How many times did I hear this, or slightly altered sentence, from wine writers?
“Stop scaring people with all that fuzz about wine and food pairing, like it’s rocket science. Just let them drink what they like! Do you want to drink red with fish? Go ahead! You feel like having Pinot Grigio with your steak? Be my guest!”
I know, there are many wine drinkers who really can’t be bothered. They drink wine just like they would drink cool-aid, beer, soda or something else. “Red or white, doesn’t make any difference to me” kind of crowd. But I am sure these people don’t necessarily seek wine related blogs, clubs, to explore new horizons in the wine world.
That’s fine if that works for you. But if you want to look like you care, to say that it doesn’t matter what you pair wine with, especially stated by professional, could be very misleading. Why then, there are so many articles explaining that wine is meant to be drunk with food? Why do we teach classes on food and wine pairing, if it didn’t matter? Because it DOES matter what wine you drink with what food!
If I go to party, I don’t expect to have a perfect food and wine pairing experience. Although I remember one particular party, when we drank (and I don’t want to sound snobby here) a cheap, kind of crappy red with coconut tilapia. It would not be my choice to pair it with red, and even if so, I know much better reds in that price range that I would recommend.
But I was a guest so I sip on it, minding my own business and hopping that the evening wouldn’t end by nasty heartburn. Suddenly, some late guest showed up with a good bottle of Chianti Classico, from a maker I knew. I was so looking forward to get my hands on some tasty stuff! To my dismay, and before I could do anything, the host walked around with that nice bottle and topped off our glasses of crappy red, we still struggled with. Ouch!
You can make so-so food and wine match, and it’s fine. But then one day, when you got it, and you figured out what really works together, it’s a match made in heaven. Such a special experience is hard to forget. And, you will probably remember that wine for a long time too.
I have been lucky to pull it off few times. I have also made huge mistakes. Who doesn’t? Like recently, when I was reminded of how easy it is to screw up. It was one of those nights when I felt like I want to open something nice, not just house wine. A special occasion? Not really, just in the mood for it.
So I went to my cellar and opened a bottle of 2006 Muga Reserva. Lovely Tempranillo based blend from Spanish Rioja, my long time favorite. Nothing over the top, just a great bottle for around $ 26.00. I made a beef stew to go with it.
Buying this wine for years, I was very familiar with it. Thanks to my job I have repeatedly tasted many vintages, and the entire Bodegas Muga’s portfolio. This wine is quite silky when aged a little. Six years is a great time for Muga Reserva to show its best potential.
I opened the bottle and left it sitting on the kitchen counter to breath, before I finish cooking the dinner. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that we already finished salad with little avocado and tomatoes on top. With my own yummy dressing (good olive oil, garlic, salt, freshly grated pepper, white wine vinegar, lime, agave nectar, parsley).
There is my Muga, waiting for me, whispering: “Why don’t you take a sip? What are you waiting for? Aren’t you anxious to try what I taste like today?” I was. I couldn’t resist and poured myself a first glass in the kitchen. It tasted like oak and tannin. Totally disappointing.
My first thought was: is that wine OK? Of course it was! There was nothing wrong with the wine, it wasn’t corked. Yet, I knew that’s not the Muga I know, that’s not how it tastes. The reason was simple: my mouth and palate was still influenced by that lime based dressing, and that’s the match it created for me with the wine.
I knew what went wrong and decided to wait for my food. When I filled our plates with that rich, mushroom based stew, dug in it, and took another sip of Muga, we were home. Yes! This is the silky, fruity, perfectly balanced wine I love. It never disappoints me. Unless, I disappoint the wine. You want to pair me with salad? Really? You should know better!
I know, this is rather extreme example of bad wine and food pairing. But I wasn’t pairing it with salad, I drank it AFTER my salad, not paying attention. Being familiar with the wine I instantly I recognized the mistake I made. But what would happen if it was somebody, tasting this great Rioja wine for the first time? He might have felt like – “Oh no, I hate this! It’s so tannic. It’s so oaky. Nothing even close to descriptions I have read!”
See my point here? How many times I heard somebody say “Oh, I hate Spanish wines” or “I hate Tempranillo, Merlot, Chardonnay…” add whatever works there. Aside the fact that making generalized statement like that isn’t very wise, I can imagine that some people have a really bad experience with wine. But it might not be the “wine’s fault”. Sometimes even simple things like drinking wine too warm/too cold, too young or too old, or even corked may influence somebody for life. Is everybody able to recognize the difference? I learned myself that even tasting wine with food that completely overpowers the true taste of that wine could be devastating experience. Like my dressing. If it’s somebody who is not that familiar with the wine, the damage is done.
So I say – if you want to learn about wine, and are serious about food and wine pairing, don’t listen to those who say it doesn’t matter. Sure it doesn’t matter to some. But to us, who love wine, it does, very much so!
The truth is, food and wine pairing doesn’t have to be rocket science. People don’t have to enter wine shops with the fear in their eyes. If you want to try new stuff and new pairings, there is always somebody to help.
We just need to pay more attention, and the wine will reward us with the most pleasurable memories! Isn’t that what really matters?