16 Mar 2011

The Author

Amy Zavatto writes about wine, spirits, and food for a mess of different publications, including Imbibe, Edible Manhattan, Every Day with Rachael Ray, and Frommer's. She's the co-author of The Renaissance Guide to Wine & Food Pairing and the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Bartending. Amy lives, eats, and drinks in NYC and cannot live without pasta.

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Wine and food pairing
Wine and Food Pairing

Wine and food pairing 101

Trust the Force, Luke

Why do so many of us freak out when faced with figuring out what to drink with what we eat? Or, more specifically: The head-scratching, hot-potato, heart-palpitating conundrum of wine and food pairing. After all, if you were, say deciding on sparkling or still, or picking out a pilsner or a stout, or selecting a soda or a juice, you’d just kinda… go with the flow, wouldn’t you? Right? Sure, you would.

But you know, it’s more than that; more than just willy-nilly drink opting. It’s engaging in a little thing called trusting your instincts (cue the light saber!), which for some reason everyone is comfortable doing with beer and other beverages, but not so much with wine. And maybe part of that is because when the topic is wine and food pairing, a lot of us inevitably sound like the love child of a biology nerd and a bodice-ripping romance writer. So it’s kind of no wonder that wine and food pairing leaves some of you feeling like you lost your appetite.

It’s food and drink, simple as that. We all need it, and if we have the capabilities, we may as well enjoy it. We’ve all got the ability. It’s as easy as learning to stop worrying about being wrong. When you order a porter, you don’t tremble over whether you should be having a bacon burger or a Caesar salad. But we’re betting you go for the former because you’re instincts tell you to match that heavier, roasty kind of beer with something that can stand up to it. Complement it, even. See? You didn’t need a Yoda or an Obi Wan or a tastevin to figure that out. Just your instincts. Big beer, big burger. Done deal.

Wine and food pairing, like any other kind of food-and-beverage match up, relies on thinking about a few easy (really) things, and so let’s start with the obvious: body and flavor intensity, which are exactly the same things you were thinking about in that beer scenario, you just weren’t giving name to them. We like to think of body and intensity in wine and food pairing as choosing the right utensil. What would happen if you tried to cut a steak using a flimsy plastic fork and knife? Snap. You wouldn’t get too far into that meal. You need something sturdier to cut into that meat. But what if someone just set a plate of simple, broiled flounder in front of you? You could get through that meal with that plastic fork; you probably wouldn’t even need the knife.

Now change that utensil scenario to wine and food pairing. Heavier food, heavier wine; lighter food, lighter wine. How do you figure that out? Start by simply looking at it: The color is already going to give you a clue. Lighter whites will typically be pale lemon or straw; heavier whites will be more golden and rich looking. Same for reds—but here’s a little trick. If you place your fingers underneath the bowl of the glass and see those digits clearly? Light bodied. So dense and opaque that you can barely make out their outline? Heavy, baby. And you didn’t even need to know the name of the grape or the soil it grew in or pronounce a multi-hyphenated French name that your tongue turns into knots or give a fig about vintage or, well, any of those other things your were probably panicking about in the beginning. You and your light saber figured it out all on your own.

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