By Richard J. Serrano, Director of California, Austria, and Distillates
For those of us in the biz, getting asked about food pairings happens all the time. While we’re supposed to be authorities, it’s not that easy, as what you read doesn’t always pan out when you actually put certain pairings to the test. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that most of the established rules and suggestions I’ve read over the years, and continue to read, are mostly bunk.
I know what people will say. But Richard, let peoples’ own pallet decide. Richard, those rules are meant to be broken. Richard, stop being a know-it-all. I don’t have all the answers, but here are some observations I made during 2014, as I was thinking, and tasting, long and hard on the subject.
Has anyone actually eaten a hamburger with Zinfandel and enjoyed it? I mean any kind of Zin, from a restrained Dry Creek version to a giant gobsmacker from Lodi. Or how about ANY dry red with ANY kind of hamburger? They just don’t work. Ya know what works? Off-dry reds, or off-dry sparkling, like a slightly sweet Lambrusco. I was doing this all summer. My hamburger of choice usually involved lettuce, tomato, caramelized onions, and avocado. Sometimes mayo and ketchup, sometimes ketchup and mustard, sometimes no condiments at all. Dry red wine never works. Not Zin, not Malbec, not Cru Beaujolais. Never ever. And it’s not just my pallet, as I was testing this on all my civilian friends. Some thought red meat should always go with dry red, but they all saw the light. (Although when I first served them Lambrusco they looked at me like I had two heads.)
BBQ Chicken. We eat it all summer, usually with BBQ sauce. Every food magazine tries recommending lighter-bodied red wine with this. Why? I have no idea. I suppose it’s because of the sauce, yet the sauce is exactly why German Kabinett simply crushes it. There’s nothing better than a bone-in, sweet and tangy BBQ chicken thigh paired with a Mosel or Rheingau Riesling.
But summer’s over and I’m serving chili in the dead of winter. I also pair this with German Kabinett, or sometimes drier Austrian versions, and after everyone initially balks, they’re amazed at how the snappy spritz of the Riesling is just what the pallet needs with the heavy chili. During a recent Packer game a neighbor of mine said, “I’d never have thought white wine and chili could be so good.”
Here’s a pairing that I never saw coming. I tend to think of big domestic Chard as a cocktail wine that can only pair with cream-of-corn soup. I was wrong. In 2014 I learned to pair domestic Chard with eggs, specifically, veggie omelets. It’s a perfect match with this much-maligned category.
One pairing that everyone tends to agree on is steak with big reds. “Steak needs a tannic red to cut thru the fat.” I guess. I’ve had Cab and Malbec with steak, and it’s okay. In 2014, however, I paired steak with California Valdiguie, which barely has any tannin, and it was divine. A seared rib-eye, with all that fat, was just fine without a tannic red. Also, a very savvy industry friend turned me on to pairing steak with a nice weighty Pinot Blanc. Yup. Pinot Blanc. Try it. I dare you.
So that’s what I learned in 2014. That, and how to properly hook a bowling ball.