Is food and wine matching necessary?

What do wine lovers most need to know about food and winematching? Robert Joseph has some thoughts.

Photo by Davide Cantelli on Unsplash
Photo by Davide Cantelli on Unsplash

What wine would you drink with durian?

Can you serve red wine with sea bass?

Both these questions landed on my metaphorical desk last week. The first came in response to the online posting of a picture showing me eating one of these notoriously evil-smelling Asian fruits while in Vietnam. The second was a serious query from a person charged with catering for a group that wanted to eat fish but preferred not to drink white.

Over the years, I’ve given quite a lot of thought to food and wine matching. I’ve taken part in numerous exercises involving laborious analysis of the impact of a set of wines on each ingredient of a dish. I’ve read about it quite widely and had extensive conversations with my friends, Charles Metcalfe and Kathryn McWhirter, who went so far as to write an entire book on the subject.

And, of course, I’ve come across some truly horrible combinations in which the food and wine clash like the ingredients of an unsuccessful sauce—and some brilliant serendipitous marriages in which a third flavour is magically created. This last phenomenon is what sommeliers aspire to when making a recommendation to restaurant customers, what Michelin-starred chefs are expected to achieve when preparing multi-course banquets in Bordeaux chateaux, and what most wine lovers have in mind when planning a Saturday night dinner party with a few good bottles.

So I’m most emphatically not rubbishing the idea of food and wine matching. But I am questioning whether it isn’t a tail that’s too often allowed to wag the dog. All sorts of thoughts were going through my head as I stood in the Vietnamese market eating the strangely custardy durian while trying to ignore its pungent aroma of baby-poo; none of them involved wine. And, as someone who was once regularly asked to write newspaper and magazine columns recommending wines to drink with chocolate, I cannot recall ever pausing in mid mousse au chocolat or truffe to wonder what I really ought to have in my glass. Yes, if I was forced to dust down one of my old journalistic offerings, I’m sure I could find a paragraph extolling the virtues of a port or Madeira, or possibly an orange Muscat or even an exceptionally ripe, blackcurranty Napa Cabernet, but to be honest I don’t believe that any of them really improved the flavour of the chocolate, or vice versa. I love wine and I love chocolate but I don’t see any need to love them both simultaneously.

For many people, the quintessential marriage is between cheese and wine, despite the inconvenient truth that these two fermented products can clash as violently as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I can think of few candidates that are better suited to destroy the flavour of a fine mature red Bordeaux than a creamily runny Camembert or Brie – but that doesn’t seem to worry the organisers of many of those grand chateau dinners who happily serve these and stronger cheeses with their most prized 1982 or 1990.

Then there are the producers who blithely leap off a plane to Beijing or Bombay promising to be bearing the ‘perfect’ wine for the local cuisine. In other circumstances, they’d be reasonably branded as snake oil salesmen. If you consider the range of regional dishes and the number and variety to be found simultaneously on any table, the idea that any one wine will match everything is laughable.

For anyone who really cares about getting food-and-wine matching ‘right’, the logical way to approach any cuisine, from China, India, Turkey, Greece or Georgia – anywhere varied dishes are served and eaten at the same time – would be to offer a carefully chosen selection of wines, and a bucket allowing diners to empty their glasses as they switch between them. 

What normally happens in these countries, of course, is what you see at most tables in most restaurants across the globe: a group of people sharing the same bottle while eating whatever they each happen to have chosen from the menu.

The proponents of food-and-wine matching have, I must admit, done a pretty good job in promoting their cause. When consumers are asked what interests them about wine they reliably include it in their replies. But if you stop them after they’ve picked up a bottle of their favourite Chianti or Chardonnay from the supermarket shelf and query what they’ll be drinking it with, the chances are that they really haven’t given it very much thought. In other words, whatever they may say, most normal wine drinkers are probably as involved in food and wine matching as most Miss Universe contestants are in world peace.

So, to return to those initial questions, I replied that I had absolutely no suggestions for wines to drink with durian, and that in my household we often enjoy a wide range of red wines with sea bass and this behaviour has not as far as I’m aware, been responsible for any death or injury.

Robert Joseph

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