Pairing food and wine isn't just voodoo (maybe)

Every now and then, it works

I usually describe food and wine pairings as hokum. Yes the 2014 Chateau What-have-you might be outstanding with truffle-oil mashed Noirmoutier potatoes and tarragon-stuffed partridge in an Adriatic lobster bisque with nutmeg parmesan crisps. It'll also be decent with spaghetti and a dash of pesto from a jar, rustled up in 12 minutes on a Thursday evening, or even reheated pizza with a splash of chilli oil and some salad found lurking at the back of the fridge.

Despite having worked as one (or maybe because of it?), I don't think much of the necessity of a sommelier, and I think most food and wine pairings (especially the ones found on the back label of cheap bottles of wine) are absolute nonsense. Like my tarragon-stuffed partridge example, they are so often (especially in France) so ludicrously detailed as to practically be a recipe card. (side note: why aren't they??? that would be useful!) If the bisque is skipped, will the wine still be drinkable even? What a horrendous thought.

That is not to say that all pairings are worthless. It's a good idea to have a delicate wine a delicate meal, and a hearty wine with a hearty meal. Certain wines really don't do well with spicy foods, others with oily, and it's common knowledge that sweeter wines tend to do better with desserts. My favourite rule of thumb is to pair wine with food that is similar to the food local to the wine, although it is far from universal.

Weirdly, I think my internal thinking about food pairing is far more negative - X wine does not work with Y food, rather than Y wine does work with Z food. 'don't have a Provencal rosé with curry' is an easier rule to follow and determine than 'Champagne works with radishes' (spoiler: despite Champagne's PR claim that it does, it doesn't).

With that said, I recently came across a couple of pairings that challenged my former views, the ones I have just described. I wrote about my experience with a certain Lebanese viognier, a wine that was indescribably unappealing to me (not flawed, but just didn't appeal) until I had it with some grilled sardines, at which point it became truly outstanding. Earlier this year, I bought a bottle of Marsala, for cooking, but tried a glass anyway. It was dry and dull and flavourless. Fast forward to this week, when we tried a méthode champennoise sparkling with a selection of pungent, creamy, aged French cheeses (a Langres and a camembert fermier). It was, according to conventional food-and-wine pairing, a match made in heaven. It was not.

The MW at the table suggested we try the Marsala, as the bottle was gathering dust and even in cooking it wasn't rocking our world. I was sceptical. It was, as I said, dull and dry, flavourless, right up until the first mouthfull of pungent cheese. The creaminess of the cheese brought out the acidity of the wine, previously obscured, the pungency brought out the figs and fruit, and the saltiness made the seemingly-dry Marsala really show off that it had somewhere in the region of 30g/l of sugar.

I really cannot stress enough how unbelievably outstanding the combination was, surpassing even the Viognier and sardines. This was a combination that I could have kept eating and drinking forever.

I stand by my belief that fancy food and wine matching is rubbish, but sometimes, just sometimes, it makes a difference, and the combination exceeds the sum of its parts, transforming two simple components into an outstanding meal.