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Breaking Down Wine Pairings

You: "We’ll do the tasting menu."

Server: "Wonderful. Are you interested in the wine pairings?"

You: [Internal panic. I don’t recognize some of these wines. Will I like them? Why were they chosen? What are they supposed to do to the food, and vice-versa? Ack! I don’t know what to do. Decision paralysis.] "Um, I’ll just have a beer..."

When done well, pairing specific wines with meal courses results in a truly exceptional sensory experience. Everyone should experience it once. Or perhaps on a regular basis. (Life is short.)

It’s fairly common knowledge that certain wines are supposed to pair well with certain foods. But many of us write off wine pairings as an activity exclusive to oenophiles and foodies.

The truth: Anyone — ahem, over the age of 21 — can enjoy food and wine pairings.

Here’s a crash course:

Wine pairing is a delicious blend of art and science. Wine was originally preferred as a more sanitary alternative to water, so it was regularly served at meals. While few people likely gave a lot of thought to complementary flavors during the Middle Ages, over time, a symbiotic relationship developed between a particular region’s preferred wine style and preferred food style.

Today, wine and food pairing is very deliberate. It’s about creating balance.

Evan Goldstein, a Master Sommelier (a.k.a. fancy wine expert) explains of wine and food pairing: Wine and food pairing is akin to two people having a conversation. One must listen while the other speaks or the result is a muddle.

Sometimes that means pursuing weights that meld well together, such as a heavy, full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon with a heavy dish like steak. Sometimes that means finding matching flavors, such as a wine with lots of earthy notes (flavors) paired with a food with lots of earthy notes.

Sometimes that means deliberately creating contrast, such as a white wine with lots of acidity that will "cut through" a heavy cream sauce and balance it out.

When paired well, a wine will enhance the dining experience by accentuating and/or balancing flavors. Food will enhance the experience of the wine by bringing out certain notes that you might not otherwise have tasted.

The next time you see suggested wine pairings on a menu, give it a try. It’s a particular treat on a tasting menu, which will allow you to experience lots of different combinations. Don’t be afraid to ask about the logic behind the pairings.