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Why does wine shine when it’s paired with food?

I just returned from the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference in Austin, TX. Among the many gustatory highlights of exploring the city—taco trucks, cocktails at Peche, the Tears of Joy hot sauce shop—I enjoyed a dinner at Parkside with seven new friends from the conference.

We ordered a 2009 Medrano Estates Torrontes for the table, and it was lovely—fresh, lightly floral with touches of tropical fruit, served chilled (it was 100 degrees in Austin, so cold was good!).  I was so busy chatting I barely noticed when I received my dinner of loup de mer with bacon-roasted potatoes and lemon brown butter. I absently took a few bites and had another hasty swallow of Torrontes to wash it down. And I stopped in my tracks.

Suddenly, that wine had transformed from “lovely” to “freakin’ awesome.” What changed?

Back at Lot18, I put this question to Janine Lettieri, our Imported Wine Specialist, and until recently the Wine Director at New York’s Waverly Inn.

Alcohol makes you hungry, it makes you salivate, it awakens all your senses,” she explained. When pairing food with wine, Janine continued, usually the goal is to complement or contrast. “For example, a high-acid white wine cuts though the fattiness of a rich dish. A high-protein food such as hard cheese or red meat can help tame tannins. And light white wines can be complementary with fish dishes.”

And even so, “it’s a misnomer that for every food there’s the perfect wine,” Janine said. “90 percent of the time, if you select pairings using those compare/contrast concepts, you can’t go wrong. But it’s only 5 to 10 percent of the time you taste a certain dish or set of ingredients with a wine and it’s so harmonious, it takes you to another place. I can count on one hand the number of times that’s happened to me, and I’ve tried a lot of wines.”

So in other words, I got lucky. The Torrontes was a perfect complement to the fish while contrasting and cutting through the fat of the brown butter sauce and bacon. And the food somehow worked its own alchemy with the wine.  Perhaps it was also just the magic of the evening, the joy of sharing a meal and bottle with new friends in a new city. I may never know for sure, but that’s not going to stop me from continuing to pursue the perfect wine-and-food pairing, wherever my travels may lead.