Food and Wine – Always a good time.

In a blog I wrote a few weeks ago, I launched a new competition from Dialog Wines that basically asked for your best food pairings with two California Wines that have become big hits recently, Avalon Cabernet Sauvignon and Mark West Chardonnay. So far, I’m pleased to say that I’ve received some interesting recipes and some excellent food and wine pairings. However, I’ve concluded that that although the winning prize for this competition is two bottles of wine, people often find themselves a little bit intimidated when it comes to talking about food and wine pairing and as a result, might shy away from entering a competition that puts them on the spot. I’d like to get some more entries, so please, read on and I hope this blog gives you a little inspiration.

This sudden realization that perhaps the reason for the lack of entries for my competition came while over dinner with friends in Toronto this past weekend. We were eating at Enoteca Sociale (I’d give the place a B + rating) on Dundas Street when one of my friends handed me the wine list and said “put us out of our misery and pick the wine.” I was more than happy to oblige and while scanning the list, I asked everyone what they were planning on ordering as my selection would obviously be based on their responses. It was possible that perhaps a bottle wasn’t going to work for everyone, in which case I would suggest that we all order wines by the glass, so we could all enjoy whatever wine on the list paired best with our entrees. Luckily this time around, a nicely balanced Barbara d’Alba did the trick and we were all pleased with the wine and our meals. However, it was during our conversation over dinner when I remembered that ordering wine at restaurants or even selecting wine at the store can be a daunting process for anyone, especially if they really are interested in finding the right bottle to please everyone and to pair with whatever is being is served.

My dinner mates that evening were well travelled, highly educated and passionate about great food and wine. But they admitted that whenever it came time to choose wine they feel a little uncomfortable. I asked how they usually managed or what their typical strategy was when ordering if they were feeling a little stuck or unsure. As someone who is always curious about why people buy the wine they buy, my friend’s response was actually pretty interesting.

He began to tell me that when in doubt, they will select something that is easy to pronounce or that looks familiar to them. So a selection of Australian Shiraz, California Cabernet or just good ol’ Merlot from wherever was often the safest and least embarrassing choice. I could understand his rationale in such circumstances but what would he have done on a night like this night when the by the glass selections say Barbara d’Alba, Nero d’Avola, Sangiovese, Dolcetto and Cannoneau and the bottle choices are littered with unfamiliar words and terms like Barolo, Barbaresco, Classico and IGT? “Well” he said… “In those situations, I guess I just point at the list and hope for the best.”

I offered a few suggestions in order for my buddy to get around his ordering dilemma. First, he could just ask the server. In good restaurants, the servers should have a decent knowledge of the wine list and the menu offerings. If a restaurant is fortunate enough to have a Wine Director or Sommelier, he could ask for assistance. Sommeliers or Wine Directors should be able to match the all menu items with wine from the list that they constructed. Their job is to help patrons with their decisions in order to enhance their dining experience. Furthermore, they should be able to tell you why the wine they are pairing is going to work well with the dish. However, knowing that my friends are very independent and intelligent, it was clear that they didn’t necessarily want help. They wanted to figure it out themselves. They just needed a little guidance and I don’t think they are alone, so here are a few tips and a few solid food and wine pairings:

1) Think regionally. As they say, “If it grows together, it goes together.” French cuisine think french wines. Tuscan food calls for Tuscan wines and so on. I’ll admit that this is a little simplified and fairly general, but it often holds true. Think about the dish you are eating and if it corresponds to a specific region, reach for a wine from the same area.

2) Let your senses guide you. If you take nothing else away from this blog post, remember the most basic rule in food and wine pairing is to consider and address flavour volume or weight of the food and of the wine. I’ll say this again in another way just to be clear: The fuller the flavour in the food, the more full bodied the wine should be. For milder foods, go with light to medium bodied wines.

3) Balance flavours and character. The best way to balance flavours is to pair wine and foods with similar characteristics or pair wine and foods to contrast characteristics. For example, you can pair an acidic food with wines that are also high in acid. Think salad with vinaigrette with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Acid and acid working together. Or how about pairing an oaky, buttery California Chardonnay with Lobster and cream sauce or even just a bowl full of buttered popcorn? Simple, butter and creaminess working with the buttered creaminess of the Chardonnay.

4) Conversely, an example of contrasting flavours and characteristics would be using the acid in the Sauvignon Blanc to cut through the richness of a fatty or oily food such as oysters or scallops. In similar fashion, wines with a lot of tannin, such as Cabernet Sauvignon can counterbalance fatty dishes. Hence the popularity of Bordeaux or Napa Cabernet with marbled steak.

See, its not really as tricky as you might think. In fact, its actually a lot of fun to try and find that perfect pairing. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, keep trying. You will know immediately when you’ve hit your food and wine nirvana and then there is no looking back. So with that being said, I want to hear about your favourite food and wine pairing, send it in to me via email or post it on this blog. I can’t wait to try it.

Wine enthusiast Greg Winter is the owner of Dialog Wines. Check out his website and blog at www.dialogwines.com.