A fresh look at food and wine

A lot has been written over the years on the contentious subject of food-and-wine pairing so I’ll do my best to bring something new to the table so to speak. To get a better understanding of how these two wondrous forces work and sometimes don’t work together we need to first answer the most basic question: Why does food need wine in the first place? Glad you asked. Here’s my take.

The first bite of food you eat is always the best; it shocks your mouth and delivers unexpected intensity flavour and joy. The second bite is a little less thrilling and by the fifth or sixth bite you’ve probably stopped tasting and resigned yourself to simply eating. This is called the law of diminishing returns and sadly it applies to alcohol as well. Think of the enjoyment you get from that first cold beer after you’ve finished a long week at work; it’s certainly more exciting than that last swill you drain as you walk out of the bar after a long night of imbibing. So how do we break this law of diminishing returns and make that last bite or sip as good the first?

If you put wine and food together in a thoughtful and purposeful way it’s possible to cheat this law thereby increasing your enjoyment of both the aspects of the meal. Here’s how you do it. First think of wine as the cleanser. After you swallow your food residual flavours remain trapped in your mouth around your tongue and coating your entire palate. The wine’s job is to get in there and clean out this lingering food leaving your mouth closer to its pre-meal condition and allowing it to fully experience the next bite. If done correctly wine and food pairing should make the meal taste better while showing a side of the wine you wouldn’t see if you drank it on its own.

Here’s the tricky part: the wines you normally like to drink without food are rarely the ones that taste best with your meal. Wines that taste great on their own — I like to call them cocktail wines — tend to be low in acidity. They’re broad soft and easy to like but it’s just this lack of acidity that makes them a challenge on the table. When you’ve finished that first incredible bite and are aiming to replicate the experience you need to have your palate refreshed. It’s the acidity in wine that gets the job done. While you might find certain wines slightly tart and too lean on their own when you try them with that layer of fat clinging to the insides of your mouth you start to understand their purpose.

The big challenge is trying wines that you may only like with certain dishes. The best way to make this happen is to find a trustworthy wine shop preferably one where the staff loves to cook and eat. That part shouldn’t be hard; Calgary is blessed with several. Conventional wisdom would now dictate that you need to know what you are having for dinner before you go in but here’s where my theory deviates from the norm. I believe there are two kinds of wine: those that go with food and those that do not. The difference? You guessed it: acidity. It’s possible to stroll into a wine shop and ask for some great food-friendly wines and the staff should know exactly what you’re talking about. They’re the “traditional” wines the ones that usually come from the Old World (but not always) and are made to be useful on the table.

The bad news is that is that there are fewer and fewer of these types of wines being made today. Many wineries are opting for richer softer and easier wines those favoured by the big chain buyers. In fact it’s difficult to find a more traditionally styled wine in a chain store today. Traditional wines make buyers nervous because they tend to have some unusual character that may not be loved by every wine drinker. But if we eliminate the wines that are unique what are we left with? The fat soft easy wines that kind of taste the same — the very wines that are useless at mealtime. My best piece of advice is this: If you really want to discover the true art of food and wine you need to step out of your comfort zone and try new things. If it doesn’t scare you a bit it’s probably not the right path.