The Hoax of Food and Wine Pairing

Despite being in the profession involving the crafting of 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 or a sommelier 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.

A lightbulb moment in self-illumination appeared a few years back when I attended a talk by Tim Hanni, Master of Wine, nogal, at a Sauvignon Blanc conference in Marlborough, New Zealand. Tim had hardly stopped his entrance on stage when he said that this wine and food pairing business was all “bull-shit”.

Tim, by the way, has been around. Over 55 years of experience in the food and wine game and is 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 wine 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 to better serve the personal interests of wine lovers.”

One specific aspect of Tim’s presentation 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 instinctive 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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10 thoughts on “The Hoax of Food and Wine Pairing

  1. Well said Emile. One of many wine-ly things I learnt from Bill Cooper-Williams MW many years ago! You should drink what you like.

  2. I mostly agree with your thoughts on food and wine pairings Emile. In its (admittedly weak) defence I’d say it provides a quick means of assurance in a potentially overwhelming environment to the less confident wine drinker/diner. It does not excuse the bull shit, but given the pressure on sommeliers and servers to provide exceptional guest experiences, it explains resorting to this basic heuristic in order to tick a box.

  3. Agree with Nick , tell consumers to drink what they like and don’t make it difficult or embarrassing for them if they choose something different to your obviously biased opinion.
    This wil set consumers free man!

    1. I agree with Nick and Jacques. Thats why I prefer a chilled Chenin Blanc as the perfect wine for all occasions and any preferred food dish. I still need to be disappointed by the old faithful workhorse!

  4. Uiteindelik Emile! A voice shouting uin the desert might actually be a voice of reason. After years of launching wines / pairing said wines with compatible dishes, it is a pleasure to say that a cook can only, possibly ‘enhance or support’ the taste of the wine with a dish. The ‘pairing’ word should be banned. And while I’m at it … can we please stop this ‘harvest table’-gedoente? What does it even mean?

  5. Well said and the mere fact that you write about a glass of “chilled” Pinotage shows exactly what is what in a pretentious world.

    All red wines should be chilled in SA when the weather is not doing it. I have friends who shall remain nameless who think that putting a bottle of SA Cabernet “next to the fireplace “in winter is the “perfect” way to serve it. Just like “pairing”—crap. I love chocolate cake and champagne and will go on loving it thank you very much.

  6. On point as always! The pretentiousness of wine and it’s peddlars is in my opinion the single biggest reason why wine sales is in a downward spiral! Much of the prose and metaphors fly over the head and leave the reader with glazed eyes and slack jawed.

  7. I agree with Nick and Jacques. Thats why I prefer a chilled Chenin Blanc as the perfect wine for all occasions and any preferred food dish. I still need to be disappointed by the old faithful workhorse!

  8. Very apt and timely, Emile. Thank you for your voice of reason.
    We need more Tim Hanni’s to hold the wine peddlers to account and call out pretense and obfuscation surrounding the heavenly nectar.
    Be brave and try something unfamiliar from that “non-traditional” new region. You can only benefit from the expanded range of your taste buds.
    I am all for “give them what they’d like to drink with their meal”.

  9. The same applies to any concoction that fickles your tansy. If coke and whiskey/brandy is your thing, who am I to disagree? But please don’t recommend a R300 plus bottle of Pinot Noir with your artisinal hamburger made with Kobi beef. Se moer.
    A few years back we were treated to a fish meal in one of New York’s finest restaurants (actually in the world) a three star Michelin establishment. The Sommilier had just returned from Germany where he was awarded the highest commendation available.
    The fish and wine was OK. Not great but OK. And it cost a small fortune….
    I reckon a good hearty piece of hake with my personal preference, Alvi’s Drift Chenin Blanc at the local Ocean Basket is just as good.
    OK so I’m a philistine, who cares…

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