Creating WineToMatch.com and the WineToMatch iPhone app.

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Our WineToMatch iPhone app at work

If you have stumbled upon our site and have been reading this blog or playing with our wine and food pairing engine, you might be asking yourself, “Why do I need to match certain wines with certain foods anyway?” Or “Why can’t we just drink the stuff and leave it alone at that?” We want you to know that we also ask those questions to ourselves. I frequently purchase wines I’ve never tasted before and I simply want to satisfy my curiosity. And just as frequently, I haven’t the faintest idea of what I’ll be eating with the wine when I purchase it, and there are many wines—Champagne being one of them—that can be extremely pleasurable without a food pairing.

We’re also sympathetic to the idea that we really ought to drink what we like and eat what we like without the pretense of having to apply rules or guidelines to enjoy a meal with a bottle of wine. As we teach budding sommeliers in the Court of Master Sommeliers Introductory course, the first rule of food and wine pairing is that there are no rules. I wholeheartedly believe this and I also believe that some of the so-called “rules,” like red wine with red meat and white wine with fish, have probably caused more anxiety about choosing the right wine than was ever necessary. With that being said, I want to relay a couple of personal experiences which I hope will convey why we as sommeliers do what we do and why we decided to create WineToMatch.com.

Food and Wine Pairing Disasters

Powerful, tannic red wines meet fish and shellfish.
I have seen this over and over again in my career as a sommelier and it has probably contributed to more fish courses being returned to the kitchen than for any other reason. Tannin, the component in red wines that coats the mouth with a certain gripping astringency, is especially prevalent in powerful red wines. The Nebbiolo-based wines of Barolo and Barbaresco are undoubtedly the most tannic wines of all, but tannin is also a key feature in Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Malbec. When tannin meets the umami-rich oil found in fish, our palates immediately become overwhelmed with a sensation that my colleague, Evan Goldstein, MS, describes as “sucking on a penny.” It also amplifies the fishiness of the dish, making the fish seem as if it is old and rotting. This is something that we as sommeliers try to avoid at all costs. A sommelier friend of mine at a South American restaurant in Chicago goes so far as to pour a complimentary (complementary, even) glass of the dry white wine Vino Verde for guests who want ceviche as a starter, but have ordered a powerful Malbec from Mendoza to accompany their dinner.

Dry red wines meet chocolate.
I’m afraid this combination (or collision) is not a very good one, and the frequency with which it occurs is probably due more to wishful thinking by its practitioners than anything else. Bittersweet to sweet chocolate and dry red wine, often New World Cabernet Sauvignon, results in a bitter, chalky astringency on the palate. The temptation to make chocolate and red wine work together might stem from an idea that chocolate and red berries work together—which they do—and there are a few sweet red wines that pair very well with chocolate. Banyuls, the fortified sweet red wine from France’s Roussillon region is a classic partner with chocolate, as is Brachetto d’Acqui, the fizzy sweet red wine of Piemonte. Ruby Port can work occasionally, and the delicious sweet red Recioto wines of Veneto are other examples of chocolate-friendly red wines.

When Food and Wine Pairing Can be Transcendent

In situ moments highlight what goes together grows together.
In situ sums up a vast majority of successful pairings. For example, a cool glass of the citrusy, almost saline quality of the dry white wine Verdicchio paired alongside a plate of ultra-fresh crudo, the classic raw fish preparation of Italy’s Marche region, is one of my favorite food and wine pairings of all time. And sipping Pinot Noir in Oregon’s Willamette Valley during the height of salmon season will make you a lifetime fan of this modern classic. Many of these regional pairings developed simultaneously and their synergy is no accident. It is the responsibility of the sommelier to have an extensive understanding of knowing “what grows together goes together,” because so often these pairings cannot be bested.

Derive pleasure from über-refinement.
Even in the finest, most extravagant restaurants in the world, perfected and highly conceived food and wine pairings rarely occur. When they do, it can be a dazzling display culinary fireworks, making the dinner one that to be remembered for a lifetime. I recall an incredible pairing of the Nebbiolo-based Antoniolo Gattinara with a lamb course at Cyrus in Healdsberg, California, where it seemed that all of the wine’s structural and aromatic complexities were taken into consideration when the dish was conceived. It was a truly unforgettable experience.

posted on July 9 2009 by jesse

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