The Hoax of Food and Wine Matching

Despite being in the profession of having to write copious tasting notes and other wine marketing material, I have always considered wine and food recommendations to be patronisingly prepared with just a hint of arrogance. For who am I, or a winery or a food and wine writer to suggest that a certain dish should be “paired” (Christ, I hate that word) with a glass of something that apparently forms a perfect match?

Through reams of food-luvvie writings, hours of pontificating by the wine trade and lectures from self-appointed experts, the general consumer has now been indoctrinated into thinking that there is some Holy script of wine-food matchings enlightening the path to an ideal culinary experience.

Much to my delight (another awful word in the wine lexicon) Tim Hanni – Master of Wine, nogal – stepped-up onto the stage at a Sauvignon Blanc conference in Marlborough, New Zealand, and said that this was all “bull-shit”. Tim, by the way, has been around. Over 50 years of experience in the food and wine game and a highly-regarded lecturer and writer in his homeland of the USA as well as doing wine gigs around the world.

Employing some simple psychology, he laid it out for those commentators and recommenders who deem it a right to tell others what is going on inside their own sensorial world: “Avoid the pretence of thinking what you smell, taste and prefer is what someone else should experience,” he said. Just think about that for a while.

Tim Hanni, MW

While the sommeliers and food-writers in the room were choking on their water-biscuits, Tim went on, just short of calling the industry of food-and-wine recommendations a hoax. Some of his points:

  • Wine and food “pairing” or “matching” was never a tradition in France until recently
  • The emergence of wine and food pairing coincides with plummeting consumption in France (and Italy)
  • Biological sensory individualism (genetic/physiological differences) alone provides a basis for revising how we approach enjoying wine with food.

With this in mind, Tim called on his peers “to educate the wine trade, hospitality professionals and wine influencers (and not necessarily consumers) to better serve the personal interests of wine lovers”.

One specific slide attracted my attention, a quote he had pulled from the rather influential book Larousse Gastronomique (1938). Here the chef-cook-entertainer-host of a meal is told that for the third course of meat and vegetables, the wines that can be served are Romanée, Lafite, Hermitage, Côte Rôtie “of if the guests prefer the white wines of Bordeaux, the Sauternes, the Saint-Peráy should be served”.

In simpler non-Larousse terms: give them what they’d like to drink with their meal. Today’s wine scene, says Tim, has lost the plot of true consumer engagement, the writers, sommeliers and chefs having fell victim to metaphors, pseudoscience, misunderstandings, hyperbole and plain ignorance.

But he wasn’t there to stir or diss. The take-out message was that if a greater, all-encompassing love for wine is to be created for the consumer, those in the industry are going to truly have to understand the factors that contribute to personal preferences. “Connect with consumers at a powerful and personal level,” he said. “Understand, embrace and cultivate all wine consumers and guide the people who are interested in learning more about wine to do the same.”

For those subscribing to wine-pairing gospel, I can add a few observations of my own. The one being that when it comes to selecting a wine to accompany a dish, we consumers are encouraged to have developed a Pavlov’s dog set of expectations. So, with a plate of freshly shucked oysters, a cool Chablis or Sauvignon Blanc is going to be the way to go.

But this is so only because the diner, or the person recommending the combination – be it a writer or sommelier – has never attempted to discover the possibility of chasing a live plump oyster with a glass of chilled Pinotage. And this ignorance influences generations of consumers until the one-dimensional recommendation is cast in stone.

The prospect of a bloody rare steak automatically evokes Pavlov-like calls for a claret-shaped bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, a Bordeaux-style red blend or possibly the slicker form of a bottle of Shiraz/Syrah.

Sit back and think why this is so? Because due to all that food magazine and cookery book thumping one has come to assume that a full-bodied red wine will move your world when chomping some bloody meat. Your democratically disposed individuality, over which one should be so protective, has never been allowed the opportunity to discover the joy of chomping the best cut of charred beef with a buxom glass of wooded Chardonnay served just-off room temperature. Because it is “not done” and it “doesn’t say so” on the wine-list.

So the list can go on, and it is such fun. But the point remains that there is no ideal food and wine combination, and harping on about this topic through countless prescriptive recommendations and assertions of doctrine does more to detract from the exciting wonders of wine and food than encourage it.

What a great challenge this is…to turn the current status quo of poncy wine-themed dinners and wine-service dogma on its head. True art needs a blank canvas. Glass of New World Pinot Noir optional.


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7 thoughts on “The Hoax of Food and Wine Matching

  1. This can’t be said often enough.

    I wrote an article way back in 2002 titled Wine & Food Matching Rules are Bunk!

    Not referred to in my article but I’d previously spent a whole month drinking only one wine, a red Cotes du Rhone – with every dinner no matter what it was. Then I spent a month deliberately chosing the ‘wrong’ wine with a meal. I remember time was ordering a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with a rib-eye steak on a cross-channel ferry. The waiter looked askance, but – you know- I enjoyed both and the heavens didn’t fall down.

  2. Mismatching wine and food is a real thing, though. Which is why I generally (but not always) make a point of finishing the Cabernet in my glass before dessert arrives.

    Truly sublime wine and food matches is also a real thing. The only thing is that it’s a very infrequent occurrence indeed. Mostly, if you try and avoid obvious mismatches, food and wine will be very enjoyable together indeed – more so if both are good. The sublime matches will follow over time and will often be a surprise anyways. People sometimes make too much of pairings that only work so-so in any event – often, in hindsight, thousands of other wines would have worked equally well.

    I’m reminded of my student days, when we would often get excited about a wine, but expensive food was out of reach. We would find an affordable restaurant that allowed BYO (none of those we could afford had nice wine lists, never mind reasonable mark-ups), order what was on special and had a ball with our special bottle of wine. Cheers to staying clear of pretence, but also to the moments of sublime food and wine synergy that light up our lives along the way!

    1. Hi Kwispedoor. Revisiting this thread for another purpose, but a quick note to say you are missing the point. Mismatching is same as matching – it is perception-based and individual. What may be a mismatch to you can be heavenly for others, and vice-versa. An interesting factoid is that in French wine service the best red wines in a meal were recommended to be served with the ‘entremets’ course – the finest dishes that were more often sweet and dessert by today’s standards! And hospitality dictated that sweet whites were offered alongside the finest reds, “if the guests prefer.”

    1. Well Hi Tim
      Thanks for comment. I have downloaded your presentation and won’t leave home without it.
      Hope to see you soon – South Africa perhaps?
      Kind regards

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