A food and wine pairing that breaks the rules

I recently led a wine training session to a restaurant team, most of whom were young and had formal qualification in hospitality. Before I started, I asked each of them to write down what they knew about wine. I was very happy to see that everyone had more than a basic knowledge of wine—a good start. Almost everyone told me that red wine must go with meat and white wine with fish. Eek!

This is one of the most common misconceptions around. Although in general, light and medium white wines tend to go with white fish, however, it is not always the case that white wine goes with fish or that red wine has to go with meat. It all depends on many factors.

When pairing food and wine, we need to start with the main objective of why we are pairing the two, so that the experience of having both together is better than having them separately or, in other words, they enhance each other. For this, we need to first look at the ‘weight’ of both the food and the wine, and I don’t mean putting them on a scale. A light wine, red or white, is likely to pair better with light food, let’s say a pinot gris with a green salad. White wine, if you pair it with a heavy dish, like a lamb roast, which is rather heavy, then the food will overpower and likely kill the wine. Likewise, a heavy wine, let’s say a shiraz from Barossa, paired with a green salad would kill the dish.

Once the ‘weight’ is right, we should aim to have a dish and a wine that either are similar or in contrast. Wine flavors come from specific components: sugar, acid, fruit, tannin and alcohol level. Different dishes also have flavor components: fat, acid, salt, sugar, umami and bitter. The best food and wine pairings feature complementary components, weight and textures

For example, a grilled steak will be ideally paired with a heavy and tannic wine like a cabernet sauvignon, a malbec or an aged tempranillo. As the fat and umami (protein) on the steak will balance the tannins of the wine. A lobster thermidor goes well with an oaked chardonnay, where the buttery flavors of the chardonnay match those of the creamy sauce served with the lobster.

However, sauces are usually the forgotten element of pairing when it should actually be a priority because it can change not only the taste of the dish, but also the weight. For example, one of my crazy pairings—to which I have won many bets against food and wine experts—is pairing tuna with a Crianza Rioja aged for two years or more. If you serve the tuna raw with a marinade of soya sauce and wasabi, (which is one of my favorite dishes) a nice aged red rioja pairs fantastically with it. And so, here we have fish with red wine.

BIO: Alfredo de la Casa has been organizing wine tastings for over 20 years and has published three wine books, including the Gourmand award winner for best wine education book. You can reach him at www.wineinvietnam.com.