Myths of wine & food matching and dry wine/chocolate matches

Oh, to be blissfully unimpeded by thought or effort when matching wine with food. There’s nothing wrong with the “drink-whatever-you-like” approach when it comes to that. Not much different than eating: whenever you’re hungry, just open up a favorite canned food or stop by the nearest fast food joint on the way home.

But if you prefer giving what you eat considerably more thought – planning your menu, weighing the proportions of herbs and spices, picking out vegetables at peak freshness and value prices – you know darn well that you’ll usually end up with something far better than a can or drive-through.

The same for wine: if you’re perfectly capable of picking out the perfect wine for your planned menu, then you know darn well you’ll get an even better meal than if you just pour whatever you happen to have hanging around. There is, after all, such a thing as ideal wine and food matches, and the choices aren’t nearly as narrow as you may think.

In fact, the way wines are made these days – of finer balance, and thus greater food versatility, than ever – the choices are even broader than the old guidelines; i.e. white-wine-with-fish and red-wine-with-meat. The problem with the “old rules?” The fact that in numerous circumstances, red wine tastes wonderful with fish, and white wines are often rich and full enough for even red meats.

So the first thing you need to do, once you’ve made up your mind to pick out wines as lovingly and carefully as ingredients for your meal, is to throw out those old rules, and to begin thinking more freely based upon principles of common sense, not what you’ve heard or read in some book.

With that, here are some of those culinary myths that are better left dead and buried, along with some thoughts related to basic principles of sensible wine and food matching. Those myths:

Ludicrous: that “great” wines make the greatest food matches…

In actuality, almost the opposite is true. Because I can’t put it any better, I’m going to let Kermit Lynch (quoting from his Adventures on the Wine Route) explain this to us:

When a woman chooses a hat, she does not put it on a goat’s head to judge it; she puts it on her own. There is a vast difference, an insurmountable difference, between the taste of a wine next to another wine, and the same wine’s taste with food…

Test it yourself. Take two impreccable wines, the Domaine Tempier Bandol rosé… and a bottle of Château Margaux, which many critics consider the finest Médoc of the day. Compare the two side by side. Award points. Do not be surpris
ed if the Margaux wins handily. Now serve the same two wines with a boiled artichoke and rate them again. The Margaux is bitter and metallic-tasting, whereas the Bandol rosé stands up and dances like Baryshnikov… which is the better wine? Which wins?

In other words, that a “great” wine rates a lofty “score” is neither here nor there when it comes to food matching. If you’re preparing a Peruvian style seviche, for instance, a lemony crisp, tropical scented $12 Argentine torrontés has a far higher percentage chance of making an exciting wine match than a big, broad $25, 92-point chardonnay. But if you’re stewing chicken with fresh herbs and dumplings, that $25 chardonnay is guaranteed to taste a heck of a lot better than a $50, 95-point cabernet sauvignon.

The ins and outs of wine and food matching are all over this humble Web site,; and so if you care as much about looking up the perfect recipe for a perfect coq au vin blanc, then it makes sense to pay a little attention to one of many perfect wine matches for that as well.

Poppycock: that lighter style "food wines" are excuses for weak, inferior wines…

If you take a look at many of the wines of the world in regions with the greatest, most time honored culinary heritages – like Chianti in Tuscany, Sancerre in France, Rioja in Spain, and even the various pink, white and red wines of the French and Italian Riviera – you can see that the wines consumed there are actually quite light, easy to drink, and relatively lacking in the taste of oak and the feel of high alcohol which characterizes most of the "serious" wines of today.

Just because a wine is light in body and flavor doesn't make it inferior. The fact is, lighter, less expensive wines are more likely to go better with food just based on the fact that they are less likely to kill a dish, the way ketchup would on paté and brown gravy would on ice cream. Just because a wine is big and strong does not make it a better wine for your dish. This is why the great, light, easy drinking “food wines” of the world, both traditional and new, exist in the first place.

Nonsense: that big "oaky" chardonnays don't go with food…

There’s a lot of reverse snobbism these days, saying that big, rich American style chardonnays are uncool, or even just for “chicks” (thank you, Bridget Jones). This is a shame because there are actually a lot of dishes with which a full bodied, even super-oaky style of chardonnay – one loaded with not just sweet apple flavors, but also vanillin, smoky or even charred tastes – would do a lot better than a lighter, pure fruit style of wine. Smoked or wood grilled meats, for instance, love a smoky, oaky wine. California, Washington, and many Australian styles of chardonnay tend to be quite full and richly oaked to the point of creaminess (or as they say, “buttery”), which is perfect for your everyday roasted chicken, dripping in naturally buttery, fatty juices.

Then there are pork roasts, braised veal, sautéed sweetbreads, wood grilled swordfish, salmon in poaching broths… the list of oaky chard lovin’ dishes goes on and on. In fact, there probably is no better wine for a holiday turkey – especially if cooked in a charcoal or wood roaster and stuffed with chardonnay friendly sage, bread crumbs, and even seafood sausages or oysters – than any number of these "big, fat mamas," as David Rosengarten once described these unsubtle, yet perfectly delicious, styles of wines.

Hogwash: that higher acid wines are always best for food…

Wines with crisp, lemony sharp acidity are indeed wonderful for food; especially if you're having plainly cooked fish that an acidic white wine can zip up just like a squeeze of lemon. But put that same fish in a buttery sauce, or a rich, creamy or slightly salty shellfish stock reduction, and all of the sudden a high acid wine tastes thin and puckery, and the dish tastes oily and filling.

In other words, low acid wines have as much a place with food as high acid wines. In fact, low acid wines are what Mediterranean gastronomy is all about! When you look at most of the wines of Italy and Southern France, the vast majority of them are all fairly low in acid, and even "fat" with fruitiness, which only makes sense with foods driven by the taste of olive oil, plump beans and nostril tingling garlic. Hey, I’m not saying that the people who live along the north shores of the Mediterranean have got it all going on, but they seem to be enjoying life just fine.

Hooey: that sweet wines interfere with the taste of food…

In many cases, yes. But in many other cases -- a sweet/sour/salty Chinese dish, chili spiked Thai food, a sweet/chili laced barbecue sauce, slices of cured peppery sausages, a salty baked ham glazed with pineapple, or even a pizza with sweet tomatoes and caramelized onions – wines with a touch of sweetness, such as riesling or even white zinfandel, are a better balanced match than completely dry wines. Especially when dishes are really hot and spicy – in which case, slightly sweet wines can cool and freshen the palate in a way that dry wines can’t.

Balderdash: that salads and vinaigrettes are bad for wine…

Leafy greens tossed in harsh, acidic cider vinaigrettes are no good, with or without wine. But vinaigrettes made with soft, round, aromatic fine vinegars – such as balsamic, sherry, or rice wine vinegars – actually enhance, and liven up, the taste of wine. Throw in lush, vine ripened tomatoes, crunchy sweet onions, and salty, sensuous chunks of Roquefort, and you've got a fine match with off-dry riesling, a fruity chenin blanc (like a Vouvray from France), or a well chilled pink wine made from grenache, zinfandel or pinot noir.

How about the ever-popular Caprese salad (mozzarella di bufala, rounds of beefsteak tomato and ribbons of basil drizzled with pungent EVOO)… goodness, is there anything better than a soft, dry, viscous Frascati or Verdicchio from Italy? For salads made with fresh herb crusted goat cheese, it's hard to beat a crisp, dry sauvignon blanc (from New Zealand, or fumés from California and French Sancerres). Throw whole grain mustard into the dressing, and top things off with shredded duck or slivers of cold beef, then light, fragrant reds such as California or Oregon pinot noirs and Beaujolais (made from the gamay noir grape) from France come into play.

The bottom line: when it comes to salads, the choice of wonderfully matched wines is as endless as the delicious things you put in them.

Claptrap: that the richest foods need the richest wines…

This way of thinking will take you only so far. It works for red meats – big, rich cabernet sauvignons, for instance, are just right for fatty beef and lamb dishes. But when you slow cook red meats, achieving more intense, caramelized, complex flavors, a round, soft, even feminine pinot noir is more likely to beat out a big, brash cabernet sauvignon or merlot any day. Make it a Coca-Cola pot roast, then bring out the light, sprighty Beaujolais… so many rich food settings when bigger is not better.

For things like oysters, lobster, shrimp, crab and other sweet shellfishes, white wines that are fairly light, dry and crisp – such as sauvignon blanc, pinot blanc, or pinot gris (a.k.a. pinot grigio) – tend to make a fresher combination than thick, heavy chardonnay based whites from California or Burgundy in France. Spicy hot Asian seafood and vegetables dishes can be as rich as they come; and in this context, full bodied, dry style gewürztraminers from Alsace or California usually taste harsh and bitter, whereas a feathery fresh riesling or a medium sweet, low alcohol Italian moscato is more likely to soothe the palate, taming the hot sensations of exotic spices.

Bunk: that chocolate is an "enemy" of wine…

While not a card carrying member of the champagne-with-chocolate club, I say that anyone who hasn't had a Tawny Port with dense, bittersweet chocolate just hasn't lived. It's true that typical, sweet chocolates wreak havoc on things like bone dry champagne and sweet white wines, but sweet red wines handle – in fact embellish – the taste of chocolate with aplomb. Other sweet reds of this type include black, juicy Banyuls from France, rare Recioto di Valpolicellas from Veneto, and the occasional "varietal" ports (such as Justin's Cabernet-based Obtuse) and “Late Harvest” zinfandels from California.

But wait, there’s more…


Does chocolate necessarily require just sweet red wines to make a good match? In recent years I have been tackling that question in earnest, experimenting with a number of chocolate matches with wines going beyond sweet reds, and have found that dry red wines can indeed make delicious matches providing these factors…
  • The chocolate is made with the addition of zero or little sugar, plus zero to almost minimal amounts of the usual “fillers” (like milk, butter or eggs) to dark chocolate bases.
  • The chocolate might contain the bitter shavings of raw cacao.
  • The chocolate is flavored with wine-friendly, scented ingredients
Withal, I have found that hand rolled or truffle molded chocolates made in this fashion can compliment an amazing range of dry red wines, as well as some sweet whites. A few particular favorites:
  • Framboise laced chocolate with silky, raspberryish cabernet franc or cabernet franc based blends (suggestions: Lang & Reed’s Napa Valley Premier Étage or Justin’s Paso Robles Justification)
  • Hazelnut specked chocolate with refined, woodsy Tuscan sangiovese (suggestions: Avignonesi’s Vino Nobile di Montepulciano or Castello di Fonterutoli’s Chianti Classico)
  • Espresso bean chocolate with lush, nut nuanced Amarone (personal choice/favorite: La Colombaia’s Amarone della Valpolicella)
  • Mocha flavored chocolate with tobacco-smoky, earthy, berryish Spanish tempranillo based reds (suggestions: Remirez de Ganuza’s Rioja or Tinto Pesquera’s Ribera del Duero Crianza)
  • Milk chocolate with shaved raw cacao, with fuller, black fruit toned pinot noir (suggestions: Radio-Coteau’s Sonoma Coast, Tandem’s Sonoma Mountain, Du Mol’s Russian River Valley, or Dierberg’s Santa Maria Valley bottlings).
  • Black chocolate with shaved raw cacao, with velvety, fruit forward, medium weight cabernet sauvignon (suggestions: Faust’s Napa Valley, Murphy-Goode’s Terra a Lago, or Justin’s Paso Robles cabernets)
  • White chocolate with key lime, with fragrantly sweet Moscato (suggestions: Saracco’s moscato d’Asti, St. Supery’s California moscato, or the Foris muscat Frissante from Southern Oregon)
Sound like a party? Works for me!


Back Burners

The state of Syrah, its ideal food matches, and a short list of inspiring American producers

Chicken (recipes & wine matches) everybody loves

The acid test: sauvignon blanc food matches of our dreams

Is Pinot Noir the ultimate food wine?

Cabernet sauvignons past & present, and the foods we love to eat with them

Culinary matching 101: wines for classic blackened tuna

The underappreciated joys of Zinfandel and cheese matching

Is Riesling the ultimate white wine for food?

Not your daddy's zin (zinfandel's amazing food affinities)

Reconsidering the oyster (and its sensible wine matches)