Sitting in my usual dim sum restaurant, I noticed Christmas decorations overhead. I was so horrified I almost stopped chewing on my chicken feet. Is it really that time?
Not quite, but the media are pivoting to the holidays, and entertainment guides have started popping up in newspapers, magazines and social media. They all promise to simplify your life. But not this columnist: I promise to complicate things.
Most of these guides offer sage notions of matching food and wine. After providing listicles of their Top 10s, they conclude by telling you to stop worrying about any of this (at least the good ones do) and drink whatever you like. Me, I’ll start out with that premise. I’ve been shouting it my whole career because I have a problem with authority. Also, because we all like different things, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
The prevailing notion of these erstwhile guides is that you should select a wine to go with a dish based on each sharing the same flavors. One insists that cranberries go well with California Zinfandel. Yes, Zinfandel has the flavor of cranberries, among many other flavors.
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But cranberries are tart and Zin is not. In fact, it’s usually rather warm, ripe, even slightly sweet and figgy at times. When you put a tart food with a wine that is slightly sweet (or vice versa), it can make both of them seem out of balance, as if you had a brownie and decided to suck on a lemon at the same time.
Or here’s another fraught match: apple and Chenin Blanc. Yes, Chenin Blanc has apple flavors, but like apples, Chenin Blancs vary from dry-as-dust to sweet-as-pie. If you serve a dry Chenin Blanc with a sweet apple dish, neither will shine.
Many chefs have been trained to suggest wines based on a concept known as “flavor bridging” — a dominant flavor in the dish is the “key” to the wine you should choose. I’ve had chefs tell me they’ll marry this fish dish with the Chardonnay by adding peaches to the dish.
Many Chardonnays have a peach flavor. But why would I want to drink a liquid version of the dish in front of me? Chefs don’t drop everything on the plate into a blender and expect it to taste as good as all those individual elements.
Chefs know better. Look at how plates are composed: a traditional chef will offer a protein matched with a starch, a vegetable, an appropriate sauce or seasoning, a bitter green leaf and citrus slice to finish. The goal is for each element to highlight the others in a constellation of differing flavors.
I’ve seen it ad nauseam. Lamb with mint sauce is a classic. So someone matches the dish with a “minty” Australian Shiraz (some Aussie reds are genuinely minty in flavor); makes sense, right? Except mint sauce is usually sweet, and such wines are often very tannic, astringent and even bitter.
You don’t see them serving spaghetti squash with two other squashes (but don’t they share the same flavors?) and maybe some spaghetti on the side. They know better. Still, certain famous chefs continue to promulgate this notion of flavor bridging, and cooperative writers have complied, selecting their wines by finding flavors in common with the foods.
But if nothing else, flavor bridging is boring. So what’s a person to do, now that I’ve complained about all these misguided guides?
Well, first off, let’s return to the first principle: drink what you like. Stop worrying about things going together or not going together.
Most of us like things to be fair and balanced (and get angry when certain media usurp the term for something that’s anything but). The safest guide (as rules don’t really exist) is to ask that the wine doesn’t overwhelm the food, and the food doesn’t overpower the wine.
That’s it. Nothing too complicated.
It’s the same with my Chinese restaurant. I asked about the Christmas decorations and the waitress said, no, they hadn’t put them up this week or last week. They just keep them up year around. It’s easier and simpler.
Doug Frost is a Kansas City-based wine and spirits writer and consultant. He is one of only four people in the world to have earned the titles of master sommelier and master of wine. He contributes a monthly wine column for The Star’s Food section and the Chow Town blog.