too many on your nachos. “Bring a bottle to your favorite Mexican joint,” Hoel suggests. It's unlikely they'll have it on hand.

There's food, there's wine, and then there's you — the elusive and most important component to any beverage pairing. Give yourself permission to experiment. See any setbacks as an excuse to try again.

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